About a year ago, I found myself longing to learn how to write plays. My MFA is in fiction, and I have published a short story collection and a memoir and have a novel forthcoming. So why this sudden call to learn how to write plays?
Part of it is my natural curiosity about all things to do with the written word, but I think my interest in theater was a direct outcome of the seclusion brought on by the pandemic.
I wasn’t exactly lonely during isolation. My husband and I were both working from home, and I had a neighbor who brought over her own porch cocktails in the evenings, but I missed being around other artists, a feeling that intensified as time wore on. I read a lot during that time and listened to James Lapine’s book, Putting it Together, about his first collaboration with Stephen Sondheim on the play Sunday in the Park with George. It was thrilling to read about the ways that they influenced one another and then about the influence the actors and crew had on the final production.
People say that writing is lonely, but I haven’t found it so, enjoying work over the years with editors and fellow writers. I’ve been a fellow at residencies such as MacDowell and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where I made important friendships, but it had been a year or more since I’d been to one when the pandemic struck, and that year has now turned into several years since I’ve had the chance to gather and live with artists for the weeks of a residency.
Ultimately, it was the collaborative nature of theater that interested me most, as it meant I could work on my writing with other artists, including actors, directors, makeup artists, lighting designers, set designers, etc. It sounded exciting to have an idea that I could share with other creative people, who would put their imprint on it.
To learn how to write plays, I decided to take a class, mostly because reading a play is not as instructive as I thought it might be (reading a play is quite different from attending one, after all). I enrolled in an online playwriting workshop, where I listened to the work of other playwrights.
Everyone else was working on a specific project, but I wasn’t ready yet to write a play. First, I needed to learn a whole lot of craft elements, and to that end, the instructor gave me weekly scene-writing assignments to begin to understand how playwriting works. I struggled with the assignments every week and then shared the work with the group, picking a few classmates to read the various parts. They would read my pages aloud, and then I waited for the verdict. Had it worked or not? Where had I confused people? Was I conveying what I intended? I was learning.
I’ve now been working with this group for months, and I’m stunned by how much I’ve discovered, not just about playwriting but about writing in general. And the lessons I’m learning are paying dividends already in my other writing projects.
There are many ways craft in all genres overlaps. For example, you need to have a three-dimensional protagonist that readers can care about whether you’re writing a short story, a middle grade novel, or a play. Our characters must be fully developed and engaging to keep readers interested. That concept wasn’t new to me, but how to make that happen in a play was a total mystery to me. How did I make audiences care about someone without being able to describe her and explain how she’d come to this particular pass?
My writing, up until this point, had tended to be very interior, meaning that my prose delved into the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of my characters. But when I write a scene, I can’t easily do that. I have to show, through actions and dialogue, and through what the characters aren’t saying, what’s going on for them, which is tricky and certainly a brand-new writing muscle for me, and one that pays dividends in my other projects.
Learn How to Write Plays & Gain These Lessons
In seeking to learn how to write plays, these are the lessons I’ve gained so far.
Interior vs exterior
Plays show us the exterior of a character. Yes, characters can speak directly to the audience in the form of a monologue or a soliloquy, but audiences in the theater mostly come to know a character through their actions, their spoken words, and their interactions with other characters. If I have a character who is frightened by loud noises, say, and I want to show that on stage, I have to consider how to demonstrate that fear. In a short story, I could rely on their inner thoughts to make that clear, and while there are ways to access a character’s inner thoughts in a play (again, think monologue or soliloquy), it’s not always the right move. At the very least, it would interrupt the action of the play to do so.
The admonition to “show vs. tell” is even more urgent in theater writing, and I can already see that strengthen my prose writing in that I can rely much more on characters acting in a certain way that allows readers to know them without me over-explaining. I am finding ways to make the internal more visible, and that nuance will help me make my prose writing more vivid.
Stay in the present tense
Flashbacks and exposition are tricky devices in any kind of writing, but I’ve never realized before how much a play exists in the present moment. In the theater, we are there in the present tense with the characters, waiting to see what will happen next, who will knock on the door, what will happen when a character finally makes an appearance or says what’s on her mind. Part of what is so galvanizing about the theater is this sense that we are peering in at a story that is unfolding before our very eyes, and so it is important to pare away all but the absolutely essential exposition in a play or to render it through the actions of the characters rather than heavy-handed, explanatory dialogue.
Logically, when working on a play, it’s all about writing interconnected scenes. Acts are made up of scenes, after all, and if you’re telling your story chronologically, one scene moves to the next and to the next. I’m realizing that my prose writing could be strengthened by a more conscious use of scenes instead of spending quite as much time and space on description and/or introspection. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with description and introspection, but it’s interesting for me to see the power of a story that is scene-driven, as it is in a play, and I look forward to building more momentum into my prose using this scene-upon-scene technique.
Leave room for collaboration
We don’t tend to buy a script and read it (although I have, over the years, albeit infrequently). Audience members interact with plays not by reading them but by watching them performed, which means that the words I’ve written get to an audience through the help of a lot of people, including actors and directors.
It’s nice if I don’t over-prescribe what a character or scene must look like. For instance, where I used loads of stage directions when I first began writing plays, I’ve pulled back a great deal. Instead of saying that a character is a 40-year-old woman with short gray hair and a big jaw who wears a gray cardigan (which would limit casting and constrain makeup and costuming), I’m much more likely now to just write in the stage directions that a character is “a middle-aged woman.” This can allow other artists to make choices and create around my work. Of course, if it’s essential to the story that she have short gray hair, that will go into the stage directions, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to let go of the need to describe every last detail of looks and gesture, trusting that actors and directors can meet me in the middle with their own ideas.
I’ve always loved writers who under-explain (John Cheever and Abigail Thomas come to mind as good examples of this in both short story and memoir writing). When I read their work, I can feel that they trust and respect me as a reader enough to essentially say, “A careful reader will understand this without me telling her.” Conversely, I bristle at writers who explain so much that I feel patronized. Until I started working on a play, though, I didn’t know the extent to which I could really pull back and let the characters speak for themselves.
Listen to your characters speak
My writing projects often begin with a character, often a real person who I know only peripherally, and they stay with me mentally until I get around to telling their story. Something beautiful happened in my playwriting class about two months in. I’d had just such a character in mind for a long time, a man I’ll call “Bob.” While I was interested in him, I didn’t yet know what his story was, so I fiddled around and wrote a monologue for him to read in class. I was nervous, as always, unsure about whether he’d resonate for my classmates. That week, we were lucky enough to have an actor present who was willing to read, and I asked him to read my monologue for the class. I sat back and listened and was stunned. I suddenly saw my character as someone beyond just my own mind. This talented actor had animated Bob for me, had brought him to life, and not only was I moved to tears to hear Bob’s voice, but hearing him made his larger story come into focus for me. I suddenly saw that he believed the world to be judging him much more harshly than it actually was. This vulnerability made me see him as less reckless and more pitiable and in need of protection. It was one of the most thrilling writing moments I’ve experienced. I couldn’t sleep that night.
Learn how to write plays and affect your writing life
I’ve been changed as a writer by taking this class, and I think my writing is better now for it. Not only do I think I will continue to find a better balance of the interior and exterior dynamic of a character in my prose work, but I hope to lean more on how they act and what they do, as opposed to over-explaining things to my readers.
And for the rest of my writing life, whether I’m working on a play or a novel, I plan to write a monologue for my various characters and find a talented actor or two willing to read these monologues for me early on in the drafting process so that I can begin to see my characters as three-dimensional people outside of my imagination — to help me breathe life into and animate my characters.
N. West Moss has had her work appear in the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere. She has published a short story collection called The Subway Stops at Bryant Park (Leapfrog) and a memoir called Flesh and Blood (Algonquin), and her middle grade novel, Birdy, is forthcoming from Little, Brown. She can be reached by email.
Editor’s note: The playwriting workshop referenced in this story is with playwright Jeffrey Sweet at The Negotiating Stage.