9 Common errors playwrights make

By Timothy Daly

I am an experienced writer, which means not only that I’ve been doing it for a good few years, not only that I’ve written some fine work, but also that I’ve written some very poor work, and have committed every blunder in the book.

What ‘book’? I’m speaking of that unwritten book of experience that every writer lives through, full of “What I did, what I didn’t do, what I should have
done, what I’d like to have done.”

Added to this is the fact that I read lots of scripts, and see lots of shows, and believe that a script, as much as a production, is a delicate thing, and requires only a little maladjustment, imbalance, indulgence, lack of taste or timing for the whole edifice to come crumbling down.

On the principle that, as Dr.Johnson said, people need not so much to be taught as to be reminded, I’ll offer a working list of common errors, and hope that most of what comes below is obvious to you.

  1. BAD TITLE. It’s amazing how even half-decent plays have terrible titles. Solution: Don’t even start the play until you have a title that you (and others) think is wonderful. It’s the one thing you could consider ‘road-testing’ prior to work. Ask a friend, “Would you go and see a play called (your title here)?” Their answer might save you ten drafts. Alternately, if it’s good, it might give you a hint of the conceptual/imaginative world that a good title usually indicates. In a future Dialogue, I’m going to devote a whole article to the concept of titles.
  2. SCRIPT TOO LONG. Solution: Enlarge the print font, space out the dialogue, and THEN cut it by half. Until most dialogue lies under the surface, like a dangerous iceberg, it’s not theatrical. It’s something else– TV, literature, therapy. If you don’t reduce your dialogue till it’s rich and suggestive of much more than it actually says, then you leave no place for the audience to imagine what isn’t said,
  3. NO ENTRY POINT FOR THE AUDIENCE. This problem requires explanation. You may know that occasionally in theatre, for want of anything better, a debate breaks out about ‘naturalism’ Vs ‘anti-naturalism’, or ‘linear’ Vs ‘non-linear writing’, which is the twin-sister of the first, or ‘text-based theatre’ Vs ‘performance theatre’, its ugly cousin. To me, none of these are necessarily opposites, but space permits me to say this: that the real purpose of naturalism, (ie that stylistic approach which creates a fictional state that the audience recognises as belonging to “the real world”) is to lull that same audience into a state suitable for ambush. In other words, the job of creating a level of reality in a play is to provide an entry point for the imagination of the audience. It is on the realistic level that an audience first approaches a play. It’s a response that goes like this: “Oh, I get it! This story is set in a bakery in Kansas.” It temporarily places the play in a setting they can recognise. Nothing wrong with that. The fatal error, in my view, is to leave the audience in Kansas (at least metaphorically). Our job as writers is to give an audience a reality they can assume is ‘real’, only to have us take them far from this original reality, or deeper, or higher. This is why I say that naturalism’s job is to lull the audience, make them feel safe… and then take their imaginations, intellects and senses for a wild ride. To put this whole point another way: many writers either don’t give the audience a realistic initial point of reference, or if they do, don’t give them the ride out of this safe realism.
  4. LACK OF FOCUS. A play is a study in concentrated realities, where a concentration that would be regarded as obsessive in real life is, for a play, quite necessary. Characters are dominated by an idea, an issue, an emotion, a passion, and this is their only focus, at least until something else replaces it that is even more powerful. In a crucial sense, in drama, characters are driven, not in control of themselves. Their language and actions reflect this.

    In scenes, one issue/idea is attended to with intensity and total engagement. There is no chat, no “by the way, how’s your father?”, no distraction (unless by another issue of equal intensity, which might qualify as comic relief.) 

    Solution: The simplest way to address this is for you to consider that, for every scene (or part of a scene, depending on other factors) there is a single issue that dominates, absorbs and obsesses. Identify that momentary issue, then create scenes where all characters stand in some relationship to this issue.

  5. CASUAL, ‘REALISTIC’ CONVERSATION. This is death to theatre. It is television, and bad television at that. Solution: Avoid chat. If you can’t recognise chat in your own work, get a tactful friend to underline everything that is devoid of tension, madness, feverish heat, comic irony etc. Which brings me to….
  6. LOWERED STAKES. For playwrights writing in a realistic style their only hope is to make the stakes, the personal involvement, the motivation, the reason why a character is in this situation SO HIGH that it elevates the realism of their language to the level of drama. In other words, the closer to everyday reality your characters’ language is, the more you have to raise the stakes if the play is to have any power in the theatrical space. Put simply, there must be a personal danger, a tension, a poisonous atmosphere—something that lifts it out of ordinariness, as quickly as possible— even if it’s a comedy.
  7. NO WORLD. A play is essentially the creation of a unique world, with its own special atmosphere. Personally, I long for atmosphere even more than plot. What is atmosphere? It is a world (or micro-world) that is dense and rich and packed with something— eg, hatred, sexual tension, lust for power, obsessive need for revenge, a carnal lusting afer money or gold, a morally sick atmosphere of recrimination, a joyful innocence too good to be true… the list goes on and on. To create a world, simply find (or invent) a story that reflects the morbid or fixated passions that destabilise your own lives. I’m not being insulting. Being human, we all experience a vast range of fears, fixations and longings. Make money out of the passions that keep you awake at night by injecting them with all their intensity into stories you respond to.
  8. PLAYS IN THREE, FOUR AND FIVE ACTS. I’ve only seen one or two good new plays in recent years that required three acts. To receive and read a play in three or more acts is often a sign that the writer doesn’t go to much theatre. Solution: Write only one-act, or ‘long one-act’ plays (ie up to 80 minutes). Write rarely in any two-act form. An interval is a structural concept (not something to up the bar takings), and must be structurally justified.
  9. TOO MANY CHARACTERS. “Too many” might be defined as, “any character not organically and inextricably linked to the structure of the play, and without whom the whole play would collapse.” Each character represents an entire ‘pillar’ on which the play stands. Solution: Avoid replications of character function, doublings, friends of friends, choruses of bystanders and onlookers, redundant relatives, butlers and lounge-lizard wits.

Solve these nine problems and you’ll be well on your way to theatrical mastery.