I read a lot of ten-minute plays. Not only do I co-curate BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories, but I run TRADE A PLAY TUESDAY and often participate myself (contrary to some beliefs, I do NOT read every play that comes in, only if I’m trading myself), as well as read for several other festivals and contests. It’s fair to say I read and/or see hundreds of ten-minute plays a year. I’ve also written nearly three dozen that have had productions around the world. As such, and even though there are great books out there on the ten-minute play (Gary Garrison’s A More Perfect Ten, for starters), I’m going to list what I feel (and as always, your mileage may vary) are the most common problems, the ones that generally preclude a play getting chosen for our festival or me recommending a play for another, and the things I find myself commenting on most often when others ask me for feedback. (And as a thorough disclaimer, these are clearly MY opinions only; I have seen any and all of these types of plays chosen and presented in festivals, but, I have to admit, I’m never sure why.)
1) It takes too long to get going. In a ten-minute play, audiences should know or at least suspect what the conflict is by page two. Very often, there is a lot of introductory and lead-up dialogue before the story actually starts on page four or five. This means it’s actually a five-minute play with a bunch of filler up front. Four or five pages in a ten-minute play is too much to waste.
2) The characters are mouthpieces. The play has a message it wants to impart, but rather than putting characters in a dramatic situation to impart it, the characters (usually two) are plopped in some neutral locale, where the intended subject randomly comes up, and they discuss the two sides of the message point by point (or close enough). It doesn’t matter who wins or loses the argument, nobody leaves the argument changed, and the result feels like heavy-handed preaching. It’s conflict without stakes.
3) The play goes nowhere. Writing dialogue can be really fun, especially when the characters take over and say things we never expected them to say. But when they’re done having free rein, it’s important to go back over what they said and make sure there are sound reasons for keeping it. Does the dialogue move the story forward and drive toward the ending? Does it contribute to the theme? Does it reveal their wants? If that information were not in the play, would it make a difference? Despite clever dialogue, do the characters end in the same place they began? Even ten-minute plays should show a journey for someone. (Facebook commenter Tom Rushen adds that this is often a problem when the “play” is an excerpt from a larger piece, and has no impact out of context.)
4) The play is much longer than ten minutes. Dense dialogue means the play is going to be more than a minute a page. Don’t guess; read it out loud. Not all festivals are super strict about length, but if they’re asking for ten minutes, better safe than sorry.
5) The play is an elaborate set-up for the punchline. Some ten-minute plays read as though the ending was thought of first, and the entire play was written to support that punchline. This isn’t to say the ending is bad, just that it needs a solid structure to support and make it earned and satisfying. Very often, with plays like this, the ending is telegraphed because it seems as if it’s the only point to the play. Alternatively,
6) The play is a one-trick pony. There’s a device, say a daughter is coming out as straight to her lesbian parents, and they are disappointed. Instead of focusing on the discourse that might come out of that, and the acceptance journey or something else dramatic, the play is focused on all the reversals that come out of that reveal, at the expense of the characters, the plot, and the play itself. Even if it’s funny, the joke is usually exhausted long before the ten minutes is up, which is why sketches tend toward brevity and often peter out without resolving the conflict in any meaningful way.
7) The play tries to do too much. One of the beautiful things about writing ten-minute plays is that there is only room for one storyline. That doesn’t mean there can’t be subtlety and beautiful layers to that story, but in trying to incorporate too many themes, the ten-minute play becomes unfocused and confusing. With a solid throughline, supporting ideas may manifest, but there isn’t room for them to be a story unto themselves.
8) There’s not an original idea in it. Some plays are perfectly fine as written, but the whole thing just feels too familiar, the characters too cliche. I’d offer examples but I don’t want to call out something specific that somebody might take personally. A short time ago, I posted on Official Playwrights of Facebook asking if ten-minute plays time out, i.e. do they become less appealing for some reason? I think this may actually be part of it. When I wrote a short play about people being obsessed with technology, it got produced about 15 times in one year; nobody chooses it now. I’m guessing there are how a ton of those out there; maybe you’ve written one yourself. So if something “new” like that can get overdone, imagine how many times readers see things about ordinary situations. If you’re choosing to write about something ordinary, ask yourself “What is going to make this one different from all the others like it?”