THE BEST PLAYWRITING ADVICE EVER

March 21st, 2016 donnahoke

 

It started with my simple post on the Official Playwrights of Facebook: What is the single best piece of piece of playwriting advice you’ve ever received distilled to one line–talking about craft only? I have two, but the best one is probably: Questions are the weakest form of dialogue.

 

What followed was an amazing compendium of craft gems; everybody who posted learned something new—and all agreed it was too good not to share. I had to wait for the thread to calm down, but here are the results in a somewhat more coherent, though not original, order:

 

***GETTING STARTED***

 

Find an unusual setting for your play.__Chip Bolcik

 

Don’t set your play on the wings of a 747.__Angela Osborne

 

Do not start writing without a plan.__Joe O’Connor

 

Pinter. A character, a place, a line of dialogue. You’re off.__Don Webb

 

You need to know three things: what you want, what the characters want, and what the characters actually do about it, before you ever write a line.__Neal Lewis

 

Have a good story to tell before you create voices to tell it.__R L Pete Housman  

 

I think it was Dan O’Brien who told me, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.”__Kathy Rucker

 

Write what you can imagine.__Sheila Rinear

 

Start in the middle.__Laura Pittenger

 

Start as close to the end of the story as possible and develop conflict.__David W. Christner

 

Come into the scene at the last possible moment.__Maureen Bogues

 

Start as late as you can in the action, so the audience is immediately engaged and trying to get up to speed.__Tim Glinski

 

Enter late, get out fast.__Rashman N. Kalsie

 

Full length, by the end of page two we should know what the play is about: ten minute play, by the end of page one.__Ron Pullins

 

Hook the audience in the first 10 minutes.__Roy O’Neil

 

Marsha Norman says: you don’t owe the audience the play they want, but you do owe them the play you promise them in the first 10 minutes.__Hal Corley

 

Every time you write a new play, pretend it’s the first play ever written. What does it want to be? Create the form anew each time. (Albee)__Lauren Feldman

 

***CONTENT***

 

“Content dictates form, less is more and God Is in the details, all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” – Sondheim__Rex McGregor 

 

Every play should make history.__Michael Fanelli

 

Always tell the truth and then lie about it.__Tim J. Brennan

 

Anger has never made a good play. Anger can instruct love — Athol Fugard, paraphrased__Steven John Bosch 

 

The only thing worth writing about is sex./Comedy comes from character./Begin with a premise./What does the audience want next? / Find the thing you hate in a story and be motivated by it.__Michael Penny

 

Tension__Scott Tobin

 

Where/what is the danger?__Andrew R. Heinze

 

Why today?__Alyson Mead

 

Why is this night different than every other night?__Chris White

 

Consequences, consequences, consequences__Gabrielle Sinclair

 

You can make a good play out of right vs. wrong. But you make a great play out of right vs. right.__Rand Higbee

 

Write what you’re afraid to write about.__Glenn Alterman

 

Write the play you would want to see.__Seth Christenfeld 

 

“Write your play.”__Robert Emmet Lunney

 

 

***DIALOGUE***

 

What does the first line of your play say about your play?__Donna Hoke

 

Know what you want to say– and then don’t say it.__Paul Surace

 

If someone asks a question, don’t answer it for a while or ever.__Andrea Lepcio

 

Questions are fine. Direct answers to questions asked are deadly.__Adam Szymkowicz 

 

Never give anybody anything the first time they ask. Onstage, that is.__Mary Sue Price

 

Not yet. (regarding when information should be revealed in the play.)__Tira Palmquist

 

Make them laugh, make them cry, but most of all make them wait. Charles Dickens__L.A. Giordano 

 

Exposition is ammunition; only fire it off when you need to do so.__Jeff Stolzer

 

Let the characters talk; you edit.__Mark Hein

 

If you’re finding what your characters are saying is boring, keep writing and trust them; eventually, they will say something interesting again, and you can cut out the boring parts later.__David Hilder

 

Show, don’t tell.__Neil Radtke, Brad Sytsma 

 

Show, don’t tell and sometimes an argument about ketchup isn’t about the ketchup (Francesca)__Tanise Robnett

 

Do not have your characters bicker ad nauseum. Every line should move the story along.__Elaine Alexander

 

 

Sometimes dialogue is not spoken. -Julie Jensen, Brief and Brilliant__Teri Foltz 

 

Great dialogue is great action — often even transcending.__Fred Dunham

 

 

***WRITING***

 

Writing is easy – you sit at a typewriter and bleed. (Hemingway)__Jack Peterson

 

Write every day, don’t miss a date because every day you miss, it takes you that long to regain your momentum: Stephen King, On Writing__April Yvette Thompson

 

If you book the theater, the play will write itself.__Sarah Jarmon

 

Write. It doesn’t cost anything.__Alexandra Cremer 

 

Rub the pencil on the paper until the play appears!__Paul Barile

 

Just write.__Val Valdez

 

Write backwards.__Audrey Cefaly

 

Keep writing.__Chuck O’Connor

 

 

The play is writing/revealing itself to you, not the other way around.__Jason Chimonides

 

Keep writing and the story will appear to you. Then you can go back and craft your play.__Marguerite Scott

 

Taken from Twitter and on a Sticky on my computer for a while: “Two friends burying a body in silence is much more compelling than two friends talking about that time they buried that guy.”__Stephen Spotswood

 

Make it active.__D Lee Miller

 

Start where the action starts.__Cathy Muckian Lanski

 

Put conflict on every page.__Bill McCann

 

Don’t let a page or two go by without a change in beat and/or a new action.__John Servilio

 

No matter how small the beat, what just changed?__David Valdes Greenwood 

 

“Write toward danger,” a playwriting teacher quoting Romulus Linney__Helene Montagna

 

If there’s a gun on the wall it better go off by the end of act one.__Lila Louise Nawrocki

 

Keep it in the present tense.__Jeffrey Sweet

 

Keep it in the present tense or in the future tense!__Tom Cavanaugh

 

Learn how to hold the situation.__Craig Thornton

 

Every scene should be a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation: Mike Nichols__ EM Lewis

 

If you are writing a comedy, keep your funniest scene for the last act.__Bruno Lacroix

 

If there’s a paper shredder onstage, someone’s necktie has to get caught in it.__Judith Pratt

 

Write page one, then turn it over and write page two, then page three and so on…. don’t look back to rewrite until you have an entire first draft.__Jason Odell Williams

 

Stop your writing session just at the point where you know what to say next and you’re eager to tell it. Then you’ll be able to pick it up the next day and roll. That or you won’t be able to sleep.__Steve Patterson

 

When you get stuck, stop writing because the next thing you write will be a lie and you must write truth. (John Kani told me that)__France-Luce Benson

 

Similarly, I’ve heard that if you’re stuck, it’s because somewhere along the way you told a lie. You have to find the lie and tell the truth in its place, and then you’ll be able to move forward.__Lauren Feldman

 

“Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.” — The Mad Hatter__Bruce Bonafede 

 

Let a play be as long as it’s meant to be, don’t telescope it into a perceived requirement.__Richard Ballon

 

Nothing is good or bad until you write it. Never be afraid to write anything.__Ted Gettinger 

 

“Don’t stop.”  That was Jim Lehrer. Of the PBS News Hour. He said he’d dabbled in playwriting once but didn’t stick with it.__Bridgette Dutta Portman  

 

Let the first draft suck.__Diane Burbano

 

 Bill Mastrosimone told me once “Keep digging until you hit the bottom.”__David Lee White

 

Michael McKeever told me the first draft doesn’t have to be good, just written.__Donna Hoke

 

 

 

Finish it.__Nancy Bell

 

Get to the end. (Marsha Norman)__Steve Harper

 

Move on to the next play.__Mark Cornell

 

 

***REWRITING***

 

 

First draft is your gut, second draft is your brain, everything after is your heart.__Stuart  Hoffman

 

The first draft is from your heart; the second draft is from your head.__Martin Casella

 

Don’t ever invite the “editor” in until the “writer” is finished.__Terri Foltz

 

Writing is rewriting.__Jenny Lane

 

Write crap. Then revise the hell out of it.__Patti Cassidy 

 

Cut the fluff!__Paris Creighton III

 

Every line in a play needs to add to a character, add to the plot, or be really really funny.__Jeremy Gable

 

The utmost complexity of thought with the utmost simplicity of language.__Martin Heavisides 

 

You’re making a blueprint from which a team of creative people will build—never explain—if it reads easily, it’s probably overwritten.__Deborah Magid 

 

 

Tighter is better; you must never let your audience get in front of you.__Mark Scharf

 

Cut extraneous words; be merciless.__Barbara Trainin Blank

 

Every word costs 5 cents.__Jeffrey Lentz

 

I never met a script I couldn’t cut 10% out of.__Scott Dixon

 

If a word or line doesn’t serve to further the action or story, cut it.__Jan Maher

 

More needs to happen in less time.__Scott Sickles

 

Less is more__Jeff Curtis, Chima Clarke

 

Steven Dietz “Be a slave to your story” – you’ll willingly cut all the extraneous, self indulgent stuff that your ego inserts. __Dave Tucker

 

Joss Whedon says: If your story isn’t working, cut your favorite part. Then your story will work.__Liz Thaler

 

[Your favorite part] is almost always the thing that got you writing the story in the first place. One writer I know referred to it as the booster rocket: it got the story into orbit, then needed to be jettisoned.__Scott Sickles

 

Kill your darlings.__Pete Risenberg

 

Murder your children.__Dolores Sendler

 

Run toward the questions the audience has. If the audience has a question about a character, an action,  don’t gloss over it; address it so the audience won’t get hung up on the small details.)__Darci Caitlin Faye

 

If you have a scene that isn’t working then you should ask yourself three questions, “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they get it or don’t? And why now?”__Chuck O’Connor

 

Read one character’s lines all the way through when you’re editing – and end on an action.__Judith Robinson

 

Don’t listen to anybody.__Gina Dilorio

 

You don’t have to take, or agree with, every note.__Sean Abley

 

Take what you like and leave the rest.__Chuck O’Connor

 

Proofread your work before pressing ‘post’.__Jim Wyatt

 

 

***CHARACTERS***

 

Character is story and story is character.__Chuck O’Connor 

 

Listen to your characters. They will tell you what they believe to be true.__Micah Rose

 

Your characters are real people, not imagination, and this is their story, not yours.__Max Donohue Barr

 

 

Use everything to reveal your characters and their needs– their clothes, their speech patterns, their ways of relating to their space, even if your characters don’t believe it.__Louise Wigglesworth

 

Audiences care more about why someone does something than the actual behavior itself.__Greg Vovos 

 

Every character should want something.__Jennifer O’Grady

 

Everybody in the scene wants something.__Michael Aman

 

What a character wants and what a character needs are virtually never the same thing.__Devin Gaither

 

Put your characters in danger.__Kate Danley

 

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader* may see what they are made of.”–Kurt Vonnegut__Vishesh Abeyratne

 

Give your characters secrets.__Staci Swedeen

 

“You gotta fuck ’em up”__Jason Lasky

 

Listen to their silence.__Sheila Rinear

 

Write characters that actors would kill to play.__Rosemary McLaughlin  

 

Give the actors something fun to do.__Mark Harvey Levine

 

If a character should cry but doesn’t, sometimes the audience will for them. __Mark Scharf  

 

Never write a character who is dumber than you.__John Steele Jr.

 

 

***GENERAL***

 

For scripts aimed at the high school market, always make sure the cast can be 2-1 female.__Dwayne Yancey

 

What you see as bad you must also see as good.__Larry Raiken

 

A play should be able to be produced with two chairs and a hanging light bulb, and still make sense. Edward Albee__Leighza Walker

 

No matter how good the reviews are… If they don’t want to come they won’t come… i.e. It’s the idea of the story that counts most.__ David Elendune

 

Don’t be sentimental about your work.__Kirk Sheppard

 

Don’t be precious.__Amanda Zeitler

 

Love scenes are murders; murders are love scenes.__Aleks Merilo

 

Love is in the details.__Josh A. Campbell

 

Learn how to do everything in theatre. It will keep you from expecting the director and actors to fix your weak spots.__George Sapio

 

Learn the rules so you know how to break them.__Michael Tooher

 

 

And then from my favorite theatre professor, for every rule in art, there is someone who has successfully broken it.__John Steele, Jr.

 

Get angry.__Rosa Nagle

 

Don’t be afraid to make them feel.__Kristen Horner Da Silva 

 

Finish a play in 1.5-2 years. After that, she says, you’re no longer the same person you were when you started writing it (Marsha Norman).__Lauren Feldman

 

Don’t talk too much about what you are writing until you’re ready to share it.__Chuck O’Connor

 

Don’t show your work to anyone until it’s finished. Then only to someone who can progress it in some way.__Don Webb

 

Follow every piece of advice on this thread … except when you don’t want to.__Frank Tangredi

 

Please follow me on Twitter @donnahoke or like me on Facebook at Donna Hoke, Playwright.

Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.

To read entries in Playwrights Living Outside New York series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.

Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its third year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), FLOWERS IN THE DESERT (AACT top 20 finalist), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney National Playwriting Contest, Naatak National Playwriting Contest, and the 2015 Great Gay Play and Musical Contest), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays, top ten Woodward/Newman finalist); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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3 Comments on “THE BEST PLAYWRITING ADVICE EVER”

  1. 1 Richard Slota said at 7:48 pm on March 21st, 2016:

    I heard this but forgot the source:

    There are 3 rules for writing a play. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.

  2. 2 Scott said at 3:00 pm on March 29th, 2016:

    Donna:thanks. Lots of useful hints. :)
    SC

  3. 3 Joe Blake said at 10:32 pm on April 2nd, 2016:

    My thought came to me while dragging my wet T-shirts out of the washing machine. A play is like a spin drier on a washing machine. If you put too much in it will struggle to get anywhere, if you don’t put enough in, it’ll be a waste of energy. If you get just the right amount, you still have to balance it all to make it spin smoothly. Joe


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