How to Write a Play - Part 1

Here you'll find easy step-by-step advice on how to write a play, from creating characters to finding the right starting point. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to related pages on how to write plays and screenplays.

How to write a play - So, you want to write plays?

Even if you don't end up on Broadway, there are many other opportunities to experience the thrill of seeing your work produced on the stage, whether in community theaters, schools, or other amateur productions. And who knows where you'll go from there?

How to write a play - Read and watch plays.

The first step in writing anything at all is to get to know the form. If you want to be a poet, you have to read poetry. If you want to write thrillers, you should read thrillers. If you want to write fortune cookie fortunes, go out for some Chinese dinners. In the case of playwriting, you should not only read plays, but also see them in performance. This is important in order to write plays that will work on the stage.

Brander Matthews, in an article reprinted on, recommends seeing the same play many times. The idea is that the first time, you will experience it as an audience member, getting caught up in the story. But after several repetitions, you can focus on it more objectively, noticing aspects of the playwright's technique, as well as observing reactions of the audience.


The more you can learn about the way theater actually works, the better. If you write an eight-hour long play with seventeen set changes and live tigers on the stage, no one will come to your house and arrest you for breaking playwriting rules. On the other hand, there's also a good chance that no one will produce your script.

If you're interested in writing plays, it's probably because you want them to be performed. In that case, you should be aware of practical aspects of the cost and ease of production. To understand these factors better, it's a good idea to volunteer at a local theater if you can or find some other way to get backstage and watch how things actually work. This is also a way to make interesting contacts in the local theater community who can give you feedback on your play and can eventually help you get it produced.

How to write a play - Come up with a main character.

One way to get ideas for your play is to start with a character. Who is your play about? Your character might be based on a combination of real people you know. Another good strategy is people-watching. Invent lives for people you see in the grocery store in the mall. What do you think their names might be? What kinds of homes and jobs do you imagine for them? What do you think is the most urgent problem that each person has to deal with? Writing character profiles can help you imagine your characters more fully.

How to write a play - Decide on a conflict

Your play should have a conflict. Give your character a major problem that he or she has to solve immediately.

Why? Why stir up trouble? why can't we leave your poor character in peace?

If everything's perfect in your character's life, then nothing has to happen. Happiness is very nice to experience, but it's boring to watch. There's a reason why "Happily ever after" comes at the story's end. Cinderella and her Prince Charming wake up late, eat a nice breakfast, and take a little walk. Good for them. But no one would buy tickets to see the play.

It would be different if it were:

  • "Happily ever after, except for one extramarital affair and its violent ending..."

  • "Happily ever after until Cinderella discovered Prince Charming's secret dungeon..."

Think about the character you have invented. What's something this character desperately wants? What difficulties might get in the way? There's a conflict for you.

How to write a play - Decide on a beginning point.

Let's say our play is about Prince Charming's extramarital affair. What's the best place to start it?

  1. Prince Charming's birth

  2. The first time Charming lays eyes on his future lover, a chambermaid named Petunia

  3. Charming and Petunia's first kiss

  4. When Cinderella walks in on Petunia and Charming in bed

  5. When Cinderella stabs Charming and Petunia to death and throws their bodies into the moat

If we were writing a script for a movie instead of a play, we might choose the fifth option. The film opens with a crocodile peeling Charming's crown off his head, much as you might remove a scrap of foil wrapper from a bonbon, before taking a luscious bite. Then the movie flashes back to show a shocked audience the story of how Charming ended up in this state, Prince Charming's tragic transformation from eye candy to crocodile candy.

It's harder to flash back like that in a play. Movies and novels can jump around almost effortlessly in time and place, but such transitions become more complicated in the theater, where live actors are performing on a stage. Plays therefore often take on a shorter period of time. If we were writing a thousand-page novel with all the time in the world, we might begin with Charming's birth, his childhood, his first love, Mimi... But this is a play, not a novel, and we have a limited time to hold the audience's attention.

What's the most exciting point in our story? Probably when Cinderella stabs Charming and Petunia to death. This is the story climax, the moment when the story's conflict reaches a peak. You can think of the climax as a decisive battle which determines how the story will end. After the climax comes the resolution, when the dust settles and the audience gets a glimpse of the result -- the crocodile munching on its treat, Cinderella moving her summer clothes into Charming's half of the closet...

If we start our play at the climax, the audience will be lost. They'll see a crazed princess storming into a bedroom, but they won't know who she is or why they should care. There will be no built-up tension, no suspense, just a bloodbath in the royal bed. And the play will be over almost as soon as it has begun. Instead, what many playwrights do is to start the play a little bit before the climax. The play begins with a situation that has a lot of tension already built up. Charming and Petunia have been messing around for months and now are plotting to poison Cinderella's soup. Cinderella has noticed that Charming's been less charming than usual and wants the Fairy Godmother to spy on him. The play begins. Tensions are already high. Tempers are short. The situation is explosive. And the audience gets to watch it all blow up.

Click here to keep reading about how to write a play.

How to write a play - Next steps...

Choose one of the links below:

Click here to go to How to Write a Play - Part 2.

Click here for a complete list of CWN pages on how to write a play or screenplay.


<< BACK from How to Write a Play to Creative Writing Now Home