A Deep Dive into Short Forms: Playwriting

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

My next few articles will act as a deep dive into specific short form works. We’ll examine a piece from each short form and look into its inner workings to find the path to success in our own short form pieces. I confess that I don’t regularly read plays. I’m not a theater maven. And I haven’t a clue what play is the hottest ticket on Broadway right now. However, I have experienced the magic of theater, both as an audience member and as a performer. In writing this series, I realized that I couldn’t ignore playwriting and playwrights.

A certain mystique surrounds this powerful short form genre. Plays, playwriting and the theater are thought of as highbrow. They suffer from the misperception, along with poetry, that a “regular” person may not be able to understand the art form.

Hamilton. Cats. Raisin in the Sun. Les Miserables. Fences. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. 

All titles recognizable to the general public. They are a small grouping of plays that transcend their theatrical beginnings to appeal to a larger, wider audience. 

The Structure of Playwriting

Plays and their varied iterations share much with poetry, its short form kissing cousin. Both make excellent use of an economy of words. A play’s power resides in dialogue and character interaction. A mix of dialogue, stripped down description, and stage direction pushes the audience’s own imagination to fill in what’s not laid out explicitly.  

Plays generally fall into one of four main types – drama, comedy, historical, and musical – but can be constructed in endless variations. They generally are formatted as 10-minute, one-act, full-length or evening-length, and musicals. An oft-repeated caveat for playwrights is one page equals about one minute of stage time. However, script length more accurately reflects the complexity and quantity of the character’s lines, not necessarily the stage time. 

With that said though, a script for a 10-minute play ranges 10 -15 pages. Understandably, script length grows as the play format broadens. One-act plays run 45 – 60 pages, 30 – 60 minutes . Full-length or evening-length plays and musicals run 60 – 100 pages, 90 minutes to two hours.

Plays are divided into three acts. Act I introduces characters, setting, and background information. Act II reveals the play’s central complication(s) and makes up the longest portion of a play. In the last act, Act III the play’s events come to some sort of resolution. 

One-act plays and 10-minute plays are exceptions to the standard three-act play structure. 

Master Class in Playwriting: ‘Night, Mother

‘Night, Mother, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marsha Norman, is a superb example of a one-act play. The play revolves around two characters, Jessie Cates and Thelma Cates. This daughter-mother duo, respectively, live together in Thelma’s house. Jessie, divorced, is unhappy in her life. She sees no real future for herself, a homebound epileptic, whose son is a thief and a drug addict.  

Norman introduces the central conflict early, within the first six pages, and deftly keeps a current of tension throughout. The curtains open with Thelma Cates on stage eating a last snowball cupcake. She calls her daughter Jessie, who is offstage, to add cupcakes to the grocery list. “We got any old towels?” is Jessie’s response as she joins her mother. Jessie is intent on searching for towels and plastic sheeting. Her responses to her mother’s chatter are distracted but clearly shows their usual Saturday night routine.

Let’s Read: 

JESSIE.  (Continues to search the kitchen cabinets, finding two or three more towels to add to her stack.) It’s not for my hair, Mama. What about some old pillows anywhere or a foam cushion out of a yard chair would be real good.

MAMA. You haven’t forgot what night it is, have you? (Holding up her fingernails.) They’re all chipped, see? I’ve been waiting all week, Jess. It’s Saturday night, sugar.

JESSIE.  I know. I got it on the schedule.

MAMA.  (Crossing to the living room.) You want me to wash ‘em now or are you making your mess first? (Looking at the snowball.) We’re out of these. Did I say that already?

JESSIE.  There’s more coming tomorrow. I ordered you a whole case.

MAMA.  (Checking the TV Guide.) A whole case will go stale, Jessie.

JESSIE.  They can go in the freezer til you’re ready for them. Where’s Daddy’s gun?  

Just a page or so later, Jessie answers Thelma’s questions about why she needs the gun. She matter-of-factly tells Thelma that she plans to kill herself. Jessie explains why she’s telling Thelma: “How would you know if I didn’t say it? You want it to be a surprise? You’re lying there in your bed or maybe you’re just brushing your teeth and you hear this…noise down the hall?”

We easily step into the building tension between Jessie and her mother. Throughout the action, Norman uses running clocks onstage as a countdown of the 90 minutes between the curtain rise and Jessie’s final “‘Night, Mother” before closing her bedroom door. 

Inexorably in those 90 minutes, we uncover the Cates’ personal and familial disappointments. Jessie needs this last night to be between the two of them: “This is private. Dawson (Jessie’s brother) is not invited. I don’t want anybody else over here. Just you and me.” 

There is much for the two of them to discuss, to figure out, and to come to a startlingly imperfect peace about by the play’s end. Norman more than delivers the realistic dialogue and stripped down stage direction plays require to engage the audience’s imagination. 

Like poetry, a play’s efficacy relies solely on its language. Each word and word pairing bear the load of carrying action, tension, and description as well as the characters’ personalities. 

Behind the Scenes

Your first step to keeping current in the world of theater should be visiting the official Tony Awards website, which annually lists nominees and winners of “Best Play”. Another way to learn about playwriting is to explore your local theater. Volunteer behind the scenes. Tryout for a role. Being involved will help you internalize the rhythms of theater and playwriting. And as with all writing, a little eavesdropping as you go about your day is indispensable in creating realistic characters and believable dialogue.

If playwriting is new to you, take a look at the following plays, books, and websites to learn about the theater world, playwriting technique and craft:

  • Playbill – Aimed at “Broadway and Off-Broadway theatregoers, providing complete cast and production credits for each show, as well as features articles and columns by and about theatre personalities, entertainment, travel, fashion, and dining.”
  • Samuel FrenchPreeminent publisher of American and British plays and playwrights 
  • Tony Awards – Annual award recognizing excellence in Broadway productions and performances, as well as for regional theatre,
  • Writer’s Digest Screenwriter’s and Playwright’s Market – Chuck Sambuchino (While Writer’s Digest ceased publishing this series in 2011, there is still viable information such as script formatting and terminology for writers exploring playwriting and screenwriting.
  •  Variety – A “trusted source of entertainment business news.”

Don’t expect a quick turnaround in writing a play or any short form for that matter.  Short forms require a level of mastery from you that each work in turn will demand anew. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda,  creator of Broadway masterworks In the Heights and Hamilton,  confessed: “It took me seven years to write [Hamilton]. This is no overnight success — took me a year to write the second song in the show ‘my shot.’”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your hand at playwriting. As a writer, you should always be open to new influences, forms, and language. Write and who knows you might write your own Hamilton. Or, like Shakespeare, have your words transcend the stage to become everyday language as good luck would have it.

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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