What Writers Can Learn From Playwrights by Noah Baird

I was recently invited to sit in a local playwright group. They were working on an original comedic play, and asked me to help polish some of the humor. While sitting in was great fun; something occurred to me- all writers should sit with playwrights. Why? I’ll tell you why:

  • They make every scene count. Playwrights don’t have time to waste describing how the grass feels under a character’s toes. They get to the point.
  • It’s dialogue driven. While most of the dialogue comes in the form of monologues; the story moves along through characters speaking to each other. Because of this, they tend to have a great ear for how people speak.
  • The group includes actors. If you want to see how your dialogue flows, have the actors read it. Most are happy to help, and you get a sense of how a reader may interpret your words by hearing it spoken. I thought differently about the dialogue I had written after hearing how the actors said my words. I began to think of dialogue in lyrical terms- focusing not on just was said, but how it flowed.
  • They use visuals to describe the characters. Pat Bertram wrote a great blog on using color to symbolize and describe a character. Playwrights use costumes, gestures, tics, etc. to define their characters. They don’t have time to say how a character grew up in a conservative, middle-class background. They need to show those character attributes through dress and mannerisms.
  • They are aware of how the characters occupy space. I read an article once on how we should allow children to build forts because it helped them see how they fit in the world. They learned – sometimes the hard way – that they couldn’t use cardboard for the floor of their tree house, or that they couldn’t fit through a six inch hole. Playwrights also have to be aware of how each character fits into the scene. Characters aren’t just talking in the kitchen- they write where each character is in the room.
  • They aren’t afraid to let the audience tell the story. Mark Twain said “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it”. In a one act play, the background and motivations cannot be developed enough to tell the story. It’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity, and has no intention of writing a play.



Filed under Art, books, fiction, fun, life, musings, writing

5 responses to “What Writers Can Learn From Playwrights by Noah Baird

  1. Wow! What a great synopsis of storytelling techniques and why each is important. I never attended a playwrite group, but most of what I’ve learned about storytelling techniques I learned from books about how to write scripts. One point I hadn’t heard before, but that I will keep in mind from now on, is to be aware of how characters occupy space. Very important!

    I do follow Twain’s principle. My writing was terrible at the beginning because I thought I had to explain everything — what the characters thought, why they did what they did, how they felt. I could never figure out the proper adverb to describe their emotions while they talked. It was exceedingly liberating to discover that writing was so much more evocative if you let the reader figure it out for themselves.

  2. Excellent article, Noah. I started out as a screenwriter and your examples also apply with scripts. So important to keep all of this when writing novels, or even short stories.

  3. Great post, Noah. I usually read aloud to myself–the sound, the flow, all of this counts. Rhythms of speech can the reader many things about a character.

  4. That point about using visuals really grabbed me; the whole idea of letting the reader work out the background from what they see. Great post.

  5. I love your ideas. My natural tendency is to write more in play-form than book-form, so I appreciate the value of that.

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