Murder by the Book — the mystery of playwriting, by Mat Kelly

Blackmail, greed, jealousy, a body in the library, and a locked door. Recently one of my plays, about a murder that takes place in an all-women’s mystery writers club was put on by the Village Theatre in Waterdown. The Mesdames of Mayhem found out about it and asked if I wanted to be a guest contributor and discuss writing for the stage.

The best piece of advice I can give to someone who is thinking about writing a play is also the most obvious. If you are going to write plays, go see plays, and read plays. That is the best way to get used to the medium. It will teach you how to format your play, how things work, and what is possible.

One thing you need to think about is economy of characters and locations. I’m reminded of something Neil Gaiman said about writing the screenplay for the fantasy film, Stardust. His heroes were trapped on a cloud and he needed something to rescue them. He had them picked up by a flying pirate ship. A few months later he was given a tour of the workshops and he saw an army of workers designing, building, and painting the flying pirate ship he took two minutes to write. Neil Gaiman said he felt like apologizing to everyone in the room.

In theatre you want to keep your characters and locations to a minimum, because every character you write is another actor on stage, and every location is a set that needs to be built and brought on stage somehow. Most theatres don’t have huge budgets, or acres of space. A professional theatre may not feel they can afford to put on a show with more than six characters. If you have a character that gets killed in the first five minutes, that’s an actor who has to spend the rest of the play backstage doing nothing.

Community theatres are volunteer based, and therefore may be willing to do a show with more characters, but they may not have the manpower or the technical expertise to pull off a complicated multi-set show. If you are going to write a play, it’s not a bad idea to do a bit of research on stagecraft. I studied technical theatre in university and have spent many years volunteering for various community theatres. When I write, I try to figure out how I would pull off a technical feet. If I can figure out how to do it, I know a creative director and designer can pull it off even better.

Keep things active and visual. I admit, I have trouble with this. I have far too many things being simply talked about. Not very interesting for the audience. When I have people read over my plays, at least once every script I get a comment along the lines of, “Oh, so the ageing starlet was caught kissing the young husband of the victim just before the murder? Maybe that’s a scene the audience would like to see.”

If you write short stories or novels, you are probably used to being master of your world. The look, the feel, how your characters act and react, is entirely up to you and the words you use. When you write for theatre, you are part of a team. It is your job to write the story and words your characters will say. The actors, director, and designers will then take what you’ve written and interpret it in the way they think is best. Trust them. Don’t try to do their job for them by adding in a lot of stage directions, descriptions, and writing how lines should be said.

Often one of the first things a director will do is take a marker and black out all of the extraneous notes. I base my stage directions on Shakespeare. All he ever wrote were entrances, exits, “They fight”, and the occasional, “Exit pursued by a bear,”. Trust that the dialogue you give your characters will be enough to tell the actors who this person is. Trust that your story is clear enough that the director will know what to do.

Personally, I find it a lot of fun seeing how other people interpret what I write. I once heard Canadian playwright John Lazarus tell a class, “There may be only one way you imagine a line to be said, but there are many right ways to say it,” and I believe that.

Theatre is collaborative. I find play readings a helpful part of the writing process. Because I have connections with local community theatres it’s easy for me. I simply ask one of my director friends to get a cast together. A month later I find myself sitting in a theatre with about thirty other people watching a group of actors reading my script in what can be described as nothing less than a mini production. It’s important to hear your lines out loud. It helps you find out what works and what doesn’t. You find out how other people see your characters. It is an invaluable source of feedback.

For those of you who do not have actor and director friends, a play reading is still easy to do. Just put out some wine and cheese and have a bunch of friends over to read the play. It’s usually not that hard to find volunteers. One of my friends described play readings as all the fun of a production with none of the stress and very little time commitment

Writing plays may not be for everyone. You have to be willing to put your work in the hands of strangers and hope for the best. Personally I find it very rewarding to see my words come to life. If you would like to learn more about my plays and I, please visit my website,

Mat Kelly, author of Murder by the Book

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1 Response to Murder by the Book — the mystery of playwriting, by Mat Kelly

  1. Thanks for this fascinating insight into writing for stage productions.

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