I had a professor in undergrad who told us in a playwriting class that he wrote the perfect play once. It followed all the rules for good story line and character development. It had all the right give and take of the characters and plot, and guess what? It, according to him, was terrible.
Writing is a challenge, ask anyone who does it. Playwriting is a whole different monster. Because when you write a play it doesn’t just get read by others, it gets interpreted and transformed by anyone who touches it. It can be incredibly rewarding, and sometimes aggravating, like that itch you just can’t scratch. In college I wrote a play. It was simple; two girls in a canoe. I was lucky enough to have my short script chosen to be performed in a night of student-written shows. I was so excited and had my camera at the ready to record every moment. I couldn’t wait to see how a director and two actresses would interpret my work and bring it to life. As my masterpiece came to a close I sat there knowing… I hated it. The whole time I wanted to jump up and scream “You’re doing it wrong!” and it made me wonder if other playwrights have felt that way upon seeing their own work produced. So it begs the question, is there such a thing as a perfect play? And even if it is perfect by some literary standard how will it transform when put in the hands of a total stranger?
When theatre professionals go and see shows by other people I am sure they can’t resist picking things apart in their mind, what they would change, what should be done differently, so imagine seeing your own work, misinterpreted. It reminds me of when avid readers line the streets to see their favorite book adapted into a movie, only for the casting, storytelling, directing… whatever else, to come up short, at least in the expectations of the reader. There can’t be any such thing as perfection. If there was everyone would have to agree it was perfect. We are unique beings in that we all have different tastes, styles and preferences, so what might be perfect for one might be atrocious to another.
So… how do you write a “perfect” play? Start with at least one character, a place, and a story to tell and let your imagination do the rest. Don’t worry so much about what others think. That same professor once read a comedic play I wrote and he told me it was garbage, but when it was performed I’ve never heard an audience laugh quite so hard, and I was proud of my work. So don’t worry so much about what others think. Know your audience, of course, but part of the beauty of writing is that it is a part of you, so be true to yourself and don’t worry about perfection, just get it perfect enough for you.
Now, I don’t want to leave you at the end of this thinking “great, I learned nothing about how to write a play, just what not to do”… because that’s annoying. So here are a few tips to get you started.
First, if you have never written a play before but want to start you have to read, read, read. The more plays you read the better you will understand the structure of how to actually write the play.
Next, start with something like adapting a book you really like or a story someone told you as a kid. Coming up with a story and characters is hard enough, so give yourself a break and write a story you already know and love. (Now, of course, don’t perform this play and charge admission and risk breaking some serious copyright laws… but write it for you!) It’s great practice and will give you enough freedom to be creative without having to stress over plot and characters.
So just remember when writing the perfect play it doesn’t need to be perfect by anyone else’s standards but your own.
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