A spark of inspiration based on an image or a situation is generally how a play begins. Getting the play from initial concept to the first full draft can be challenging. If you imagine high school English class, you probably learned the basics. One of the first things to do is pre-writing, which includes both research and structure.
Sometimes I write things into my plays about which I know nothing. Or, I have a historical fact that is pivotal for the plot to work and need to make sure that I’m correct. These are things that I explore before I start the actual script. If I don’t, I can get hung up on details and it slows down my ability to get words on the page.
The invention of the internet is like manna from heaven for research. Using a search engine is invaluable when I need to understand something or do fact checking. I have also been known to call actual librarians from time to time. The research skills that you used to write your senior English paper are the same ones you need during this phase of writing a play.
After all that work is done, I look at structure. Some plays are written with episodic structure; however, I find that most plays still stick with some form of the Aristotelean story arc. Even plays that are episodic tend to have a traditional story arc within each episode and, quite often, have an over-reaching story arc over all their parts. If you are unfamiliar with this, you can find an explanation of the parts in Aristotle’s Poetics. The basic parts that you may remember from high school English are Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Dénouement. The Inciting Incident and the Climax are the anchors of the plot structure and I like to figure those out first. Then, I find that the other pieces tend to fall into place around those two points. If you are writing for TV or film, this basic arc has been developed in more detail into a three-act structure with other important moments standardized. For theatre, you can work with Aristotle’s structure. I like to get that structure plotted out before I begin the script as it helps give me buoys to keep me on track as I work on the story. Sometimes I will write those pivotal scenes first and go back to other parts of the play: I don’t always write linearly from beginning to end.
Over the years, I have found that looking at all these pieces of a play before plunging into a script results in a more well-crafted piece that holds together and needs less editing after the first draft. When I have begun to write based on a spark of inspiration, it has led to a messy script that goes through several drafts before I get things working. So, it pays to do pre-writing work ahead of the creative and fun part of crafting dialogue.