Playing around with the rules of drama

stageYou can’t write fiction if you don’t read novels. Fact. Writers are readers. They don’t all go to author college and get degrees in advanced writing. No, they learn how to write books by reading books, which were written by people who learned to write by reading… and so on.

What about writing for the stage? Well, you can read plays till the cows come home, but if you don’t go along and watch some plays unfold upon the stage, then you’re not going to learn the trade. My latest one-act play was recently shortlisted for a writing award and will be produced early in 2014. Of course, I was delighted, but I was also surprised. Though it’s my third year in a row to make the shortlist, this one is more abstract than the others. I’ve written about grief and evil and the impact of yesterday on today and seen them produced. A play about morality, history and technology is definitely left-field (or stage left) for me.

CATpicThe authors who submitted plays for this year’s competition were invited along to the Cork Arts Theatre to hear a critique of their plays and learn of the shortlist. Forty plays were discussed. I made notes. I circled three words that cropped up again and again: violence, suicide, secrets. There were plays with sudden bursts of violence in them. Others concerned characters contemplating taking their own lives. A few involved secrets being exposed. They certainly guaranteed drama. I’ve even used these tropes in my own plays. However, my submission this year had none of these plot or character devices. Right up to the reading of the shortlist, I thought I had no chance. Out of 40, mine was one of six to make it through.


Well, I’ve realised that I’ve seen enough plays in the past few years to know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve sat in the dark and watched the drama unfold beneath the lights. In short, I’ve learned the language of the one-act play. My play, called The Light Keepers, is a stripped down drama with just two actors and two props. It relies on dialogue to reveal character and character to drive the plot. With a fine-tuned engine you can carry an audience anywhere and anywhen.

This does not mean that my play will win the competition. From what I’ve heard it is among considerable company.

If you’re considering writing plays then you have no option but to get yourself to a theatre. Sit in the dark. That’s where each of the playwrights was before they saw the drama play out in their imaginations. Fiction writers and playwrights conjure up worlds in their minds and try to trace them upon a page. If they are talented, the reader will see at once their creations.

You can’t write fiction if you don’t read novels.

And you can’t write plays if you haven’t been to a theatre.


  1. And also reading plays, and copying them out. I read that O’Casey learned to write plays by copying Shakespeare. It can be a good way to learn about structure. A play on the stage is filtered through an army of imaginations before it reaches the audience, then there’s the atmosphere in the theatre on the night. But it’s great when it comes together. I’m working on my own at the moment. Best of luck with yours.

    1. Hi Anthony,
      Totally agree with your comments. Unless a writer happens to be Shakespeare (or O’Casey) then what they imagine won’t even make it to the page, let alone make it all the way through to opening night! On the other hand, having other talented people hone the text – suppressing some things, amplifying others – usually helps to make the piece much better.
      Best of luck with your play. I hope you get to grin like a maniac amid the audience in the dark, as actors bring your work and words into the light…

  2. […] tyranny of technology inspired me to write a short play. It is called The Light Keepers and it was shortlisted for production in the Cork Arts Theatre‘s annual writing competition. […]

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