How to Write A Ten Minute Play
As many of you will know – and all of you should know since I’m always mentioning it. You better hurry up and get revising. There’s an exam at the end of term – I belong to a group called Proteus Productions, part of Leicester University Theatre dedicated to writing, directing, and performing new short pieces of theatre every two weeks. A friend recently asked me to read through a couple of plays he’d written for the group and was a bit nervous since they were the first pieces he’s ever had a go at writing. They were very good and made me laugh until milk came out of my nose. I say ‘milk’, by which I mean ‘hot coffee’. It got me thinking, however, because people often ask me to cast an eye over their pieces (which I am very flattered by and grateful for), and so I thought I put up a quick guide to writing a ten minute piece for anyone who wants to give it a whirl.
1. Keep It Simple
You’ve got ten minutes. Ten minutes is nothing at all. You’ve waited in a queue longer than ten minutes to buy something in a busy shop. You know what that means? You’ve got to keep it simple. There’s no point having ten different character arcs and so on. It’s got to be to the point. Don’t start with too much exposition, don’t mess about with setting the scene too much, just get on with it. Jump right in and take the audience with you. They’ll enjoy exploring the scene as much as you do.
2. The Conflict-Drama Relationship
Drama is meant to demonstrate conflict, right? Right. The mistake a lot of people make when sitting down to write their first piece is that they think there must be some huge thing that has happened or that is happening that will give the play a plot. People don’t have to be dying, people don’t have to be murderers, people don’t have to have a blazing row – that’s not to say that they can’t, but steer well clear of melodrama. It’s best to remember that most daily conflict is simple and mundane and often quite boring, but it all reveals or can be used to reveal something about human nature. A lot of short pieces I’ve seen (and written) are to do with relationships – this is the easiest way to write something dramatic without too much conflict. But it gets old after a while. People want to see something else, so branch out. But remember that a conflict doesn’t have to be epic to be interesting.
Most pieces need dialogue. The characters need to speak to each other. This is one of the easiest bits to get wrong with writing a play, because it makes up most of what happens on stage (unless your name is Harold Pinter, in which case most of the play is varying lengths of pauses). I’ve talked about this before, but characters must talk how people would talk in real life (unless they’re deliberately meant to be unrealistic, of course). The other important thing is that dialogue communicates the plot to the audience. Don’t waste time with incongruences and irrelevancies. Stick to the plot. Remember, though, that people don’t always tell the truth – sometimes a lie is obvious, a discrepancy between action and words. Sometimes a lie is not at all obvious. In fact, the lie could be the basis of the piece.
Plots have to be interesting, that’s the first rule (well, the fourth rule here) of ten minute plays – indeed, of all writing. But even the greatest most epic idea in the world ever will fall flat on its arse if there’s no journey or progression for the characters. They’ve got to do something, get somewhere, establish something, discover something about themselves or any of a number of possible outcomes. But if by the end the play is exactly the same as when it started, it’s not a play. It’s just a number of people standing about doing nothing. The audience wants something to happen either in action or in words; make something happen. Take the audience on a journey.
5. Character Numbers
It’s tempting to have loads of characters, because if there’s loads of characters then that means it’s easier to write ten minutes worth of dialogue, right? Wrong. Ten characters will not help you write ten minutes quicker. In fact, you’ll be writing something that’s mostly incomprehensible. This is Occam’s Razor at its finest – entities must not be multiplied unnecessarily. Ten characters means ten character journeys (see rule 4), and that’s going to take you well over ten minutes or bore the audience. Or both. Two people having a chat can easily get you ten minutes. Two people chatting and then interrupted by a third can work wonders. As ever, remember rule 1: KEEP IT SIMPLE!
6. General Advice
Ten minutes of dialogue is hard to judge on the page. It’s around 4-5 pages of typed material, give or take. There’s no adequate measure of ten minutes in terms of written material, so don’t take this as Gospel. It’s more a rule of thumb. The proof is in the pudding, or the acting as the case may be. Eleven pages of fast paced dialogue can be done at a page a minute for example, whereas a slow moving five page piece can stretch to over ten minutes. It’s all dependent on style. But don’t stop the story short unnecessarily. Tell the whole story or don’t tell the story at all. Don’t pull yourself up on writing a longer piece if it’s going to be longer. You may have to rework the piece, or maybe it’s just suited to a longer telling.
Do get someone you trust to look over your work (I’m generally happy to help, fellow Proteans!), and do take their advice. Actors know what they’d like to be in, other writers know when they’ve got something they wish they’d written, and avid audience goers will know something they want to see. Trust criticism, but don’t feel you have to change to suit everybody’s whim. Trust criticism, trust your work.
So, there we have it, five tips and some general advice about writing ten minute plays. It’s really not all that difficult – get a pen, write a script, see where you end up. That’s your homework. Class dismissed.