The Art & Craft of Playwriting

by Derek M. Kwait
As a playwright, your canvas is the blank stage.

As a playwright, your canvas is the blank stage.

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Many writers find plays to be one of the hardest genres to write. Regardless of how many stunning visuals or special effects are in a play, a playwright must rely on intriguing characters, intelligent dialogue and shocking plot twists to be successful. Playwriting is an art and craft all its own requiring skill, patience, talent and perseverance.

What Playwriting Is

According to writer and playwriting instructor Kathleen George in her book "Playwriting: The First Workshop," writing for the stage is primarily telling "a story in terms of who says what to whom. Dialogue. And the dialogue is the action." A slightly different interpretation is offered by Suzan Zeder in her "Spaces of Creation: The Creative Process of Playwriting." She believes playwriting is being about creating physical and emotional space on stage, "weaving words, actions and ideas into imaginary worlds."

The Playwright's Job

For George, playwrights are "critics and philosophers who examine a society with an eye to what makes current struggles like the struggles that have always faced human beings, as well as what makes them different." Plays can also serve to teach an audience a specific lesson. In her book "The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson," Sandra G. Shannon writes that through his plays, August Wilson advocated "cultural pride, responsible action, and self determination" for blacks.


Before writing a full play, an aspiring playwright should first try writing a successful monologue -- an extended speech by a character. A monologue can be a few paragraphs or even a few pages, but regardless of its length, the purpose is the same. Even when writing a stand-alone monologue as an exercise, its words must still be motivated: a character wants to recreate the past, or announce her love for another or teach another character something. Ultimately, a good monologue must be somehow ironic, with the character revealing as much about herself through what she doesn't say as through what she does.


That words are the the primary element of drama does not mean action is inconsequential. Zeder stresses the importance of balance in determining movement on stage. She writes that, at the beginning of a play, a protagonist's life is in balance, then becomes unbalanced upon the play's inciting incident. By the end of the play, the protagonist finds a new balance. A play's action, as much as its dialogue, must reflect the tension born in living with such imbalance. While this is important for a playwright to have in mind while determining the characters' relationships, George stresses that because most stage action is planned by directors and actors, stage directions in the script should be kept to a minimum; they are usually ignored anyway.


More than the vehicles for your ideas, characters are the body and soul of drama. They need to be fleshed-out, real people. Ideas for characters can come from anywhere, and writing monologues or pantomimes is an excellent way of developing characters' personalities. In addition to these exercises, George advises, the best way to develop a character is to write an imaginary "interview" with her, asking her personal questions about her history, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, health, beliefs, loves, hates, morals, job, education or anything else you can think of, and coming up with what you feel would be her answers.


  • "Playwrting: The First Workshop"; Kathleen George; 2008
  • "Spaces of Creation: The Creative Process of Playwriting"; Suzan Zeder with Jim Hancock; 2005
  • "The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson"; Sandra G. Shannon; 1995

About the Author

Derek M. Kwait has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh and has been writing for most of his life in various capacities. He has worked as a staff writer and videographer for the "Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh" and also has training writing fiction, nonfiction, stage-plays and screenplays.

Photo Credits

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