Playwriting Workshop: Day One

What is a play?

The purpose of prose fiction: writing for the page in such a powerful, inventive way that you start up a play in the reader’s brain.

The purpose of a play: writing for the stage creates an event which takes place before an audience.

The playwright’s principal tools are dialogue, plot, character, setting, and stage directions:
  • Setting: This is the time and place in which an action takes place. Where do you hang out?
  • Character: Who is the most interesting character that you know?
  • Dialogue: In plays dialogue is what people do to each other. Dialogue is the method for exploring human relationships in a play. 

Exercise #1 Two Line Plays

Dialogue: Think of some bit of dialogue that someone typically says, which best expresses his or her character; then respond to it uniquely, not in some standard way- truly and in opposition.

There is really only one rule to follow in writing a play: be interesting! Remember that plays take place on days that are different from any other day. Plays turn up the heat on everyday life. Conflict is the center of all drama. Characters want things; they have needs and objectives: a good night’s sleep, the love of somebody, new shoes. Conflict occurs when obstacles get in the way of the character achieving what he or she wants.

The Engine of a Play:

Character: You have to know a lot about your characters: their biography, traits, manners of speaking, their ways. You also have to know what they want.

Objective: Plays are made from the spectacle of characters struggling to get what they want. They have to want something and want it badly.

Conflict: Something has to block that desire; an obstacle creates conflict. The obstacle gets in the way of the character getting what he or she wants.


Writing Assignment #1: Monologue

A monologue occurs in a play when a character speaks his thoughts out loud. It is different from a soliloquy that breaks through the realistic form of the play. In a soliloquy the character directly addresses the audience. In a monologue the character is speaking his or her thoughts out loud to himself or to other characters on stage.

Think of an episode from your life that is particularly vivid in your imagination. List the characters who appear in that episode. Choose which one is the key character and then answer the following questions about him or her. (If you are having trouble finding a character, check out some of these pictures: People Photos.

  • Who is this person?
  • How old is he or she?
  • What does he or she do?
  • How does he or she live?
  • What special character traits does he or she have?
  • Where is this person?
  • When is the scene taking place?
  • How does he or she feel about being there?
  • To whom is your character talking?
  • What does he or she want?
  • What are the obstacles he or she must overcome to achieve that objective?

The playwright’s objectives are to show character, show the situation.

Read Wesley's Monologue from Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard

  • People speak monologues when they really need to speak; a lot is going on.
  • Wesley tells a story about what happened in his home late the night before.
  • The monologue helps us get to know this guy. It shows relationships. It captures the guy’s tension in the rhythm of his language, the syntax of his sentences: he is not speaking in complete sentences, rather, rapid machine gun lines. The language conjures the event for the audience.

What does Wesley want?

  • Monologues come from a character’s deeply felt need to say something, to reveal something about themselves. Characters at a turning point need to tell people what brought them there.
  • The character may be explaining himself, confessing, deceiving, winning someone over, figuring out something, building up courage, or coming up with a plan. What does your character really need to tell? Your monologue can take the form of a memory, a dream, a confession, a revelation, a plan, a philosophy or a story. 
  • After you have finished the assignment, think about what you learned about your character that you hadn’t known before you wrote your monologue. Think about how this new knowledge may teach you to sharpen the action of your one-act play.