DRAMA is a unique literary form because – unlike creative non-fiction, fiction, and even poetry – it is also a performance art. In other words, it is meant to be seen and heard, not read, by a captive audience in one sitting.
The content in dramatic works (called PLAYS) can be factual (based on a true story) or fictional. The actors’ dialogue (called LINES) can be presented in prose form or in verse. In fact, as seen in musicals, the actors can sing their lines. A play can even do all three (prose, verse, and song), depending on the story, the plot, the performance space, the producer’s production budget, and the strengths of the playwright, actors, and director.
However, a written play (also called a SCRIPT) is essentially a tool for the production company, so the built-in stage directions make the look of a script of drama very different from the final draft of a work of creative non-fiction, fiction, or poetry.
THE WRITING PROCESS
STAGE I: INVENTION & PREWRITING
As mentioned above, the content of a play can be factual or fictional. So the invention and prewriting of a play are similar to the invention and prewriting of creative non-fiction (primarily using Narration mode), fiction, and poetry (also primarily using Narration mode).
However, what limits your ideas from being too complicated and busy is this question: “How can this be put on the stage?” Remember: your eventual script is just the starting point, in a production company’s process to get the play on the stage. So any narrative exposition and description, any thoughts and unspoken feelings of the characters, must be SEEN (in body language, movement, lighting, and visual effects) and/or HEARD (in spoken dialogue, song, and sound effects).
So the elements of fiction discussed earlier – genre, setting, characters, conflict, story, and plot – while applicable in developing the play, must be condensed and simplified to meet the logistics of having an actual performance. (The element “point of view” is irrelevant because the characters all speak for themselves.) After all, the condensed and simplified nature of the play form is why a play (or even a movie) adaptation of a book always leaves out large chunks of the book.
If you’re stuck on ideas, read scripts of short plays, like at this webpage, one-act-plays.com/royalty_free_plays.html. Better yet, watch a performance, either online on YouTube or live at a local city theater or college campus, to get unstuck – and inspired!
STAGE II: ARRANGEMENT
Like fiction, the organization of a play is the plot-line structure, a sequence of events of rising conflict and then a resolution, in a cause and effect fashion, with increasing complication of the protagonist’s struggle against his or her antagonist. (In fact, it’s from the dramatic tradition that fiction has borrowed the plot-line structure; drama, as a literary and performance art, is much older than the fiction form of written short stories and novels.)
- The Beginning (aka Exposition): establishes the setting and major characters, especially the significance of the current situation
- Rising Action: where the situation starts getting more and more complicated
- Climactic Moment: where the secret is revealed, the choice is made, the “Aha!” moment occurs, depending on what the protagonist already knew from Parts I and II
- Falling Action: the consequences of the Climactic Moment
- and The End (aka Denouement): some sort of resolution
In addition to this plot outline, the playwright also notes the stage directions in the appropriate places on the plot outline.
STAGE III: DRAFTING
For many beginner playwrights, drafting a play in correct script form can feel daunting because it is unfamiliar. Besides following industry standard guidelines of 1) cover page and 2) another page containing the cast of characters, the setting (in this case, the location), and the time, the playwright draft must also 3) interweave character lines with stage directions (where the characters are and what they are doing on the stage) in a clear manner.
For those unfamiliar with the specific names for the areas of a stage, here’s a diagram:
Notice that the stage areas aren’t from the standpoint of the audience but from the standpoint of the actors, facing the audience.
By the end of drafting, your script will have much white space surrounding the words; this makes the script easier to read for the actors, who are learning their lines and stage directions, and the production team members, who are coordinating everything on the stage and behind the scenes. You should consider one page of script = one minute of performance. So a two-hour play would be 120 pages long, while a flash drama (the drama equivalent of fiction’s short-short story) can be as brief as five minutes, with five pages of script.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t go overboard with TOO MUCH stage directions. After all, Shakespeare didn’t, which allowed directors for over five hundred years the freedom to adapt his plays according to the directors’ artistic vision and what production resources were available to them.
STAGE IV: REVISING & EDITING
As usual, edit for errors in grammar, punctuation, and confused words. Also edit for errors in script format.
Then do a “read-through” – that is, read out loud – your script, preferably with others if you have more than one character. Like poetry, listen for the rhythm of the words and pauses between the words; in addition, do “blocking” – that is, mime what the character does on the stage. Revise for any awkwardness in dialogue and difficulty in blocking.
Also, revise for any long, uninterrupted speech. Remember: this is a performance that an audience is watching. Nothing is as boring as watching a person stay in one place, not interact with anything or anyone, and just talk talk talk. If the actor must give a long speech (think of Hamlet’s soliloquys like “To be or not to be”), then break up the words with dramatic pauses and body movements.
Ask your peer reviewer to help spot any of the above problems in your script, and especially ask him or her this: “Would you spend time and/or money to see this performed? Why or why not?”
- Re-read my metrical rhymed poem “Bright Star, Siren” that you read in “Chapter 3: Poetry.”
- Read “Bright Star, Siren: A Poetic Flash Drama in One Act, One Scene” (759 words, including lines and stage directions) on the following few pages as a model for you, especially the script format. Notice that I adapted the poem into a play. I’m no playwright (thus this play is the only drama example I have), but it serves a purpose: how different a playwright and a poet approach the same material.
- Similarly, instead of starting a play from nothing, adapt an existing work from your “Let’s Start” portfolio (a creative non-fiction essay with a heavy Narration mode component, a story poem, or a short story) into a short (ten minutes or less) one-act play.
- NOTE: You don’t have to adapt EVERYTHING from your original work: just the areas that can best be “dramatized” into a coherent, unified script with a beginning, middle, and end.
BRIGHT STAR, SIREN
a poetic flash drama in one act, one scene
JOSEPH SEVERN: Male, 27 years old.
JOHN KEATS: Male, 25 years old.
FANNY BRAWNE: Female, 20 years old.
Exterior: Top deck on the English sailing ship, the Maria Crowther, port of Naples, Italy.
31 October 1820, just after sunset.
(Dark. Then spotlight on SEVERN, down center.)
Medical student turned poet John Keats was born October 31, 1795, in London, England, and died at age 25 of tuberculosis on February 23, 1821, in Rome, Italy, where he is buried. In a letter dated November 1, 1820, while still on ship at the port of Naples, Keats writes of being let out of quarantine for the first time on his birthday, October 31. But what is noteworthy in this letter is his declaration that his imagination of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, torments him.
(in the dark, center)
My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her.
There is no record of what Keats’ last birthday, ill and isolated –except for his friend, Joseph Severn –
(SEVERN touches his heart.)
on a strange ship on a strange sea, was like.
(Spotlight goes dark. SEVERN exits. Spotlight center stage on KEATS, sitting huddled in blankets on a deck chair on ship. Light expands to show more of the deck. A cabin with a door is behind him. He stares out to the audience.)
Bright star, siren of my mind, no less my
Body, I see you shining through the veil,
This waking life, this death of earth and sky.
I call life death, for alive, death I hail,
Before he steals upon me in surprise.
Yet, steeled as I am, my thoughts still surmise,
While huddled in dark blankets, sweating heat,
And sought within the wine-dark seas demise
Of all my sins, this sweat and blood, this seat
Diseased and broken, harvested too soon,
I swear I must be mad, but not in swoon.
To glance upon the waters’ swollen wave,
(KEATS rises, stumbles forward to the ship’s rail, and grabs it, leaning forward.)
And see your image walk, a lifelong boon,
In radiance, all fair and cruelly grave,
I tear my hair out, strand by strand, and cry,
“This is too much, this is too much!” My cries
(KEATS has a coughing fit, coughing in a cloth handkerchief. When it subsides, he sees the blood on the cloth.)
Are rattles, specked with blood, a fine mist spray,
Imagination made incarnadine.
(KEATS drops the cloth from the side of the ship, watching it float away* to a dark stage right.)
You speak, with naked arms stretched towards my face,
(in the dark, downstage right-center)
My dear, the marriage date is set, my gown –
I know it breaks tradition – bought in town
In nearby Rome. See, I await you there.
My voice will be my song for you, sweet sound
Echoed before the Spanish Steps. Beware
Of other-worldly hopes, for there is no
One but you and I.
(still staring to the dark spot, downstage right-center)
But, sweet siren, O!
Bright star of my body, no less my mind,
Feverish dreams are only sighs.
(KEATS returns to his chair and blankets.)
My dearest girl remains in England,
(Spotlight downstage right-center on BRAWNE sitting at a writing desk in England. She writes furiously and then pauses. She looks up and then looks center stage, at KEATS. KEATS’ and BRAWNE’s eyes meet.)
And fair and young, my true star incarnate.
She’ll wear a dress of blue. Smiling, she’ll sit
Before yon desk and wrest the rough embrace
Into a winging word, released.
(Cabin door opens. KEATS breaks eye contact with BRAWNE as SEVERN enters onto the deck with an oil lamp and letters. BRAWNE returns to her writing. SEVERN sets down the lamp next to KEATS, gives KEATS the letters. SEVERN and KEATS exchange inaudible words. SEVERN exits through the cabin door, closing the door behind him.)
Here, lamp lit
Reverses dark sunset on a birthday
Ill-conceived. Dear Severn hands me letters
One of which is hers. Ah, perhaps better –
I look upon the seas,
(KEATS looks to BRAWNE as the spotlight on BRAWNE goes dark. BRAWNE exits.)
and you are gone.
Happy, shining gift! I look upon her
(KEATS glances down at a letter.)
and you are there. Passion, soul, all run,
(KEATS struggles to stand up but does. He stares at the spot where BRAWNE was and then looks into the audience.)
But body only stands and waits.
*Your Humble Amateur Playwright’s Note: I have no idea how the director would dramatize this.