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Playwrite   ::   Dramaturgy   ::   Write   ::   Sample   ::   Activities

The Playwrite

Playwriting #1

Plays are Stories:

Playwriting Step by Step

Playwriting is just a different form of storytelling. There are characters who want things and do things, and there is usually a plot in a play, just as there is in a story. The means of telling the story are different, but seeing plays first as stories is very helpful. But remember: as the story goes, so goes the play! If your story is simple, direct, and concise, your play will fall into place quite nicely. If your story is complicated, long and unwieldy, your play will turn out the same. I have found over and over again that creating a simple, concise story is the first vital step to writing an effective play. You will be asked to write a short play at the end of the Playwriting lesson, so let's try it!

Stories You Find:

Fairytales and Folktales, Myths and Legends

You may already be familiar with folktakes, fairytales, myths and legends. Did you know that the Cinderella story, for instance, is found in nearly every culture of the world? The Disney version with which many of us are familiar is exactly that: the Disney version, which is based on the French fairytale. The German Cinderella, another example, is much more gorey with the step-sisters cutting off parts of their foot to fit into the shoe. Just like Disney, you should feel free, as one option to writing a story, to adapt and create your own version of a favorite fairy or folk tale, whether it be a cowboy Cinderella or a three little pigs that takes place on Mars. While you may use the Cinderella plot, or very basic action sequence, you may decide to fill in that plot with you own details to create a storyline just as the French Cinderella and German Cinderella share the same plot, but the storylines and story details are different.

Oral History

Another exciting place to find stories is from your own life. Oral history and lived events make for excellent story source material. These stories are often simple enough that they make good stories for plays. Besides, we all have really fun and exciting experiences that are great for theatre!

Original Stories

You can, of course, be totally creative and make up a story all on your own, once you know the various parts of a story!

Whatever source you choose, your play will have three basic elements: CHARACTERS (who have DESIRES and OBJECTIVES), SETTINGS, and CONFLICTS (problems the characters must face). Out of these three story elements, you can come up with your basic plot. The storyline is the plot after specific details about the characters major actions have been added. As you go through the story-making process, you will come up with even more ideas!

Story Elements in Plays:

I encourage you to look at a wide variety of books and stories to find those elements that make them effective, engaging and interesting. Try to identify elements that make a story fun to read. The structure of good stories is one common element, and many stories share the same structure. Story structures are kind of like the bones in our bodies. They are the framework upon which the plot, then the storyline, and finally story details are attached like muscles (plot), skin (storyline) and clothes (story details) on our bodies.


In a short paragraph, describe a few elements that make a story interesting, engaging and gripping!

Playwriting #2

Story Elements in a Play


All stories (and plays) have characters. Who are the characters in your story? What are they doing? What do they want? Characters have desires. They want something. They have objectives. Cinderella wants a happy life and to marry the Prince. Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit her grandmother. The three little pigs want shelter and a place to call home. What ONE thing do the characters in your story want more than anything else? This simple chart may help you. It may help if you made one, too:

Characters: What are they doing at the beginning of the play? What do they want?
Aliens looking for chocolate they need chocolate to survive!
School children playing at recess they want to play their games


Stories take place somewhere. Have fun exploring the options of having your story take place on Mars, in New York City, in the desert, or anywhere else. Indicate that for very short plays, it is usually best if your story takes place in ONE general area. You do not have time for scene changes, and having only one setting, the process will be greatly simplified. Using a fill-in-the-blank format, your question may look like this:

My story takes place __________________________ ("in the desert" or "at school" or "in a prehistoric jungle")


Once characters know what they want, there are usually things that get in the way called obstacles . Conflict is the heart of theatre. The more clear, simple and direct the conflict, the more effective and efficient your short play will be. So we must ask ourselves: what will the characters in your story try to DO to get what they want? Now we need a conflict: what gets in their way! For your own notes, name TWO things that stop the characters from getting what they want. Sometimes, conflict appears simply when there are obstacles in the way of characters who want something. Sometimes, two characters want the same thing, and this intersection of desires can create conflict. Other times, simply every day living is interrupted by conflict; in this case, they still want something: they want things to be back to normal. Using a fill-in-the-blank format, you may want to outline your conflict this way

Characters What they want What's in their way?
Aliens Chocolae to survive Their space ship is out of chocolate.
Kids To play their games Aliens are ruining their recess


Characters in most plays usually overcome the obstacles that are before them. They succeed or win, and sometimes in surprising ways. Ask yourself "What do the characters finally do to succeed?" Now you have your problems solved, and the story is almost over!

Playwriting #3

Basic Story Structure in 5 Sentences

However you go about inventing your story that will become your play, you should be able to write your story's basic plot in five sentences .

Outlining the Story

There are several models of story outlines, but I have found that the following works extremely well, for it keeps things simple, and it keeps you focused on what is most important. You've already done a rudimentary version of this in a previous lesson. Now, however, it will apply to your very own short play! Please do NOT write your play first; create first a good, solid outline.

Workbook Entry

Section Heading: "Play Outline in 5 Sentences"

Write five lines in your workbook to be filled in (soon, you'll be writing a short play. Please be sure to turn this in along with your play!). You may want to label them "Sentence #1," "Sentence #2" and so on. You will be creating sentences for each of the five lines as this reading progresses. This will be the basic story plot for your play.

Stories have a beginning , a middle and an end . This may sound obvious, yet many do not understand the elements of which each is composed. Once you learn these elements, it will be easy for you to create five sentences that will form the storyline of your story.

The Beginning: Sentence #1

What goes at the beginning of a story? The beginning of a story introduces characters in various settings undergoing their ROUTINES (i.e. what they normally do or undergoing a relatively normal activity). This is called exposition . The beginning also contains that moment--the point of attack--when the routines of the characters are upset or must change. This is often the point at which conflict appears. Then the major actions of the story “begin.” Note that when describing the beginning, there is usually an “until” in the middle of the sentence, as in these examples:

  • “Cinderella lives the life of a slave with her step family until an invitation comes for a royal ball.”
  • "Kids are having fun playing at recess until aliens land and demand chocolate."
  • “Kids on Mars having a slumber party have fun until they run out of snacks.”

Now craft a beginning sentence that has the two parts, with an until in the middle of it. Please don't forget the until . This first sentence will introduce the characters and setting, and then the conflict which is introduced by the until . Now is your chance to work with these ideas.

The End: Sentence #5

Skipping to the end, what takes place at the end of a story? The end of the story describes the NEW routines of the characters, or what they normally do after the story is over. Events that are worth a story or play to communicate often change the lives of the characters, creating these new routines or new understandings for the characters, like this:

  • "They learned that being friends is better than being enemies."
  • "The aliens traded their cool anti-gravity playground equipment for the teachers' stash of chocolate."
  • "The three pigs lived all together in the third pig's house."

Now craft your 5th sentence that describes the new routines of the characters when the story is over.

The Middle: Sentences #2, #3, #4

You now know the beginning and end of the story! Yay! Now you can work on the middle. So what happens in the middle of the story? The middle of the story contains the rising action of the story. The rising action is made up of those events in which the characters try to get what they want, but are thwarted by obstacles. As characters meet obstacles and conflict, the suspense rises and the interest goes up--hence, Rising Action . Rising action is usually described in sentences with two parts with a but in the middle of the sentence, as in these examples:

  • "Cinderella tries to go to the ball, but her sisters won't let her."
  • "The kids check their backpacks, but nobody has any chocolate."
  • "Little Red Riding hood tries to get to her grandmother's house, but the wolf stops her on the way."

Note how in sentences #2 and #3 attempts are made to get or do something, but an obstacle gets in the way, AND THEY FAIL (this is very important that they fail!). Craft sentences #2 and #3, each having two parts with a but in the middle. Please do not forget the but . Make sure the character(s) fail in these two sentences (#2 and #3)!

Plays also have a climax, or the point at which the characters often try hardest and finally succeed. When the characters succeed and the conflict is over, this is called the resolution of the story. Like the other sentences in the middle, the sentence describing the climax will also have two parts. This time, however, there is usually an and in the middle:

  • "Cinderella tries on the shoe, and it fits."
  • "The kids search the school closets, and the teachers' stash of chocolate comes pouring out."
  • "The cat finally scares the elephant, and he stops sneezing."

    That's it! Your play in 5 sentences! This should be a great outline to follow for your next assignment: writing a short play!

Workbook Entry
"My Play!"

Write a short 3-5 page play, based on your 5 sentence outline you just completed above. Please follow these rules for success ( you may have to change your 5 sentences above slightly to meet this requirements—Yes! This is a common problem/challenge for professional playwrights, too!):

  1. Your play will consist of DIALOGUE and STAGE DIRECTIONS.
    • Dialogue is what the actors will speak; it is what the characters say in the play. See this scene for examples of how dialogue is used and formatted in this scene .
    • Stage Directions tell the actors and other artists vital information about where the characters stand, any special effects used, etc. (Please remember: the audience CANNOT read or see the stage directions. They are for the theatre artists' eyes only!). See this scene for examples of how stage directions are used and formatted .
    • Your play is NOT a story; don't use paragraph or story format! See the plays you've read in the class so far to discover how to format a play. Or read the first lesson in the Design Arts of Theatre section for a play format sample. You can also see a sample of play format here and here .
  2. Your play should take place in ONE setting: a room, a store, a park, wherever--but please do not change the setting. Your play is too short for more than one setting.
  3. Your play should be able to be performed on a STAGE. It is NOT a movie. Any special effects you require should be able to be done on a stage. (i.e. avoid having your characters in cars, space ships, helicopters, etc. UNLESS you give indications in your stage directions about how such special effects are to be done). For examples of stage directions, see how the stage directions are used and formatted in this scene .
  4. Your play, with its stage directions, should be written in the PRESENT TENSE, as if it were happening right now. See how the stage directions in this scene are in the present tense.

Good luck and have fun!

Copyright 2008, David Sidwell. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 07). Literary Arts of Theatre. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License