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How to Play

Take a blank sheet of paper. At the top of it, fill in the blanks of this statement:

(Your protagonist) is a (who are they?) living in a (what’s the context?) world, until (what changes?), meaning (s)he finds his/herself (in what situation?) . They must face (what?) in order to fulfill their goal, which is (what?).

If you can fill this in, you have a plot. And simply put, in a comedy, the hero gets what he wants. In a tragedy, he doesn’t (most often because he’s dead).

For example, Macbeth is a successful Scottish General, living in a stable monarchy, until he meet the witches, who tell him he could be King, meaning he finds himself on a bloody mission to rule Scotland. He must face both his enemies and his conscience in order to fulfill his goal, which is ultimate power.

By filling in the gaps in the statement, you will ensure that your character goes on a journey, i.e. they change. They need to begin in one situation and end in another. A great test of any scene, or play, is to look at whether the character(s) have changed over the course of the action. If nothing changes, it won’t work, start again!

So now, let’s expand the statement and have a go at filling out the ten point plan. Draw a table, with 1-10 down a left hand column, and gaps on the right, with the following titles. Leave enough room to write a short paragraph for each point. The plan is based on a two act structure, as many plays are, but don’t worry if you think your play is in a different format. This structure is more about story that it is about performance, so you should still attempt to follow the form, in order to move from set up through action to conclusion.

Try this:


What’s the world of the play and the character’s situation before everything changes? Usually this is the calm before the storm. Things are good- everyone’s happy! Our character’s life is going in one predictable direction, until…


Something happens to change the protagonist’s situation. Macbeth meets the witches. Rosalind is banished. A letter arrives containing an invitation. In a love story, this is probably where our lover’s meet for the first time.


Will he, won’t he? The character faces a decision here. Will Macbeth ignore the witches, or will he change his plans? Will the protagonist accept the invitation? Will they go to the party?


Of course they will! Because it’s a drama. The protagonist makes a choice and off they go. Rosalind leaves for the woods. Hamlet embarks on his mission of revenge. Our lovers both turn up on their agreed date.


In this section, stuff happens! This is where we get to know the world, enjoy the ride. Things build as the protagonist’s goal comes into focus, and we begin to learn about them. In The History Boys we watch the kids learn. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda makes it her mission to find a gentleman caller for Laura.


Climax! Traditionally this is where we’d put an interval. The first half has built to a dramatic point – we want to know what happens next. Often things will be as good as they get for our characters, and then something shifts at the last moment, tempting us to come back after the interval to find out what happens. It may only be a hint. Mowgli has just been rescued from the monkeys and he’s safe again, phew! But what’s that striped tail? Sheer Khan is coming. Come back after the break…


Now we ramp it up. Whatever the dilemma was in the first half needs to be amplified. The forces around Macbeth begin to close in. The lovers in the Athenian forest all fall out. Things are getting worse, or at least more dramatic, the secret is about to come out, and we can’t imagine how the dilemma will possibly be solved.


The greatest moment of drama in the second half. It might be the riot which the characters have fought against, the break up, the marching of Burnham wood towards Dunsinane. On an emotional scale, the characters will probably feel more at this point than they have before. More fear, more love, more anger, more despair. Give it all you’ve got.


The denouement. We think all is lost, but what comes out of this? A new start. The characters find it somewhere deep down to keep on going, to try again, or to give up in favour of something better. A turn around. Perhaps the lovers forgive each other. The twins are reunited. The riot or war is lost or won. Macbeth is killed. Rosalind and Orlando marry.


What are we left with? The epilogue, often a short final scene, leaves us with something to think about. It may simply be that the ends are tied up, but there’s often a way to throw a little nugget in to suggest a future for the characters, or link us back to the theme. A final image.

Well done! You have a play! If you’ve managed to fill the table in, you have a story. Now it’s yours to play with. Carry on working on this plan as you go. Experiment by writing scenes which you think are fun to write, rather than slavishly working in chronological order. And, as with all writing, whatever doesn’t work, throw it out.

An extra tip:

As you work on your table, stay conscious of what your character is doing. We like active protagonists. Look at the journey of the protagonist and try and make sure they are active throughout your plan. Plays can be unsatisfying if things simply happen to the protagonist rather then them actively making decisions. Of course, there are examples to the contrary- Hamlet, you might say. But in fact he does act, and his actions propel the story forwards- it’s just that the action he takes isn’t the action that helps him achieve his goal.



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