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  • March 22, 2013 9:00 am

    The Script Cabins: Writing a Play 101

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    We’re rolling out the red carpet to the Script Cabins at Camp NaNoWriMo. This is the third of our guides for all you future screenwriters, playwrights, and graphic novelists. Remember us at the Tonys!:

    All great stage productions start with a script: it’s the cornerstone from which the actors, designers, and directors take their cues.

    When writing a first draft of a play, it’s best not to concern yourself too much about how it will be performed. It’s more important to get your idea onto the page.

    STARTING YOUR PLAY

    Start with character basics: their ages and relationships to each otherKeep a list of these, known as the “Dramatis Personae”, or Cast of Characters. For yourself, you’ll want to know what drives each of the characters: their ambitions, their fears, their secrets.

    Focus on the setting, determining time period, items needed on stage, and location in the world. Place clues here to the style of your play. A children’s play may be stylized in a cartoonish manner, while your melodrama may want a Gothic touch.

    Remember, stage directions are not narration. They exist to give the actors, designers, and director a sense of what transpires on stage; not every outfit, attitude, or set detail needs to be included.

    You should include:

    • Basic setting description
    • Entrances and exits
    • Physical action necessary for the dialogue to make sense
    • Pertinent pauses in the dialogue, if not filled by action that is previously mentioned

    Avoid including:

    • Tone of voice or delivery hints for every line
    • Full descriptions of each costume
    • Background on the sets or characters other than basic relationships
    • Characters’ thoughts or intention

    STRUCTURING YOUR PLOT

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    Freytag’s Pyramid (above) shows a very basic structure of modern drama. It’s more of an observation about plays throughout the years and is only a guide. There are lots of great works that break this mold.

    You may just want to forget you saw the diagram and go with Aristotle’s structure of a play: a beginning, middle, and end. Or you may want to know more about the typical sections of a play:

    Exposition — This scene provides the backstory and context. An important thing to note is that exposition doesn’t have to be limited to the beginning of your play. Establish only what’s necessary to launch into the action of your play. You can fill in the rest later on.

    Inciting Incident — This is the challenge that the character is thrown. It’s the starting of the clock. It’s probably the reason you wanted to write the play in the first place.

    Rising Action — These are the scenes where you build your story. Characters are introduced and fully fleshed out. Conflicts are developed and allegiances revealed.

    Climax — The moment after which things will never be the same. Tides turn, fortunes are won, loves are lost.

    Falling Action — The conflicts and challenges in the previous scenes are confronted and resolved.

    Denouement/Resolution — How things work out in the end. Is there a wedding or a funeral?

    Think about what the story is that you want to tell, and which would be the best “scenes” to show. 

    DEVELOPING CHARACTER INTERACTION

    Three things drive character interaction, known as “The Elements of Dramatic Action”:

    • Discovery: For example, a character finds out that he was adopted. What will he do because of it?
    • Revelation: A character admits that she witnessed a murder.
    • Decision: A character gets a divorce because her husband cannot father children.

    Scenes can combine any number of these elements to move the plot forward. One character’s revelation is another’s discovery. At the same time, what the characters do with the information they receive defines their characters.

    How we find out about characters? Through:

    • What other characters say about them
    • What they say about other characters
    • How they behave when they are alone
    • How they behave in the presence of others
    • Who they align with

    A FINAL WORD ON STYLE

    The action you portray on stage and the characters’ reactions determine the style, for the most part. Comedies have happy endings and witty, snappy dialogue. Tragedies have sad endings and long, combative passages of dialogue. If your characters are singing, odds are you’ve got yourself a musical. Have fun with it, and let the style evolve naturally.

    Are you tackling a play for Camp NaNoWriMo this year?

    Adapted from Script Frenzy’s “Intro to Playwriting” guide.

    Photo by Flickr user Tom Brogan.

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