Jonathan Dorf is the founder of YouthPLAYS, and the author of such plays as Dear Chuck (one-act and full-length), Rumors of Polar Bears, The Locker Next 2 Mine and Harry's Hotter at Twilight. He works extensively with playwrights of all ages and is available worldwide as a guest artist.
I just got back from an intense but exhilarating three days at a high school theatre festival, where I had the privilege of working with an exciting, talented group of young writers who are part of our next generation of playwrights. Fresh from that experience, and with the deadline for the New Voices One-Act Play Competition for Young Playwrights fast approaching, it seemed like a great time to offer up a few practical tips for young writers. There are many, but let's start with five. They're not necessarily in order of importance—each one is important in its own right.
Tip #1: Format it right, and proofread. You're already thinking, "Isn't it about being creative? What about my art?" The reality is that before scripts are performed or published, they're evaluated by readers—readers who may not have had their morning cup of coffee. Typos and faulty formatting pull readers out of the script and distract them from your art. For format, I recommend using Dramatists Guild Modern format (at least if you're in the US), which you can find here:
For proofreading, read it for typos, then read it again. And then again. And then… (You get the idea.) Switching with a friend also really helps, because at a certain point we see something so many times that if it's wrong, our minds automatically make the correction. And then see #2.
Tip #2: Hear it out loud. Before I submit anything, I always get a group of actors together to read the play. Why? First, it's often easier to catch typos when you try to read words out loud—and it doesn't hurt that you have a posse of people looking at the script. Second, not everything that sounds great in your head works when someone says it out loud, and your actors will help you figure that out. When I have readings, not only am I listening for moments or lines that don't quite work or that weren't clear, but I'll also specifically ask my actors, "Was there any dialogue that was difficult to say?" Speaking of dialogue…
Tip #3. Punctuation is really, really important. Punctuation is a big part of how you communicate your intentions to the director and the actors, so it's crucial that you punctuate correctly. I'm not talking about punctuating correctly in the grammar sense—it's not important that you get a gold star from your English teacher. Instead, think of your play as a piece of music, and every piece of punctuation you choose helps create the rhythm. A period, for example, signals a rest. So might a question mark, but a sentence with one of these will sound very different from one that ends with a period. Or what about a sentence that seems like a question but ends with a period? Your playwright's toolkit includes commas, em dashes, exclamation points, ellipses, to name just a few, and how you use these tools will dictate the rhythm of your play.
Tip #4. Do your homework. You can write a play about anything, regardless of whether you've personally experienced it. At the festival, I read plays about a long-distance relationship at the start of the Holocaust, an affair involving Harry Houdini and the widow of Jack London, and a young African boy kept in a cage and treated like a zoo attraction, to name just a few. None of the authors had lived the lives about which they were writing, but they took the time to learn about them. So whether you want to write about going to the moon, a child beauty queen or the world of professional baseball, it's up to you to do your homework. Read books and articles by experts or people with first-hand information, watch documentaries, interview people. Breathe it all in and exhale what you need into your characters and their world.
Tip #5. Plays are written to be produced. So always ask yourself, "How will this work on stage?" Whether it's making sure that set changes can be accomplished easily without lengthy, complicated transitions or that a character doesn't need to be in pajamas and then in a three-piece suit five seconds later, it's your job to keep these practical details in the back of your mind when writing. Also, things like onstage violence are really hard to do well (and often result in unwanted laughter when they don't look realistic)—some schools won't even let you use a prop gun—as can be certain special effects. When you do the reading described in Tip #2, or if you can give a copy of the script to the person who directs plays at your school (or any other director you might know), it would be a great idea to invite feedback on any challenges they anticipate with staging your script.
There is so much more to talk about when it comes to playwriting, but for now it's time to go. Keep your eyes peeled for future installments, and happy writing!