I used to be paranoid about the number of playwriting manuals I bought, borrowed and read. Now I’m vaguely proud of it, partly because of the help many have given me to think around as well as within playwriting craft.
Below is a growing and curated list (with amazon links) of the books I recommend that I think could unlock different parts of any playwright.
(*NB Please remember that reading plays is the first way in – I don’t actually agree with those who say you only need to watch plays to understand how to write them.)
The first two are Will Dunne’s Dramatic Writer’s Companion (which is now in a second edition, alongside a new title, Character, Scene and Story: New Tools from the Dramatic Writer’s Companion) and Michael Wright’s Playwriting in Process.
(Disclaimer: Michael is a good friend of mine, who tutored me way back at the 1999 Interplay Festival of Young Playwrights.)
Why these two to begin with? Each is about encouraging practice and craft, as well as reflection.
The focus on doing is something that the best playwriting books from the US seem to excel in.
Conversely, the better examples from the UK, such as David Edgar’s How Plays Work and Steve Waters’s The Secret Life of Plays, concentrate on the philosophies at work within specific examples, rather than exercises in playwriting.
For those who like the idea of beginning without too many notes, I can’t recommend Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Playwright’s Workbook highly enough. Van Itallie influenced Tony Kushner’s playwriting technique, and if you take the time to absorb chapter two, with its emphases on starting only with a dramatic image (the ‘what’) and brief notes on space and character (‘where’ and ‘who’), you may find the process of discovery revelatory.
[Update] Michael Wright’s more recent Sensory Writing for Stage and Screen is another great book by him. One of the risks of sitting down to write is that, well, you simply sit down and forget that life is about more than words and talking. Michael’s book encourages you to explore the senses for your work, often neglected in much writing for performance.