1. Create a clear Protagonist
Be sure you create a clearly identifiable protagonist – the character whose journey the audience is following. The audience needs to know up front who to root for.
2. Create a Formidable Antagonist
Be sure your protagonist faces a character (or thing) that presents ongoing and escalating obstacles to the protagonist’s goal. Never make it easy for your protagonist.
3. Know Your Characters as Well as You Know Your Best Friend
The key to successful characters is detail. The more you know about your characters, the more genuine their behavior will be. Think of all the things you know about your best friend. When your knowledge of your characters - all of them - is as detailed and intimate as is your knowledge of your best friend, then you will instinctively know what your characters will do and say under the given circumstances of your play.
4. Be Sure There is Continual Conflict
The essence of compelling dramatic writing is conflict. And conflict is not argument. Conflict is comprised of characters having opposing objectives, desperately struggling to come out on top.
5. Be Sure the Stakes are Clear and Important
It should be clear to the audience why the protagonist’s mission or goal is vitally important to him/her. When the audience understands, the audience cares what happens and emotionally goes on the journey with the protagonist.
6. Write a Tightly Structured Story
Your story should have a clear spine (also referred to as the story’s “arc” or “through-line”), meaning it should have: a beginning (the introduction of the characters and launch of the protagonist’s journey); a middle (the protagonist’s struggles to achieve his/her goal against the efforts of the antagonist); and an end (the climax, the moment the audience learns if the protagonist succeeds ... or crashes and burns).
7. When You’re Stuck, Get Mean
When you’re stuck for what happens next, ask yourself this question, “What’s the worst thing that could happened to my protagonist at this moment?” And make it happen to him/her.
8. Include but Limit Exposition
Exposition is the judicious and skillful revelation of past events (things that happened before the play). But include only those events that are absolutely necessary to make the characters' motivations and stakes and the story clear. And the exposition should come into play only when the characters need to trot out the information – in other words, exposition as ammunition. Rule of thumb on exposition: less is more.
9. Don’t Sweat Originality – it Ain’t What it’s Cracked up to Be
Don’t knock yourself out trying to find a subject or story that’s never been dramatized before. Theatre has been around for many thousands of years, so you’re not likely to come up with a plot no one has ever come up with before. Originality lies in how you handle a subject – your spin, your characters, your dialogue, your retelling of the story. After all, what is West Side Story? What is Titanic (the James Cameron version)? They’re both Romeo and Juliet with their own unique take on the timeless plot: young lovers kept apart be forces beyond their control.
10. Care About Your Play
Write about something you care about, something that’s important to you. A play can take anywhere from a year to two or more years to write, develop, and stage. It’s your passion for the subject matter that will sustain you when the going gets tough. (And it usually does.)
11. Don’t Try to Hide
Theatre is not a place to hide. The unique gift you have to offer the world is you – what you think, what you have experienced, and how you see the world. Anyone can learn technique. What will set you apart is how much of yourself you’re willing to share. Put another way, the best place to hide is out in the open. “Let it all hang out,” as the hippies used to say, and your plays will engage audiences and touch hearts.
12. Buy Playwriting for Dummies
Run over to your local Barnes & Noble or go online to Amazon.com, and get yourself a copy of Playwriting for Dummies. It’s the most practical, thorough, readable, savvy, and fun book on playwriting ever written ... ever written by me that is. It’s both a great primer for beginners and an invaluable resource for experienced playwrights.