The Process of Writing a Play (#8)

Writing is many things. Easy is not one of them. Where do the ideas come from? They come from dreams – both waking and sleeping; from fragments of conversations overheard on a subway car; from childhood memories of playing street hockey at dusk; from voices raised and promises whispered; from anything and everything that is life, as we know it.

Sometimes the germ of an idea suddenly presents itself, and lodges itself in a corner of my brain. At first the idea may seem like a fleeting thought. But sometimes it sticks around, and I’m forced to consider it. Sometimes the more I consider it, the more it expands. After awhile, I realize that the germ is turning into a story, and I need to get it down on paper. As I type (or write) the words, my brain starts to formulate ideas about how to tell the story.

If I’m lucky, I am simply a vessel or conduit for the story that wants to be told. If I’m not lucky, I must agonize over what story is trying to come out of me. Either way I will likely suffer once the rewrites begin, because here is where all of my discernment must come into play. Knowing what to leave in is hard. Knowing what to take out is crucial. Often getting this “right” is the difference between the clay being removed from a perfect sculpture, and an unseemly piece of clay on display with only the hint of a form.

When writing a play, I must consider how many characters are required to tell the story. Who is the protagonist? Is there more than one? Who is the antagonist? Maybe the antagonist is not a person. Maybe it’s an event, or a decision to be made, or a natural disaster. I must also consider how much or how little to disclose about a character. How much information about a character does the audience need to know for this particular story? Perhaps a different story would require different information to be revealed about a character. Getting the ages of the characters “right” is important too. Also, whose story am I trying to tell? Does the point of view ever switch? If so, at which point(s) does it switch, and why?

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

– Michelangelo

Something else to think about: how does the story unfold? And does the flow come to me with the idea, or do I have to work really hard to consider how to tell the story? If the latter is the case, do I want to tell the story in a linear fashion? Do I want to do it in flashbacks? Do I want to start from the end of the story, and then show how it all came to be?

Do I hear music as I’m writing? If so, how will this music manifest itself in the play? Will it be pre-recorded tunes pumped through the theatre’s sound system to add ambience? Will a character put on a cd or a record on stage to indicate why the audience is suddenly hearing music? Or will there be a live musician onstage? If there’s a musician, will the musician be a live version of the pre-recorded music, or an actual character in the play? All of these ideas are valid, but they all require a decision made at somewhere along the process – we can only hope, by the playwright.





Another decision to make: how much description will I put in the play – about characters, dialogue, settings, exits, entrances, etc.? Back in the day, playwrights practically wrote novels in between dialogue to indicate the world of the play – nowadays, not so much. Personally, I’m not completely opposed to slightly more descriptions than none at all. Actors, directors and designers can always choose to ignore them. But sometimes they can give helpful clues as to the mind and desires of the playwright. The playwright too should keep an open mind, because during early readings, hearing good actors read the script out loud can help the writer to know where to really flesh out their characters in subsequent drafts.

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

– Zora Neale Hurston 

A playwright might also ask themself why they want to share this particular play at this particular moment in time. Although I tend to think that plays get written because they need to be written: meaning, the writer has a great desire to release that story from inside of themself. Why else would anyone write plays? Most plays are never produced. And if they are produced, they rarely make money. And if they do make money, it’s generally not very much money. And they rarely get published. And if they do get published, they rarely make money. And if they do make money… well, you get the idea.

Writing plays is about needing to share stories with an audience, through actors on a stage. Writing in general is about getting stories out of you that would cause you some sort of distress if you didn’t share them. Often the stories writers tell are metaphors for something seemingly unrelated to the stories as they are told. This is why I believe that Mark Twain’s advice, “Write what you know” can be tricky. Because a writer can know a great deal about the inner life of a character, and wrap them in a character that’s not exactly taken from the writer’s own life. This is why Shakespeare could write of royalty and express universal human thoughts and emotions, while living the life of an actor and playwright.



Ultimately, a writer writes the story they need to tell, hones it as best they can, and if they are fortunate, gets to share it with an audience. The process of writing anything is usually hard. With any luck, the relief of having written it makes the process worthwhile.

Thanks for reading…


Leave a Reply