Questions to ask when writing a play

After a meeting between Simon Stephens and writers from the Royal Exchange's Playwriting Group, last autumn, we compiled the following list of questions.

They might work as starting points to think about just some of the decisions that go into the making of a play. They might, alternatively, work to help clarify or focus a play while re-drafting it. They are questions that encourage all of us to think about what exactly a play is and how plays work in theatres as well as help writing our own plays.

  • Why am I writing drama as opposed to any other literary form?
  • Why am I writing for theatre as opposed to any other dramatic medium?
  • What do I want to do to my audience? How do I want to effect or change them?
  • What are my themes? What are my subjects? What is the relationship between my themes and my subjects?
  • What am I writing about?
  • What do I want to say about these subjects?
  • What questions do I want to ask or encourage the audience to ask?
  • Am I telling a story? If so, what is my story?
  • What is the relationship between the narrative (the whole story of the lives of my characters) and the plot (the bits of that narrative I have chosen to stage for dramatic effect)?
  • What do we know before the play starts?
  • When and where does the plot start? When and where does the plot end?
  • What happens on and off stage and what is the relationship between the two?
  • How long is the play and what is the impact of that length?
  • How many scenes are there? How long are they? How are they ordered?
  • What happens between scenes?
  • Where is my play set? What world is it set in? What is the geography surrounding and contextualizing my play? What spaces are the scenes in?
  • What period of history is the play set in? When, within that history are the scenes set? What time of day are the scenes set?
  • What is the political geography outside the scenes? (Population, culture, political establishments and structures, political climate)
  • What is the physical geography outside the scene (terrain, weather etc.)?
  • How does the political or physical geography impact on the scenes or on the behavior of my characters?
  • What is the role of actors in my play?
  • Do they talk, sing, move or dance (and any combination of these)?
  • Are my actors pretending to be other people, ie. are they playing characters?
  • How many actors are there and why?
  • How many characters are there and why?
  • How many characters does each actor play and why?
  • How are the actors distinguished- is it by name or other means?
  • If my actors are playing characters how do those characters function within the play and how do they effect or refract my themes or ideas or questions?
  • If my actors are playing characters what do they want from the story of the play and what is stopping them from getting what they want?
  • And so what do they DO to try and overcome those obstacles and get what they want?
  • Who is talking?
  • Who are they talking to?
  • Why are they talking?
  • What do they say and how? What tense do they use? What person do they speak in?
  • How am I using language to affect my audience and explore my ideas or ask the questions I want to ask?
  • In what register are they talking? (We talk differently to a 5 year old than we do to a 55 year old)
  • How long are their paragraphs, sentences, and words?
  • Is there a pattern in speech?
  • What vocabulary is used and how?
  • What type of sentence do they use? (Question, command etc.)
  • Do they use of idiom and colloquialism?
  • What is the relationship between language and content?
  • What do they reveal?
  • What are they doing physically?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • What is the relationship between their physical behavior and the themes or questions or ideas of my play?
  • How does their physical behavior juxtapose or contradict what they say?
  • If they are pretending to be other characters taking part in a story how does their physical behavior help them get what they want?
  • How do I use images to juxtapose with language over time in order to affect my audience and to explore my ideas or ask the questions I want to ask?

Theatrical form is controlled or "wrought" by these questions being answered.  The decisions you, the playwright, make, inspired by these questions (and others!), absolutely define the plays you write and the theatrical experience you help make.
-Simon Stephens