Eleven Contest-Winning Tips for Young Playwrights

February 12, 2018

Jonathan Dorf, author of such plays as Dear ChuckMe, My Selfie & IRumors of Polar BearsThe Locker Next 2 MineHarry's Hotter at Twilight and many others, as well as the playwriting textbook Young Playwrights 101, tells writers how to improve their chances of submitting more successfully to contests like YouthPLAYS' New Voices One-Act Competition. He is the co-founder of YouthPLAYS.

It's hard to believe that the YouthPLAYS New Voices One-Act Competition for Young Playwrights is now in its eighth year. A lot of plays have come through our virtual doors, and some of them have been pretty wonderful and have gone on to productions all across the country and beyond.

While we have contest guidelines that cover the rules for submitting, one thing we've never really done is offer tips for how to submit more successfully—until now. Some of these are literally about the submission process, some are about what we're looking for, and some are about the content of the play itself. So here they are—eleven ways to improve your play's chances:

1. Follow the guidelines. To the letter. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't be) at how many plays come in missing the required information and text on the title page (e.g. "I attest that I am 19 years of age or younger as of May 1, 2018," contact info, etc.), or missing a Cast of Characters page or page numbering. If you don't include these, you run the risk of being disqualified automatically. But even if we don't do that and take the time to write you and tell you to resubmit, you've already made us grumpy for having to waste time and money (yes, this is a business) asking you to do something you should have done in the first place. You want us to think of you as a writer, and that starts by showing that you know how to read (and are willing to do it).

2. Format your play correctly. Yes, there are a number of formats out there that are acceptable, and while we'd prefer you use ours, we're willing to accept other formats that are similar. What we'd rather not receive is a script that is formatted like a published play (e.g. names of the character speaking on the left), and we definitely don't want to receive a script that shows you don't know the difference between play and screenplay format—especially when we just gave you a formatting sample! And proofread. That means not just running spell-check, but reading through your script carefully.

Proofreading pro tip: give your script to a friend who is good at this sort of thing and who isn't so familiar with the play, because after looking at your own script for weeks or months on end, your mind makes corrections as you read, and you stop seeing your own mistakes.

3. Know the audience you're writing for. YouthPLAYS publishes plays for young actors and audiences. Most of the people who submit to New Voices range in age from 15-19; you're either in high school or recently graduated. While we understand that community standards vary, consider whether your play could be produced at your own high school. If the answer to that is "no," its chances of winning the top prize are low. This doesn't mean that your play can't explore challenging subject matter—past winning plays have explored loss, eating disorders, 9/11, and one play in the absurdist style even had a family remove a daughter's heart—but you have to do it in a way that's appropriate for schools and youth theatres to tackle. In other words, barrages of profanity, for example, aren't going to fly (and, quite frankly, they're rarely necessary anyway).

4. Following from the last tip, it really helps if at least a substantial number of your roles are age-appropriate. As part of its mission, YouthPLAYS advocates for plays in which young performers get to play roles that are a) more like themselves and b) ones in which they would actually be cast in the real world. And while we're not going to award a bad female-heavy play over a good male-heavy play, the reality is that most groups have more females than males, so it's wise to take this into account when possible. Some plays also allow for flexible casting (see plays of mine like Dear Chuck or Me, My Selfie & I, for examples), which can allow groups of varying sizes and gender-breakdowns to be able to perform the work, which is attractive to publishers.

5. Winners tend to be longer than the 10-minute minimum. Yes, your play can be only 10 minutes long, and a number of runners-up and honorable mentions have come from this group, but in the history of the contest, only Rebecca Moretti's Seesaw has won at 10 minutes. Why? Well, there are some great 10-minute plays out there—personally, I love writing them—but the reality is that 10-minute plays have two things working against them when it comes to the contest:

a.  For our winner, we want a play that addresses something substantial, and unless you're really skilled, it's hard to do that successfully in only 10 minutes.

b. A good 10-minute play is typically a slice of a single moment or focused on resolving a single dramatic question. Too many people don't understand this and try to pack too many plot events into 10 minutes, rendering the whole play unfocused and ineffective.

6. Read your play out loud before submitting. Chances are you're at a school, and there are lots of actors around. Lure them with pizza or other favorite foods and get them to read the play for you. Reading a play out loud is crucial, as it helps you hear dialogue that doesn't sound right and identify other moments that don't quite work—and nothing helps you catch and fix typos and other errors (you're less likely to gloss over them if you actually have to speak them) than having a small army combing through your script while reading it aloud.

7. Know the difference between writing a play and a movie. This isn't just about format, though see number 2 about that. As I teach in playwriting workshops, "Plays are written to be produced." That means understanding what works on stage, and if you write (for example) car chases, impossibly quick costume or set changes or elaborate special effects, chances are we're going to think you're trying to write a movie, which isn't a good thing when you're entering a playwriting competition.

8. Understand how to use stage directions. Stage directions are there to provide the time and place at the start of each scene, to tell us what characters do (i.e. action or stage business) or what the audience experiences (e.g. "we hear drumming" or "lightning flashes"). They shouldn't tell us things that an audience would have no way of knowing otherwise (e.g. "Bob feels really sorry."). If Bob feels sorry, he either has to say "I'm sorry" (or words to that effect) or, better yet, take some action that shows he's sorry. Finally, try to avoid lots of actor directions, otherwise known as line readings or parentheticals or "wrylies," in which you tell the actors how to read every line (e.g. "excited," "afraid," "with a tremble in her voice," etc.). Actors and directors resent the heck out of these and tend to ignore them, particularly if they're everywhere, and they identify you as a newbie. Even if you are a newbie, you don't want to look like a newbie.

Dialogue pro tip: The best way to get the actors to say the lines the way you want without having to tell them explicitly is to understand punctuation. Plays and their dialogue are like pieces of music, and every piece of punctuation (e.g. period, comma, em dash, question mark, etc.) has a value when it comes to the rhythm and tone of your play. Use them effectively and you can ditch 99% of your actor directions.

9. Have an answer for the Passover Question (a term I learned from my dramaturg friend Lenora Inez Brown many years ago when we were teaching at the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University together). To put it simply, why is this play happening now? Why couldn't it have happened last week, or in a month from now?

10. Write active characters. Plays are about characters facing conflict, obstacles, problems, struggles and going on journeys...all to obtain something that they need badly. That means your characters need to be active. They need to do things and say things that help further their goals, not sit back and have things happen to them. Plays and the characters in them are always most interesting when the characters actively make choices, and as a result, there are consequences.

11. Don't rip us off at the end. For whatever reason, young (and sometimes not so young) writers often think it's cool to write a "twist" at the end of the play (sometimes called an "O'Henry ending"). The problem is that this usually involves something happening that was never set up and that basically makes the rest of the play—in other words, everything we've been watching up to this moment—pointless. For example, a boy has been working hard all play to gain the trust of his favorite teacher after a cheating incident, and just when he's finally succeeded in redeeming himself, the principal comes on and announces—completely at random—that the teacher has quit to follow her lifelong dream of being a chef. Grr... Instead, remember this phrase: "surprising but inevitable." It's not that a good play can't have an ending we didn't see coming ("surprising"), but if we were to look back at the play, even though they may not have been obvious to us at the time, the clues were there ("inevitable").

I don't guarantee that following all of these tips will help you win New Voices, or any other contest for that matter. But they will help you and your work be perceived as professional, and keep you from stepping on some writing landmines that knock many plays out in the first round. Happy writing!

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