75 Playwriting Lessons I've Learned So Far…

Playwright Adam Brandner shares 75 lessons he's learned during his playwriting career to help you benefit from his mistakes and insights.
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75 Playwriting Lessons I've Learned So Far…

Shall we dive right into the list? Okay. One sec. Three of my two-act plays have left Microsoft Word for a brighter tomorrow. The first fizzled out in a garage/theater at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. The second got to take an enormous bite of The Big Apple on an Off-Broadway stage. The third was about Ninja Turtles but got two, sold-out standing ovations anyway. 

Here’s what I know, and away we go!

1. A play is just a bunch of heartbeats tangled together.

2. Never write like a director. Ever.

3. There is no random. Random can corner you.

4. Plays are fluid. They move. A lot.

5. Writing offers freedom. The theater does not. Be willing to collaborate, or else write a novel.

6. The right dialogue shouldn't need any stage direction or guidance.

7. The right words can only come from characters based in reality. Any reality.

8. Some actors interpret the words wrong. Don't write for those actors.

9. Read your play out loud. Actors have to. So, find the energy gaps before the read-through and fix them.

10. Naming characters is hard.

[Script Extra: Free Download with Character Naming Tips!]

11. Your toughest critic is one that skims. People skim work that isn't jumping off the page. Take the hint.

12. Stand by your choices.

13. Don't make choices unless you can't live without them. The color of the mailbox should matter if you're writing about it.

14. From company to company, a playwright's soul is morphed, compromised, and triumphed.

15. It's easier to edit something bad than to start something new.

16. All the power and control a playwright ever has ends in Microsoft Word. Beyond that, the work is open to interpretation.

17. Your audience should have a stance on the presentation of your themes and be able to passionately defend that stance on the car ride home.

18. Write when you're inspired. Scheduled writing results in a lot of self-doubt later. Schedule editing time though. For me, editing sparks invention.

19. Write what you want. Not what can be reasonably staged. (See Lesson #2)

20. Don't apologize for the world you've created. Own it. It's real now.

21. Not everything has to be tied up with a little bow. (Thanks for this one, Mom.)

22. Be specific. For example, never write: "Music playsin your stage direction. It’s like leaving dirty dishes in the sink. A chore for later. A useful exercise is to start with a piece of music; build dialogue and character around the rhythm and mood. It can really get your fingers salsa dancing on the keyboard.

23. Each character must sound, think, move, breathe, explore, fail, and speak in a unique way.

24. Too much stage direction can be crippling. (See Lesson #2)

25. Explore your options. It's perfectly fine for draft number one and draft number twenty-one to be light years apart. Or on different planets. Or in a different language.

26. When your inner voice starts to get critical, give it a funny voice. Perhaps Mickey Mouse. Much less intimidating. Mickey: ‘This scene is terrible and disjointed, ho-ho!’ See, not so bad. Mickey may be right, but this way we can laugh off our mistakes and not drown in them.

27. Sometimes people just don't get it. It’s both our faults. Mostly mine.

28. Invent solutions.

29. Writer's block will pass. Just try not to gain too much weight in the meantime.

30. When it comes down to the wire, your work must be good. Whatever that means to you.

31. Have a commanding image for each scene from each character’s point of view.

[Beat Writers Block with These 16 Tips]

32. If people aren't laughing, it probably isn't funny.

33. Hold yourself to a standard that you're proud of. Not what will work given the circumstances. (See Lesson #2)

34. Save your work in multiple places.

35. Keep a tenacious hold on your dreams and your vision. No one else will for you.

36. No buts before breakfast. If you have a day to work, find a way to be productive. Edit.

37. Care enough to finish, no matter what.

38. If you wouldn’t go out to dinner with one of your characters, then no one would.

39. If you can't sum up your entire play in a sentence or two, then no one in publishing will ever read it.

40. Think back to your childhood. That level of imagination is still in you somewhere.

41. Understand that you are a citizen of the world. Write responsibly.

42. Learn from other playwrights.

43. Tina Fey is funnier than me. Janis Ian, 30 Rock, Allstate commercials… #meangirlgoals

44. Let haters read your work. Having to defend your own work lets you see if you even like it or not.

45. Set high expectations for your work.

46. Don't think that constant, medium level writing is worthwhile. When it's time to work, work hard. When it's time to break, break hard. Hydrate your spirit.

47. Don't forget why you started writing in the first place.

48. Don't judge yourself before you are finished.

49. People want to laugh first and foremost.

50. Watch the audience while they watch your previews. Use that information in rewrites.

51. Forwards are your best friends. They sometimes offer escape plans/starting points.

52. Writing takes grit, for real though.

53. Always leave them wanting more. Especially after Act One.

54. Don't take on a period piece unless you're willing to do your homework.

55. Brush your teeth with enthusiasm after a healthy dose of rejection. Gargle with hope.

56. Just because one person responds well to your work, doesn't mean it's good.

57. Connect with each character's stream of consciousness. Only then can you hear what they have to say.

58. Save everything you write. Years later when you revisit your old work, you will find a window into your younger psyche and that nostalgia can be euphoric…and useful.

59. Make sure you identify which character or obstacle in each scene has the power.

60. Ask yourself: Is my idea delicious? Is it big enough to feed the world? If not, make it so.

61. When something inspires you, listen to it carefully.

62. Writing is 40% strategy, 50% honest keyboard bleeding, and 9% insanity, with a hint of guess and check.

63. Every scene should have a clear focus.

64. Love the struggle. That is your process. It's unique to you. A year after completion, you'll cherish every past bump in the road and sometimes pretend to explain your struggles to Oprah while you’re in the shower.

65. Jail would be a great place for a writer. Solitude and no distracting bills.

66. Nothing is off limits until you handcuff yourself to a genre.

67. Tequila can help. Sometimes.

68. Don't jump to conclusions.

69. Tequila is the name of my personal assistant. Analyze yourself. (See Lesson #68)

70. Prove everyone wrong with your writing. Not for revenge, but for the opportunity to keep writing.

71. Writing to get published will break your spirit. Be an artist. Not a machine.

72. Writing is not fun unless you're onto something special. Even then, focus.

73. Make sure your play has an engaging conflict and fresh obstacles. Man vs. Man is so 2019.

74. Arrange multiple readings with diverse casts. You'll see potential shifts.

75. A good story isn't satisfying. It's absolutely necessary.

So, there you have it. I know that as my career moves forward, I will only add to this list. Most of these lessons were born from failures. But, with a little time, distance, and reflection on those failures, I now have this beauty, which makes me feel safe when things get cloudy with a chance of meatballs. It reminds me where I’ve been, and where I want to go, and where I never want to go again. 

Whenever I write myself into a corner, it is usually because I inadvertently went against one of the lessons listed above. I encourage all writers to keep a personal list of past lessons learned in the invisible arena that is Microsoft Word. You never know when it may come in handy, and, at the very least, a list like this can save you from making the same mistakes twice and abusing your ‘delete’ key until it is nothing but an oily black representation of your failures. Happy writing! 

Learn the basics of playwriting in Screenwriters University's online course: Introduction to Playwriting


Slant of Light Theater Company