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Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 17, 2015 10:43 am

I was asked for a lesson on writing plays, skits, and screenplays, and I’m happy to do so—with the caveat that it’s not something I’ve done often (occasionally for the Writing Challenge—more on that below). For this lesson, I’ll use the word plays to indicate any kind of writing meant to be performed by actors.

Plays are unique in that they can be experienced in two ways—they can be read, or they can be seen as a performance. The focus of this lesson will be on writing plays to be read, and the last part of the lesson will focus specifically on writing plays for the Writing Challenge.

I know from teaching high school English for thirty years that plays are formatted differently from other prose forms. Each bit of dialogue, for example, is preceded by the name of the name of the speaker. There are directions to the actors, indicating how they should speak or move, and there are directions to people who run the curtains and the lights. I wanted to make sure that I gave correct advice about this formatting, so I asked two family members who have written professional screenplays. They gave me these links with specific directions for how to format screenplays:

How to Write a Screenplay: Script Example and Screenwriting Tips

Screenwriting Resources

If you’re interested in submitting a script for publication or into a contest, the above resources should be very helpful for you.

However, I suspect that most of you who are reading this lesson are interested in writing plays either for the Writing Challenge or perhaps for performance in a church or school setting. So for the remainder of this lesson, that’s where my focus will be.

1. Although you don’t have to format your plays exactly as laid out in the first link above, you really should help your readers by differentiating characters’ names, stage directions, and dialogue. One easy way to do this is to use all caps for characters’ names, italics for stage directions, and regular font for dialogue. You can see an example of this formatting in a challenge entry here.

2. Your stage directions—the bits that tell the actors where to go or how to speak their lines, or that describe the characters for the readers—should not be thought of as disposable words. They should be interesting, too. When I was teaching 10th grade, the students read Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which is notable for its exquisite stage directions. Here’s an example:

[Amanda] wears a girlish frock of yellowed voile with a blue silk sash. She carries a bunch of jonquils--the legend of her youth is nearly revived.

And elsewhere, Amanda is described as sitting …gracefully and demurely as if she were settling into a swing on a Mississippi veranda.

I’m sure you get the idea—you want those directions to be as compelling for the reader as the dialogue is. In the Writing Challenge, where you’re limited to 750 words, you really don’t have the luxury of writing like Tennessee Williams—but do try to provide stage directions that are well-chosen ‘salsa’ words.

3. Dialogue is the most important aspect of most plays. It will help your readers (or your audience) to get to know your characters, and it is pretty much the only vehicle for propelling the story. Be sure that your dialogue is true to each character’s stated traits: age, gender, geographical setting, job, educational background and the like. For example, don’t have a child speak with words not matched to her age and don’t have a street kid speak with standard English.

Each character’s dialogue should move the story along, since you do not have narrative to do so. But don’t make the mistake of having the characters explain each action or their motivations. Write their dialogue, in conjunction with the stage directions, in such a way that the reader/audience can figure it out.

Wrong:

BEN: Where are you going?

JAN: I’m so depressed. I’m going out to get some Twinkies. When I’m depressed, I just want to eat.

Right:

(Jan sighs and puts her head in her hands for a few moments, then picks up her keys.)

BEN: Where are you going?

JAN: (she looks away from him for a beat. Then, quietly…) I’m getting Twinkies. A whole box of them.

4. If you’re brainstorming the week’s topic and the story that’s percolating seems to be dialogue-heavy with just two or three characters, consider writing it as a play. Occasionally we get entries that consist solely of conversation between two characters (sometimes tagged, sometimes not), but unless that’s done exceedingly well, it’s difficult to read, and the overabundance of quotation marks is a visual distraction. Writing it as a play allows for the dialogue to be broken up by stage directions.

5. I asked Lisa Mikitarian, a former FaithWriter who has written both screenplays and plays for performance in local theaters, for her best tips:

a. Imagine the scenes as you are writing them. Are they interesting visually? Some of the best drama, conflict, and comedy come from gestures and movement--not words at all.

b. Show, don't tell is important in writing, but critical in plays. Avoid long monologues when possible. The audience has an easier time keeping interest when their lines are more concise and are shared among other actors.

c. Recurring actions/ bits can be very effective in keeping an audience engaged.

d. In a play, you have a short amount of time to make the audience care about the characters--choose their actions and dialogue wisely (don't waste words).

e. Have distinct characters so the audience doesn't get confused (unless that's the point).

You can read Lisa’s current writing on her blog, here.

I’ll close with links to a few of my Writing Challenge plays—again, not because they’re anything special, but because I know where to find them.

Alas, Poor Yorrick is formatted slightly differently from my first link, but it’s another example of how plays might look in the Writing Challenge.

Please—Read Cousin George’s Story is just plain weird. I have no idea what got into me that week.

It’s Still Wrapped and Alone in the Spotlight consist entirely of stage directions—no dialogue.

When I was judging the Challenge, there were very, very few plays submitted, and it was a pleasant change of pace to read them. I strongly recommend that you try your hand at writing a play—it will stretch you as a writer, and your entry will definitely stand out from the crowd.

HOMEWORK:

Write a little snippet, similar to the “Twinkie” snippet above, that contains both stage directions and dialogue. No more than 100 words, please, and choose one of these emotions to convey:

Annoyance
Surprise
Joy
Disappointment

If you have submitted a play for the challenge, feel free to link to it. If you do so, please tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Questions or comments about this lesson? Ideas for future lessons? I’d love to hear them.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby KatKane » Sat Jan 17, 2015 1:46 pm

I wrote a play for the biography challenge. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=50033

Given that it was the last challenge before Christmas, I picked St Francis of Assisi. I have always admired him, not least for his innovative ways of communicating the Gospel. This included recreating the nativity scene and writing the first Christmas carol, I believe. The reasons why I wrote his biography as a play (or, perhaps, a musical, as it is all sung to the tunes of carols) need no further explanation.

I found this piece was without doubt the hardest I've ever written. I had to think 3D in a way completely different to when I'm writing stories. I don't know if I pulled it off or not. It was very much a case of 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration. What you said above about conveying emotion I found especially true. In my play, two instances where I used stage directions and body language to convey emotions were St Francis' reaction to the stable in Bethlehem and his reaction to the materialism going on. Both of these were non-verbal.

Thanks for this lesson. I will be reading the links as I have the job of writing a Christmas play for the children/youth, complete with songs. I'm open to - and grateful for - any red ink for the play I've linked. :thankssign
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 17, 2015 3:16 pm

Kat, I just read your biography piece, and there's nothing I didn't love about it. I particularly loved that you used the tunes of some of the lesser-known carols (a particular fondness of mine), and you showed tremendous creativity and humor. Had I been judging, this would have received very, very high marks.

The only issue I might have is a practical one--there are several scene changes, and the bits of song themselves would not take long at all to sing. I know that you were constrained by word count in the Writing Challenge, but if this were actually to be performed, you'd have to expand each song (or add some dialogue to supplement it) to give time for scene changes.

It's exceedingly clever, Kat. I suspect that your Christmas play will be excellent if it's anything like this.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby GeraldShuler » Sat Jan 17, 2015 10:46 pm

I'm so glad you did this lesson. Writing skits and plays is something I have always wanted to do correctly but have never been taught the proper way. One skit I wrote is being made into a movie but I think it was just the idea they liked because they asked my permission to have it completely rewritten by real writers. The movie comes out this month or next. I would love it if you could comment on what I could have done to make the skit more acceptable for use, other than making it longer for a movie. I'm just wondering why they didn't consider me for the rewrite. The skit is Things That Didn't. It is at http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... ?id=126208. My real question is "What could I have done to appear more professional in the way the skit is written :?: ?"

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby Allison » Sat Jan 17, 2015 11:47 pm

Okay. Here's my mini one, coming in at 99 words.

(DARCY walks into her bedroom. Her make-up is strewn across her vanity.)

DARCY: Katie! Get in here right now!

(KATIE skips in, lipstick and other make-up all over her face.)

KAITE: Hi, Sis! Look at me. I'm all growed up, just like you.

(DARCY takes deep breaths, biting her lip and trying to calm herself.)

DARCY: MOM!

(MOM enters, sees KATIE, and tries to suppress a giggle.)

MOM: What 's wrong, Darcy?

DARCY: Katie ruined all my make-up. Ruined it.

(KATIE twiddles her thumbs while looking up and all around... anywhere but at MOM or DARCY.)

KATIE: Wasn't me.



I've actually done skits quite a bit, both for the challenge and for my church.


This one is still one of my favorites. Talking reference books. (Sorry, Jan. I know you dislike inanimate object POVs. :) )
Reference Point

This one I didn't think would do well at all, but ended up getting an EC.
Never Even Happened

And here's one I did for church for a women's missions luncheon. This one has recurring character, Eli, the roaming Biblical reporter.
Service With a Smile

Recently, I wrote a short skit that was used as a sermon illustration during the Sunday morning service. (Not the one above) My pastor didn't mention who wrote it, before or after. It was SO much fun for me sitting there watching/listening to everyone's reactions when they had no idea the author was among them. :D My parents also attend the church, and I actually didn't even tell them it was mine until after.
Last edited by Allison on Sun Jan 18, 2015 5:18 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby glorybee » Sun Jan 18, 2015 2:07 pm

JayDavidKing wrote:I'm so glad you did this lesson. Writing skits and plays is something I have always wanted to do correctly but have never been taught the proper way. One skit I wrote is being made into a movie but I think it was just the idea they liked because they asked my permission to have it completely rewritten by real writers. The movie comes out this month or next. I would love it if you could comment on what I could have done to make the skit more acceptable for use, other than making it longer for a movie. I'm just wondering why they didn't consider me for the rewrite. The skit is Things That Didn't. It is at http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... ?id=126208. My real question is "What could I have done to appear more professional in the way the skit is written :?: ?"


Gerald, that's hard to answer, as I'm not sure what the producers were looking for. (By the way--really exciting that your idea is being filmed. Will we be able to see it? Where?)

After reading it, I have a few thoughts--it could be that you went a bit overboard with excessive punctuation (multiple question marks and exclamation points in a row, for example, and exclamation points in nearly every dialogue). There are also several words in all caps to indicate emotion, but that's typically not necessary--your words and the actor's delivery should be sufficient to indicate strong emotion. Similarly, much of Susan's dialogue seems over the top--perhaps they were looking for something more subtle.

At any rate, it's a clever skit, and I'm hoping we'll be able to see it some day.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby glorybee » Sun Jan 18, 2015 2:10 pm

Allison wrote:Okay. Here's my mini one, coming in at 99 words.

(DARCY walks into her bedroom. Her make-up is strewn across her vanity.)[i]

DARCY: Katie! Get in here right now!

[i](KATIE skips in, lipstick and other make-up all over her face.)


KAITE: Hi, Sis! Look at me. I'm all growed up, just like you.

(DARCY takes deep breaths, biting her lip and trying to clam herself.)

DARCY: MOM!

(MOM enters, sees KATIE, and tries to suppress a giggle.)

MOM: What 's wrong, DARCY?

DARCY: Katie ruined all my make-up. Ruined it.

(KATIE twiddles her thumbs while looking up and all around... anywhere but at MOM or DARCY.)

KATIE: Wasn't me.



Allison, I love this, especially the "Wasn't me" at the end. You've done a great job of giving Katie an authentic voice. (I'm wondering, though, how Darcy is going to "clam" herself. :lol: )

I should have asked you if you have any tips for playwriters or skit writers for the challenge (or for performance). Got anything that I haven't covered?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PLAYS, SKITS, AND SCREENPLAYS

Postby Allison » Sun Jan 18, 2015 5:09 pm

glorybee wrote:
Allison wrote:Okay. Here's my mini one, coming in at 99 words.

(DARCY walks into her bedroom. Her make-up is strewn across her vanity.)

DARCY: Katie! Get in here right now!

(KATIE skips in, lipstick and other make-up all over her face.)

KAITE: Hi, Sis! Look at me. I'm all growed up, just like you.

(DARCY takes deep breaths, biting her lip and trying to clam herself.)

DARCY: MOM!

(MOM enters, sees KATIE, and tries to suppress a giggle.)

MOM: What 's wrong, DARCY?

DARCY: Katie ruined all my make-up. Ruined it.

(KATIE twiddles her thumbs while looking up and all around... anywhere but at MOM or DARCY.)

KATIE: Wasn't me.



Allison, I love this, especially the "Wasn't me" at the end. You've done a great job of giving Katie an authentic voice. (I'm wondering, though, how Darcy is going to "clam" herself. :lol: )

I should have asked you if you have any tips for playwriters or skit writers for the challenge (or for performance). Got anything that I haven't covered?


Hehe Whoops. I fixed the typo. Maybe Darcy was trying to clam up, so she didn't say anything she'd regret later? ;)

I don't really have any additional tips for writing. Just be sure you give the reader/performers enough information to really know what's going on. I wrote one where my intent was that the two characters didn't know the other was speaking, but had stories that were so similar, they could finish each others' sentences. Each was to be speaking directly to the audience, not to each other. But I didn't make that clear enough, and people thought they were interacting with each other.

I've been on pretty much every side of skits/plays now. Audience, performer, writer, re-writer/expander, backstage, and helping kids with it. Full director and lights and sound are about the only thing I haven't done. Actually, the light and sound board at church scare me to no end. If I ever have to go back there, I stay as far away as I can from the actual controls.

So for performance, make sure you know your character. There is SO much more to your character than what is written in the script. I even had the kids in last year's musical answer questions about their characters that weren't given in the script, and they did an awesome job expanding their characters. Write back story for your charters, even if it's just written in your head. How did your characters get to the point where they are now? This is also good if you're writing a script. It doesn't mean the audience has to know it, but whether your are performing or writing, it's good to know where your characters came from, and, if appropriate, where they are going after. A skit/play is typically one small portion of a character's life, unlike a novel. Think about all that information that isn't given in the script.
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