Scene from a play, How to create compelling drama for the stage.
I. Scene for a Play
This Tutorial helps you focus on the key ingredients involved in successful playwriting.
Almost all plays, whatever their apparent theme or subject, begin with some human situation being out of balance. The action of the play reveals either how things are put right (Shakespearean comedy) or, because the initial situation is so desperately wrong, prove too much for the characters to resolve, and so end in disaster (Shakespearean tragedy).
In choosing to write a single scene for a play, it makes sense for you to take as your focus one of these points in the action:
– the establishment of what is wrong in the world of the play—the opening scene
– the scene in which the central character realises either that things will work out well, or that there is no hope
– the final scene, in which either the loose ends are happily tied up, or in which the characters meet their disastrous ends. In Shakespeare, this usually means either a wedding or a pile of corpses
Opening scenes are by far the easiest.
In your writing, bear in mind that a play script is a shorthand version, a blueprint for actors to bring to life on stage—it isn’t written to be read by a solitary reader. It is there to be interpreted in performance.
A play is also highly artificial—it is not “real life”. The audience understands this, and accepts the conventions quite happily—what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”.
Your play depends for its success on the way it resolves the situation you have set up in the opening scene. Your main characters might have different and conflicting ambitions—“Who will win power: Brutus or Antony?”, perhaps (Julius Caesar).
They might be working together against an impossible, external situation—social or cultural barriers to marriage (Romeo and Juliet).
Whatever the conflict, it must:
– mean something to you
– be something you could state very simply on a poster advertising the play—“a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their lives”
– Static characters—characters who don’t react or respond, who don’t change as they realise the situation they’re in, or who don’t reveal more about themselves as the action progresses—are boring. In an opening scene, show the way forward by introducing the problem they face, and their initial reaction to it. You have something to build on as the play develops.
– In creating a character, all you have is words. You may visualise a particular costume, or a mannerism to help you write, but in performance the director and the actors would interpret the characters for themselves. Focus, then, on giving each character a distinctive pattern of speech. Find his or her “voice”, and use it consistently.
– Build character by showing how each reacts to the other—are they aggressive, intimidated, or cheeky in their reactions? Do they react in the same way to every other character they meet, or do they show different relationships by varying their responses?
Speech that sounds convincing on stage is not at all like the ways in which people actually speak. Try tape-recording a conversation, then write it out as accurately as you can. It will look messy, full of hesitations, “Ums” and “Ers”, interruptions, and overlapping voices.
In writing dialogue, your task is to create the illusion of real speech. Therefore:
– the audience must be able to follow the characters’ thoughts, so they will be using more ordered language than real speech
– you may, if it adds to the character, give them an accent
– you may give them little features of non-standard grammar—again, if it adds to the character
– you may give them a particular vocabulary related to the interests they would have as that character
V. Stage Directions and the Set
Keep stage directions to a minimum. Shakespeare limited his, more or less, to “enter” and “exit”, or “They fight”. The action should be perfectly clear from your dialogue.
It’s the same with the set. By all means suggest the mood and atmosphere you want, but leave space for the director to interpret what you want. Shakespeare used minimal scenery—again, he evoked everything through the words he put into his characters’ mouths. “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” tells us that it’s night, very quiet, and, above all, romantic. Words are all he needed.
If you really want to write a good scene for the stage, then read plays, critically; see plays, critically; act in plays yourself.