A 13-week recipe for writing a play (a few thoughts #14)

In the world of novel writing, NaNoWriMo is buzzing along, with thousands of people aiming to write a 50000 word draft of a novel in the month of November. It’s a yearly event and I look forward every year to hearing of people attempting to start AND finish their work.

Theatre abounds with stories of the play written in a weekend, or in a fit of anger or inspiration over a caffeine-laden night.

While I’ve written some plays very quickly in the past, there’s only one play that I’ve written in two days – Who are you, Mr James? which turned into Post Felicity and won me my breakthrough awards and productions. As I’ve explained elsewhere, that two days and nights of writing was a culmination of around five years of thinking and failed starts.

When you’re writing a play alone, independently of a deadline and/or commission, what’s a feasible timeline?

I think that 13 weeks is very workable. Of course, if you’re planning to write the draft of a play in a month, go for it. That’s very doable, too. In fact, I think in terms of the actual scene writing (dialogue plus scene directions) you probably want to keep that part of it under a month.

What I mean is that with the sketching, character development, story and scene planning you can do before you write the text of the play that other people will see, that 13 weeks in total is a fantastic amount of time in which you can achieve wonderful things.

Here’s how I like to break it down:

Weeks 1 to 4 are a mixture of working on starting points, thoughts, character and story, usually with this timeline.

Week 1 Where are you starting from? What are you wanting to find out or to show? What’s the troubling or provocative thing you want to fight against the thought of with your writing? What’s the terrain? What’s the what? For each of these, write down many many possibilities and then, horror of horrors, choose one and one only. This is the violence of writing – you have to deny the possibilities of other existences. It sounds simple. But simple is difficult and, yes, violent.

Week 2 What’s the conflict you’re interested in showing and intensifying? Make a choice. Write down many possibilities. Choose one.

Week 3 Characters – Go into the characters – not so much history unless that history is going to complicate or return from a repressed state. Best to make lots and lots of notes and details about what kind of fix/unfix they’re in at the story’s beginning. Focus on what they’re ready to do, rather than what they decide.

Week 4 Events – Story – A basic storyline with the characters you have. Maybe based on unsettling moments or confrontations that you’ve witnessed or participated in yourself. Look to shape a storyline that escalates or intensifies, where there’s no going back

Week 5 Break down that story into scenes. Write a ‘rough’ scenario that covers the same details for each scene (I like to have a paragraph on what happens, and short sentence for each covering who’s there, where, the occasion, impact on the main character’s overall story.)

Week 6 Re-read and play with rough scenario to consider compressing similar scenes & characters, while still looking for variety and the transformation of the central character (think before/after shots – have you chose a central character who has to do the most changing throughout the piece?)

Week 7 Start and finish the draft scenario. NB This may well take more than one week.

Week 8 Read draft scenario, make adjustments, turning it into the detailed scenario

Week 9 Finalise the detailed scenario – because if you’re happy with it, you’re probably going to enjoy writing your play.

Weeks 10-13 Write the draft, keeping your detailed scenario handy. If you deviate from it, great. Just make notes about that and keep going until you finish.

Week 13 If you have the draft finished, do editing here, but make sure you’ve been away from the script a week before you do. Otherwise you’ll start making spaghetti out of it.



I think it would take about 3-5 hours a week, split into half-hour to hour long blocks to get a complete, unedited first draft. I’ve used this sort of plan to write a number of plays – and I’ve compressed into 2 weeks (for The Final Shot) and 5 weeks (for Unrestless) before. I say 3-5 hours a week, but during this time the play will probably be on your mind most of the day, waking and dreaming.


* “What the hell is a scenario?” Now, I realise that the term, ‘scenario, above may not be familiar to some playwrights, let alone people who don’t feel ready to call themselves a playwright yet.

I’ll be quick to fill you in. A scenario is a description of what happens on stage, in order, in a finite amount of time.

Basically, a scenario is a prose version of your scene, and can go into the goals, objectives, tactics and motivations of your characters. It may be the place to touch on any ritual at the heart of the scene, and it might be explicit in what the scene is attempting to argue for or against.

Ibsen swore by them. When a younger playwright who’d sought his mentoring scoffed at the idea of writing one, Henrik threw him out of his house in an absolute fit of rage.

Not every successful playwright would do that, though.

Jean-Claude Van Itallie, a huge influence on Tony Kushner’s process, starts off only with brief notes on Who, Where and What and then uses writing the scene as a kind of meditation, watching and observing what happens. (The ‘what’ is Van Itallie is a beautiful concept, that of a tantalising metaphor that influences the shape of the scene as you write – for e.g. ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ or ‘duelling banjos’ or ‘snake in the grass’ and so on.)

If you’re that kind of writer, you could adapt the 13-week schedule to fit those sorts of explorations.

But I really really really like using scenarios. The thing is, they’re hard to write, they take time, but the amount of time they can end up saving by providing you with a solid structure beneath all the talk means that rewrites are less difficult.

And when I say I really really really like using, I mean to say that I wish that for some of my plays I wish that I’d been able to spend more time writing them. I’m not perfect. And production deadlines can force your hand before you feel ready.


Did I just admit to not being perfect?

But this is the thing about this blog.

I want more people to know what it takes to write plays, and to have the details at hand. The more we have conversations and discussions about the mechanics and craft of writing plays for theatre and screen, the more appreciative and demanding audiences can be. Imagine Stranger Things, Glitch or Far Away as the baseline for what we expect from drama. Let’s keep going there.

In fact, I’m working on an e-book of the detailed scenario that I wrote to help me develop Falling Petals. I’m planning to sell it via this site, but if you subscribe (either on the sidebar on your laptop, or at the bottom of the page on your phone) you’ll get it, free, once I publish it.

Now, is that a bribe for your attention or what!

Let me know what you think, either over at my page on Facebook or below in the comments.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash