Are you stuck? Perhaps you’re suffering from the dreaded writer’s block? Maybe you have many ideas for a play but are unsure how to get them out of your head? You need some playwriting tips from playwrights who have fought their way through the block.
Indeed, every playwright struggles now and then. You finish one play and want to move straight onto the next. But finding that elusive starting point is a challenge that sometimes feels insurmountable.
This article explores where playwrights get their ideas and how they transform those often disparate concepts into a solid premise with characters, a theme, and a dramatic direction.
Ready? Let’s get started!
How do playwrights start a new play?
There’s no single way to spark the flame of a new play. However, my top playwriting tip is: news articles and snippets of conversations. I’m always on the lookout for them because they fire my imagination.
For example, this article inspired my play boyfriend stroke husband.
The BBC article documents the story of a Japanese mother who has hired an actor to pretend to be her daughter’s father. Sounds wild, doesn’t it? And this is what drew me to the drama potential within that situation.
In the article, both the actor and the mother are happily deceiving their child. But it was the Magic IF that fuelled my interest in this bizarre character triangle.
The Magic IF
- What if the actor wanted to reveal the truth?
- What if the mother wanted to maintain the lie?
- What if the daughter discovered the deception?
Finding the right starting point
I could have started this piece early in the story, where the mum decides to hire someone to pretend to be her daughter’s dad. But that felt filmic to me – a slow-burn where she would need to audition many men first, then introduce the actor, then develop some kind of relationship. It felt filmic because of the necessary timescale and the need for lots of bit-part actors.
I wanted to start where the action was about to pop – because that’s the best place to start a play.
- Let the exposition inform the present
- Build the tension with the things they’re not saying
- Start from a point of awkwardness, and
- Let the audience work things out for themselves.
My starting point
So, I decided to start my story where the dad, Brendan, has decided to convince the mum, Janis, that they should break the news to the daughter, Liv.
I imagined what Brendan would feel – exhausted by maintaining the lie and wanting to reveal the truth to Liv on top of the pressure for everyone to have a great time.
And to heighten the tension, I decided to start in the midst of the potential stress of a Christmas Day.
And as soon as I’d established the tensions, I’d found my starting point.
How to create tension in a play
Plays without tension are dull. Ultimately, if there’s no tension in a scene, we just listen to characters talking. And while that can still be scintillating, the odds are stacked.
Scenes with characters who just want to chat often feel long and meandering. The story doesn’t go anywhere. The audience want a story; they want to work out what’s really happening.
Characters who are there just to talk tend to hamper the plot. But characters who walk into the room with an objective, DO things.
So, I set up my opening moment: Liv and Janis in the midst of a conflict, and Brendan walks in with a conflict of his own. And because it’s Christmas day, no one wants to break the forced jollity.
Great scenes are born of tension. And tension is born of conflict.
What is conflict in a play?
Conflict is a clash of objectives: one character wants something, and another tries to stop them from getting it.
So, in the context of boyfriend stroke husband, Brendan wants to reveal the truth while Janis intends to maintain the lie. And Liv’s trying to work out why the hell they’re behaving so oddly.
And they’re thrust into conflict and will fight to win their objective.
Of course, the more complex the problem the main characters have to overcome, the more interesting the play will likely be. So, I made Liv a challenging teenager who battles with her mum; I gave her a history of complicated mental health, which prompted Janis to find a solution: Brendan.
But, of course, the solution to this particular initial problem leads us into a whole world of complexity that Janis must tread carefully to protect.
Playwriting tips: read more articles
So, read more news articles and look for interesting situations that you can further fictionalise. All you need is the spark of an idea – I find situations give me the most food for thought.
Other examples include:
My play Full House was inspired by a conversation with a friend about a new way to buy a house where the original owner still lives there till they die.
My play Playing God was inspired by a conversation with my sociologist sister-in-law about the Stanford Prison experiment and the theories of Ervin Goffman and Philip Zimbardo.
You can read boyfriend stroke husband in my book The Three Handers.
Playwriting tips: have conversations
Do you have a friend who always seems to get deep and meaningful? Maybe you have a pal who sees things in the world that you don’t? Or perhaps you always get into arguments about politics?
Listening to other people’s perspectives is a great way in. Discussing topics with people you don’t agree with is an excellent way to see another point of view from your own.
Be open to listening and learning.
Indeed, you could say that one of the problems of the modern world is that we don’t listen to each other; we cutt off the other person’s argument – literally writing them off if we disagree
Great plays and books are nearly always based on a balance of opinion. A thought-provoking piece of work only resonates with the audience if the counter-argument is convincing; and if it makes us question our own thoughts and feelings.
Great plays aim to hit you in the heart – engaging the emotions in a dramatic, comedic, or horrifying way that, in some way, touches your soul.
So, treat a play as an opportunity to explore the theme from all angles. Make the antagonist convincing and likeable even if they’re doing or saying abhorrent things. Challenge the audience to consider the complexity of the subject for themselves – avoid lecturing them about your own point of view.
Ultimately, I judge a play a success if people are talking about it in the bar afterwards – if they’re trying to decide what they would do in the same dilemma. If you build up the argument from all angles, it forces the audience to empathise.
Stephen M Hornby – writing history plays
I dramatise archives. That’s my specialism. So, the starting point is usually an event in the past that I’m interested in and the existing historiographical accounts of that event.
Those stories by historians are based on their research into archives of documents, pictures, oral accounts from witnesses and sometimes film records.
And so that’s where I start:
What’s the existing narrative? What’s it based on? Is there an alternative way of looking at it, of seeing the players and of constructing a story around them?
I then spend days, sometimes weeks, sifting through the records and making notes. Usually, there are too many stories and too many characters. I try not to go down rabbit holes.
Developing the spark
When I find a story, I let my imagination work with it and write out a couple of paragraphs or a basic one-page three-act structure, and then I move on.
The first story isn’t necessarily the best one. So, you keep going, building up a range of options.
Then, at the end of whatever time you can give to the archive, you have many options to choose from to start developing your script.
Contextualising the content
I’m always aware that what’s in an archive isn’t the full picture. What gets kept and valued has often been materials about straight, white, wealthy men. The queer history that I’m focussed on often doesn’t have an archival record, or it’s been misinterpreted, ignored, or even wilfully destroyed.
So, the other part of what I do in creating a story is to challenge a heteronormative way of reading the archive and create a queer take on it, which, when dramatised, can often explain things better than the established historical account.
One of the things I always say is, “Dramatising history changes history”, and it’s always been the case on any project I’ve worked on, whether that’s about a drag ball in the 1880s, a public meeting about an LGBTQ+ centre in the early 70s or a forgotten BBC documentary from 1954 on conversion therapy.
Stephen’s book “Writing from Archives for Stage & Screen” comes out in 2024, when his latest play “The BBC First Homosexual” will also be touring nationally.
Other playwright’s starting points
I did a shout out on Facebook to find out how fellow playwrights find their starting points. Thanks for the responses, guys.
Here are some of their thoughts:
The right kind of boredom, the kind where your mind just wanders. Barring that I try to either meditate or fall asleep; the stuff your brain will come up with when you’re trying to get it to do nothing is just mind blowing.Ged Quayle
Almost all of my ideas start from “what-ifs”. They usually arise when I’m going about daily life and I notice or hear something that sparks my imagination. I then start to wonder what might happen if a certain conflict, obstacle or character were thrown into the mix – and I usually end up rushing to write it down! I’ve got a whole Google doc of these “what-ifs” ready to go when neededCaroline Lamb
Very often built on life experience. People I’ve known, people I’ve been. Sometimes people I might have been. Ideas often triggered by lyrics or overheard conversations, visual images.Dave Jones
How long do playwrights take to write a new play?
There’s no real answer to this. A play takes as long as it takes. Sometimes, a play pours out of you; other times, drawing out the themes, characters, and situation takes months – before you’ve written a single line of dialogue.
Personally, I cherish the development process. I love the discovery and exploration.
Sometimes, I’ll know where a story’s heading – I’ll have an image in my head for the closing moment. After all, if you know where it’s heading, half the fun is in determining the path.
But on other occasions, I’ll just have a theme – something about life that I find frustrating, unjust, joyful, funny, or tragic. And from there, I’ll find characters and situations that somehow represent that theme.
Playwriting tips: Writing exercises for discovery
I love writing exercises. In all my training as a playwright, from my MA to the wonderful Liverpool Everyman’s Playwrights Programme, I’ve cherished the writing exercises more than anything.
With a great writing exercise, you go from a blank page to a sheet full of ideas. You might not have an idea, but if you throw yourself into the activity, you may just find one.
How writing exercises help
Some writing exercises just get you writing; others help you find answers to your questions about the piece you’re working on.
For example, if I’m stuck, I’ll try and find a question that addresses the problem.
I might ask a character a question and write the answer in their voice. Perhaps I’ll question my motivation for writing the piece. Or, I may consider a character’s reaction and determine whether it makes sense.
Then, once I have my questions, I’ll free-write the answers, employing a stream-of-consciousness; and I nearly always find an answer.
And maybe not one I expected – that’s when it’s most fun.
Playwriting tips: the value of free-writing
Free-writing is all about switching off the “editing” voice in your head. Most creative people are their own worst enemies – finding reasons why an idea won’t work.
Sure, we want our piece to make sense, but in pursuing sense, it’s easy to tie yourself in knots until there’s no clarity.
Playwright Dennis Kelly says that he doesn’t typically engage in research before he writes a play because he feels that he has to include everything he finds, and it makes the play “dry and crusty”.
So, free writing is about splurging on the page without question. Just let the pen or your fingers do the thinking. Think on the page without crossing anything out.
It takes some practice, but once you’re accustomed to the process, it’s very, well, freeing.
How does free writing work?
Find a question you want to explore regarding an idea or the piece you’re working on. It could be:
- Would Andy really agree to x?
- Could Pete really get that promotion?
- Why did Sandy say yes?
- What does Anabelle really want?
- Why am I writing about this?
Then, choose a perspective from which to write. It could be in a character’s voice, or it could just be the voice that comes out of your head.
Write for a set amount of time – say five minutes. Or stop writing when you’ve filled an entire page. Put pen to paper, and don’t stop writing until your timer pings or the page is full.
Allow yourself to write yourself into a corner. Start sentences without knowing their destination – keep going until the sentence reaches its end.
Don’t stop. Don’t try to edit.
And don’t cross anything out! Not a single word. Commit yourself to paper and go with it. You can burn it later if you want.
Read what you’ve written
Take a quick break when you’ve reached your time or page goal. Make a brew, go for a walk, do the ironing.
Then, sit down somewhere that’s not your writing desk and read what you’ve written. Hopefully, you won’t remember writing much of it – in here are the nuggets.
Underline words, phrases or sentences that surprise you, interest you, or seem to get to the heart of the matter.
They might pose new questions – great: do the exercise again and answer those.
Playwriting Tips: Write a list
Once you’ve read and underlined, write everything you’ve underlined as a separate list. And you’ll have something that resembles a poem: a slightly abstract burst of images, thoughts, and ideas that spark new thoughts and ideas.
And somewhere in there – if you trust the process – you might just find an answer.
Finding Starting Points
At WriteForTheStage, we have a decade’s experience in helping playwrights take their work from the spark of an idea to the first draft of a script and all the way into production.
Our past cohort includes playwrights whose work has been taken on national tours and to the Edinburgh-, Camden-, Brighton-, and Greater Manchester Fringes. We’ve even helped a handful of writers develop the skills to cross the medium into writing for TV and radio.
So, we’re very excited to be soft-launching our new online short course, Finding Starting Points.
What you’ll get from Finding Starting Points
You’ll be guided through the process of:
- Exploring what it is you want to write about
- Finding a theme
- Discovering characters and their objectives
- Examining the problem that’s preventing the protagonist from self-actualisation
- A location for your story
- A starting line for your play
This tried-and-tested process is perfect for complete beginners or seasoned playwrights. You’ll mine your imagination for ideas, and our guided exercises will help you develop those ideas into a tangible starting point for a new play, TV script, novel, or even an epic poem.
Find out more about the Finding Starting Points short online course.
Buy a gift card
It’s coming up to Christmas, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be stuck for present ideas.
Well, how about giving someone you love (or like) the gift of creativity this Christmas? Buy them a gift card for our Finding Starting Points course, and they’ll get one month to complete the three-hour course.
Thanks for reading
Thanks for reaching the end of my playwrighting tips article. There are more to come.
If there’s anything you’d like to know about writing a play, add it to the comments below, and I’ll address it in a future blog.
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