Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This article about playwriting was written for Alan Ayckbourn for an unrecorded production in 1993.

A Crash Course in Playwriting

Where do you get your ideas? That's the question one gets asked most. And the answer always has to be, I wish I knew. I'd go there regularly. Ideas aren't something you get, ideas come. You hope. Sometimes they don't come. Never when you want them, certainly. And the great fear for all of us is, of course, that they'll never come again.

But assuming they do (please God that they do) ideas sometimes take some recognising. They don't always present themselves announcing, hallo here I am, a great new play. The more interesting ones don't. Sometimes they're so elusive, so intangible that if you dare talk about them they're gone. You don't even dare touch them. You leave them where they are and hope one day they'll grow and gather definition.

Then again, sometimes they sit there yelling at you, demanding to be noticed. These sort are not discriminate, don't present themselves only to playwrights. On the contrary, they'll talk to anyone who'll listen. Which explains why many people get ideas for plays. Indeed most of them will at one time or another describe them to me in painstaking detail, given half a chance. They stand there with them in their hands like they've picked them up off a beach and don't quite know what to do with them now they've got them. It's one thing having the idea. Quite another to know how to run with it.

By the way plays, stage plays are never built on one idea. Stage plays are a meeting of several ideas. I have this belief that a good drama is built on three at least. They aren't quite as clear-cut or independently arrived at as I will make them sound (on the contrary they often all come together in a rush) but this is after all a crash course.


What is it about? What is it wanting to say or show? What experience is it setting out to share? It all starts with the theme; theme is the bed rock. And with Theme - probably simultaneously or very soon after -come the first inklings about the principle protagonists.


All plays have Narrative of some description. Narrative through plot; Narrative through character development. If Theme is the stuff that brings audiences into theatres (that sounds interesting), Narrative is what keeps them there for two hours or more (I want to know what happens). At the Narrative stage it is also possible to make further decisions about characters. Their number. Their functions within the narrative. In these straitened times, the fewer the better. But that's no bad thing. Never write a character who has no real function. Never write a postman when a knock on the door will do. No one will thank you for it, not even the actor. Well, he may thank you initially for the job; but he'll curse you later for the tedium you've put him through trying to make the part look interesting.


Time is important. It determines the period over which you decide to extend your narrative. Four minutes? Five hours? Six years? The shorter the better. The classical theory is 24 hours. It's not an unbreakable law but it's a good starting point.

Time will also determine when to start your play. In general, start as late into the Narrative as you can. As near to the centre of events as possible. The cleverer you become at casually disseminating information (who's married to who, what happened yesterday or ten years ago) the later you can start.

Time also determines the finishing point When it all ends. A comedy is just a tragedy interrupted, I once said. Do you finish with the kiss or when she opens her eyes to tell him she loves him and sees blonde hairs on his collar?

Finally, remember that since you make the rules you can also bend them. Time similarly can be bent. But that's another book.

Place is, of course, the setting. Or settings. Again, the fewer the better. Is your scene change really necessary? Ask yourself that for artistic reasons - before the producer does for commercial ones. The classical theory says one. Not a bad starting point either. Choose somewhere interesting and original but somewhere which allows all your characters to meet whenever and as often as you want them to without the audience remarking on the unbelievable coincidence. Thus - unless the characters are all sports fanatics, a football field is probably a bad idea.

If you must have multiple locations and you're sure your play isn't really intended for TV then sometimes a multi-purpose area is the solution. Somewhere abstract that can become a number of different places at a second's notice. Whatever you choose, take care to ensure that nothing stands in the way of your narrative progression. Never encumber your play with a series of technical problems that almost certainly guarantee constant interruption. Don't in other words let the audience of the hook. Most of them have probably been dragged along under sufferance anyway and are just looking for a chance to get home early. Don't give them one.

Similarly watch out for costume changes. Don't expect the teenage rebel to reappear as a blushing bride when you've only given her one and a half lines offstage to achieve it.

Having solved those few difficulties, all you have to do now is to write it down. Don't worry, the dialogue's the comparatively easy bit. All you need to remember is:
No two people talk exactly the same. So in an ideal world it should be possible erase the names of your characters from the script and people would still know - (with speeches of more than five words anyway}- which of your characters is talking.

Few people say what they mean. And when they do say what they mean, they will often hide their true intention for saying it. Conversely, people will often express their real feelings about life, each other, when they are talking about something completely different. In other words their subconscious often says more about them than their best rehearsed efforts. Some can be at their most eloquent when they're not talking at all. Silence, like understatement, can be a powerful dramatic tool provided of course the silence is surrounded by enough information to allow us to draw our own conclusions.

In any event, try never to overwrite. Which in theatre is well nigh impossible but it's something to aim for. Try to leave the actor something to do. Space to breathe. Space to express. Small is beautiful. Less is better.

End of crash course. Please pay on the way out.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.