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Playwriting 101 by Masheri Chappelle

Playwriting 101

By Masheri Chappelle


Once upon a time, plays began with a page or two or three of set descriptions. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry and other great American Playwrights provided potential directors and readers with an exposition of the play in the form of stage directions. In the past, these stage directions addressed the set design, the light design, props, and the clothing/costumes the characters wore.  All of those components set the tone, and purpose of the play’s characters as well as the overall development of the play.

Today, directors want to focus on the dialogue between the characters, and what the cast can do to bring that dialogue to life. Consequently, stage directions are now provided in a very economic fashion.  Playwrights present only what is needed to allow the director and actors to create the rest. With that in mind be aware the dialogue you write will be paramount to the success of your play.


So let’s begin with the type of play you would like to write. You can choose from these varieties:   ten minute, one act, full length, and musical. Here’s a description of each to help you decide which is right for the story you want to tell.

The ten minute play- is a complete play with a beginning, middle, and an end. The page length of the TEN MINUTE play can be 10-15 pages depending on your pacing.

The one act focuses on one main action. A one act can last 30-45 minutes. Competitive one acts are normally in the 30 minute range, and has one set, or one good versatile set if your play requires a change of scene.

The full length play can have two to three acts, depending on the action or number of conflicts in the play. Structurally, act one is the exposition and is used to set up and establish the story line, the characters, and the conflict. Act two ups the ante, reveals the turmoil the conflict has created, and delivers a climax or turning point that changes all the characters in some way. If there is an act three, it will convey how the climax has affected the characters, and offer a resolution that shows the characters in a new light. Obviously your choice between a two act play and a three act play will affect the structure of how the action unfolds. So think carefully if three acts are really warranted. Otherwise you can end up with an overwritten piece that makes people check their watches. The average length for a full length play is 70-80 minutes without intermission.

The musical is a play with songs and music dispersed throughout. Like the full length play, it can be presented in two to three acts. Each musical has a book, which is the dialogue. The other components are the lyrics for the songs and the music. Essentially, you can create the book, and some other talented person can create lyrics and music.  This is truly a team effort!


No matter which type of play you choose, it is important to be mindful of the number of characters, and the type of set needed so that the play is something that can be produced on stage. For example, if you want to write a play about an Olympic swimmer and the action of your play requires an Olympic-size pool staging this play would be a challenging feat, one that many producers and directors will want to avoid. However, if the set for your character is a pool house or a locker room, this could be easily accomplished.  Keep you set concepts in alignment with a stage production and allow the director and set designer to create the perfect environment for your characters.

DEVELOPING THE PLAY- Having a great idea for a play in your head and putting it on the page requires some strategy.  Here are some pointers for creating a play with action and great dialogue.

  1. TIME AND PLACE--Decide where your play is going to take place--the country or the city, the jungle or the forest.  Also decide if the action that is about to take place is set in the past, the present time, or the future. Know that whatever time and place you select for your characters will establish boundaries for them and their action unless the purpose of your play is to convey a magical quality that has no restrictions.

  2. CONFLICT- -This element drives the character and moves the plot along. Your conflict, like the play, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Once you decide what your conflict is going to be, you’ll know what kind of characters you’ll need, how many characters it will take to establish conflict, drive it to a climax that will then lead to a resolution.

  3. THE CHARACTERS--Now that you have you conflict you can assign you characters their roles. Each character is in the play because there is something they want or need. It is your job to convey to your reader/audience what each character wants, and what the consequence will be if they don’t get it. The consequence is what should up the ante and drive your characters to do things they normally wouldn’t. Imagine that your character has only the time you allow them to live to accomplish their goals and validate their existence.

  4. THE DIALOGUE--First and foremost dialogue is a tool. It should advance your plot and establish the individuality and personality of your characters.


If you ever watch Scandal with Kerry Washington, you’ll notice that just about everyone speaks fast, like a machine gun at times, which denotes the fast pace political world of Washington D.C.  Series creator Shonda Rhimes uses dialogue to establish urgency, that feeling that something is always at stake. Her use of dialogue always makes the viewer feel there is not enough time to get things done.  This is one example of how to utilize dialogue in the telling of your play’s story and how to set its overall tone.


Lastly, be economical with your dialogue. View each word as a valuable coin that you have to spend when your characters speak. Don’t overwrite because it will cost you. A good way to keep yourself in check is to read your dialogue out loud. You’ll hear if you’ve written more than what is needed. You’ll begin to wonder, “When is this character going to shut up?” Or you realize that your character has go on so long that you forgot what his/her point was supposed to be.   

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Masheri Chappelle is a Smith College theater major graduate and Smith Scholar.  Her plays have been produced as part of THE THIRD WORLD THEATER SERIES. She is presently working on her newest full-length play, THE OBSERVATION DECK.