There is nothing more exhilarating than watching live actors transport you to an imaginary world. There is a magic about theater that no other media can match, and a playwright has the fantastic fortune to watch their vision performed in the flesh. However, despite the seeming simplicity of many iconic plays, the process is not an easy one.
Plays are hard to write due to their reliance on dialogue and the importance of character in driving the plot forward. Plays are also challenging to write due to the limitations of staged performance and require an in-depth knowledge of the craft and conventions of theater production.
Playwrights face the physical limitations of staged performance and require specialized skills quite different from novel writing and screenplays. They also have to overcome several obstacles to translate their vision into performance. If you see yourself as the next Miller or Stoppard, here’s why writing a play may present some challenges unique to the theater setting.
Plays Are Primarily Dialogue Based
While writing for the screen is primarily a visual experience, playwrights rely on dialogue to flesh out their characters and move the plot forward. Delivering nuanced dialogue is a challenge, and each character’s dialogue should be different and reflect their cultural and social-economic background.
Dramatic dialogue is a challenge in that it functions to develop character. Unlike novelists, the playwright does not have the luxury of building up his characters through narrative devices.
Dialogue needs to fulfill the role of exposition or backstory while still sounding natural, which is quite an art to balance. The character needs to deliver information that is not just an info dump, and their backstory needs to emerge as a natural function of dramatic dialogue.
Plays often use monologues and soliloquies to help characters express sentiments and ideas that would be challenging to achieve through dialogue. Think, for example, of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”
Dialogue is notoriously tricky to get right because it has to fulfill several tasks at once, but successful dialogue needs to serve the scene’s purpose while still seeming a natural product of the character speaking it.
Plays Are Primarily Character-Driven
The magic of watching a live staged performance is the very reason why writing a play presents a playwright with a particular set of challenges. Unlike novelists, playwrights have limited time and means to flesh out their characters in exposition and are bound by the limitations of the stage.
The playwright’s challenge is to create a believable and engaging character that will engage the audience’s attention.
A playwright’s success ultimately rests on their ability to create a character that an actor can bring to life in a performance. Characters that engage an audience are frequently multidimensional and display several often conflicting personality traits.
They need to create a dynamic fleshed-out character that changes and grows during the play’s action. While the protagonist holds the audience’s main interest, other minor characters usually need character arcs too, and present many of the challenges associated with writing a lead.
The Limitations of Staged Plays
Playwrights must consider the practical restrictions of the stage throughout the writing process. Where a novelist can spend countless pages conjuring up storms and lightning, the playwright is limited to what they can achieve on the stage.
Complex settings can complicate the performance of a play and create too large a cast.
Large casts can be expensive if you want to stage your play professionally. Too many props and complex stage settings can create a time lag during scene changes and affect the audience’s engagement.
You have a limited physical space to stage your play and only have an option for a handful of locations within your play. While novelists can change scenes endlessly, the more locations you choose as a playwright, the more difficult it becomes to translate them to the stage.
Study the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Caryl Churchill, Tennessee Williams, and Neil Simon, who all show an economy in setting and staging while still delivering an engaging and transporting audience experience.
Playwriting Requires Knowledge of the Craft
If you wish to write a successful play, you need to know the ins and outs of your craft. Read and attend as many theater performances as possible and familiarize yourself with stage conventions and knowledge of stage and theater equipment.
Studying successful plays can produce a wealth of knowledge that you can apply to your own work. There are also many free online sites where you may learn the craft of playwriting if practicalities prevent you from attending college classes.
You will also need to familiarize yourself with stage terminology so that the action of your play is easier to understand and perform.
Your play will require proper formatting to be taken seriously by producers, and because of this, a great play may end up discarded if the writer does not use the necessary directions and conventions.
Many potential producers will interpret a disregard for conventional formatting as disregarding the craft of playwriting itself and dismiss your work without closer reading.
Plays Require Credible Conflict
The essence of a play is ultimately the idea that somebody wants something.
The character faces an internal or external obstacle and struggles to overcome the obstacle until the protagonist/s achieves or fails to achieve that goal.
Think of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, who desires to marry and live a simple life in New Orleans, and Stanley Kowalski as her obstacle. Or Hamlet faces his inner demons in his desire for vengeance against Claudius.
Playwrights need to ensure that their characters engage in conflict. Very small obstacles make a play dull, while insurmountable obstacles reduce your play’s credibility. The challenge of playwriting successfully is to manipulate the action so that they interweave all the desires and struggles on stage seamlessly.
If theater is in your blood, few things in the world compare to staging a successful play. However, if you are serious about pursuing a career as a playwright, it’s essential to know your craft and the particular requirement of writing for the stage.
Don’t be afraid to fail as you learn the process, as you will learn as much from your mistakes as you do from your success.