Improve Your Storytelling with Playwriting Techniques

A play is visualized on a stage, and a novel is visualized in a reader's imagination, but novelists can still learn a lot from playwrights.

Diana M. Pho, writing for
5-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Using a structure with acts and scenes, paying attention to blocking, and keeping dialogue goal-oriented and lively are all lessons novelists can learn from playwrights.

At first glance, novelists and playwrights seem to write in completely different mediums. 

Traditional theater’s storytelling is based on witnessing events from the outside, while books give readers a glimpse inside a character’s head. A theater audience surmises a character's intentions through movement, gesture, dialogue, and the audience understands the character's world from visual cues such as setting, lighting, costuming, and props. 

On the other hand, books get to construct that same world and character perspective in a much more intimate way. Readers use their imaginations to translate the words on the page into those visuals. What can a novelist, then, learn from a playwright? Quite a bit, actually!

Although novels and plays use very different types of writing, there are elements of theater that writers have used in books for centuries. Let’s take a look at what drama and fiction have in common and ways you can use techniques from theater and playwriting to improve upon on your book or story.

Dramatic structure: the plot

The most prominent example of theater’s influences on the story form is the development of plot structure. Aristotle, the ancient Greek playwright, explained how a drama should contain three parts.

Act 1: The Beginning (Prostasis) is where the characters and world-building is first introduced.

Act 2: The Middle (Epitasis) is where the protagonist undergoes a series challenges that become more difficult until they reach the climax (the high point) of the plot.

Act 3: The Resolution (Catastrophe) is where the challenges are overcome and affect the protagonist in some life-changing way. These events will have also changed the world itself. Catastrophe doesn’t imply a tragic end, by the way; in ancient Greek theater, the word simply means the ending to a drama.

Eventually, the three-act Greek drama evolved through the advocacy of the Roman poet Horace into a five-act structure. The five-act structure was a standard in Shakespeare’s canon of plays and became more formalized by the German playwright Gustav Freytag. You may already be familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid, commonly taught in school as the definition of basic story structure: 

  • Exposition
  • Rising action
  • Climax
  • Falling action
  • Resolution

Scene by scene: goals, conflict, and outcome

Plays use scenes to move the plot forward, and well-written novels can use them too. Part of keeping that interest alive is making sure each scene has a single narrative purpose. In a method that replicates Aristotle’s classic breakdown, each scene in a play has a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, a novel’s scenes should have that same sense of motion.

Consider the following questions in constructing a scene’s beginning, middle, and end.

In the beginning, what is each character’s goal? Why are they pursuing it and how?

For the middle of the scene, show what obstacles prevent the character from getting what they want. That is the scene’s conflict. How does the character handle the problem? 

The end of the scene shows the outcome caused by the character’s actions. Are there consequences to a character’s actions? How does the character react?

That reaction and any consequences presented at the scene’s end should feed into the goals of the next scene. Overall, a narrative change happens between the beginning of a scene and its end. Characters could have a realization, travel to a new location, win a battle. If there isn’t a solid change, then maybe the scene isn’t necessary to the story— cut it!

To help understand scene building, here’s a short example.

THE BEGINNING: George picks some roses from a garden. He wants to give the roses to his mother for her surprise birthday party happening in an hour.

THE MIDDLE: Well, The roses came from a neighbor’s garden and now, that neighbor is furious! Whoops! George apologizes, but the roses are taken away. Time is running out until the party starts.

THE END: George rushes to the florist and buys her roses instead. He arrives at the party in time. Huzzah! But then the neighbor knocks on his mother's door to tell her about the theft--now what will happen?

That’s a really basic example of an effective scene but already, you want to know what happens to George next!

Writing dynamic characters using blocking

Theater is also action-focused — and the actor's physical choices help define the character. Novelists should keep that in mind too: a common writing weakness is presenting characters as talking heads without any physical descriptions of their surroundings and how they use it. Without these scene details, it is hard to visualize the characters and a reader can lose interest.

On the other hand, directors and actors think about character movement all the time! The theater process of building character gestures or movements into a scene is called blocking.

To make a scene more dynamic, a novelist can consider how each of their scenes are “blocked.” A few questions a writer can think about when adding blocking are:

  • Where are characters in a space?
  • Where do they move in a space?
  • How close or far are characters in relation to each other?
  • How are characters moving their hands, feet, arms, while they are sitting, eating, or talking?
  • If characters are thinking, what is their body doing while this is happening?

Dialogue is driven by unspoken needs

Unlike books, where an author can use words to describe a character’s inner thoughts, feelings and reflections, a theater audience can only surmise characters by what they see. So not only is action very important for playwriting, but so is dialogue.

People aren’t always straightforward about what they want. Often, when a person says something, it can convey different meanings. Saying “hello” between friends at a party would feel different from a man calling “hello” into a dark room he’s never entered before, or saying hello to a person he finds attractive. Dialogue in plays carries an intention--in other words, their personal goal. Novelists should think about that hidden motivation too!

To construct livelier dialogue, when writing ask yourself these questions:

  • What do characters want?
  • What is their goal for that scene? 
  • What can they say that doesn’t say outright what their goal is?
  • What conversation methods do they use to achieve their goal? Do they investigate? Joke around? Provoke?
  • By the end of the scene, do they succeed?

To conclude, theater and fiction have much more in common than a reader or author may think! Don’t hesitate to seek other forms of storytelling for inspiration and craft tools. By thinking like a playwright when constructing plots, scenes, and dialogue, novelists can often infuse more dramatics into their writing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Diana M. Pho, writing for Grammar Girl

Diana M. Pho is an independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo-Award-nominated book editor. She has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Learn more about her work and editorial services at dianampho.com