How to Write a 10-Minute Play

So, I’ve been writing the ten minute play for a number of years now. I’d like to think I’ve been doing it with a bit of success, too. Though one could never be sure. I can attest to the fact that the audiences seemed to like my work. Being in an audience when they’re laughing during the unraveling of a comedic play you wrote is extremely rewarding. I consider myself blessed to have experienced that. But I’m rather hard on myself, as a writer…so I tend to allow the actors and the directors to take the blame for the laughter. (-: After all, the script is merely the scaffolding. Right?

So, now that I have had seven 10-minute plays produced…I feel I may be able to offer some advice for others considering the 10-minute play market. It is a favourite of mine. A good 10-minute play can contain the world within its rigidly timed existence. You just have to work like hell to contain it.

1. I learned the hard way that there is a world of difference between a sketch and a play. If your characters are not transforming and going through some kind of self-revelation, you could very well have written a sketch. A play is a complete story, whether that play is 10-minutes long or two hours long. You need an arc. A conversation where nothing really happens and no wisdom is gained and no change takes place is simply a conversation. A lot of first time 10-minute playwrights make the mistake of creating a sketch when they attempt a play, myself included. Last year, during the InspiraTO Festival in Toronto…there was a last-minute call for a play in one of the festival’s satellite locations. As I already had a play in the festival, to take place on the Alumnae Theatre stage, I received the call automatically. I jumped on the opportunity. By the end of the day of the call, I sent in what I mistakenly thought of as a play. Fortunately, it seemed to have some good bones. The Artistic Director, Dominik Loncar, worked with me to flesh out my idea and bring the sketch into the realm of play. I think working with Dominik to create this play was one of the most educational experiences I had in the playwriting process. So, always make sure your play is a full story which culminates in a character change.

2. This one is so easy, it seems self-explanatory. But I have often struggled with it myself. So, I know it needs to be said. For those of you who follow guidelines to a tee, this rule should not be a surprise to you at all. For those of you who think it’s perfectly natural to send a 7,000 word story into a magazine whose submission guidelines clearly state ‘stories should be no more than 3,000 words’, please take heed. There are guidelines for a reason. Ignoring them is the first opportunity the publisher/producer/what-have-you has of culling the pack and rejecting you. Don’t make it easy for people to reject you. ALWAYS read and follow the guidelines. I know from personal experience that well over 50% of submissions are sent in by people who prefer to think of themselves as above submission guideline parameters. As a past acquisitions editor, my job was made quite easy by those who ignored guidelines. I’ve gone on long enough. I tend to get ranty when I discuss writers’ inabilities to follow guidelines. #2 of my advice is that you ensure your play is 10-minutes in running time. NOT ELEVEN. NOT TEN AND A HALF. TEN. End of story. I ‘perform’ my plays over and over again to ensure they meet this criteria.

3. Stage Direction. Use it wisely. Actors are brilliant. While developing their character, they soon learn everything about who that character is. From that place, they can see how that character moves. You don’t want to fill your play with minor business (BUSINESS is the term for what is happening within the play that is not dialogue). If there are necessary directions you feel would move your play forward, by all means include them. But please trust implicitly in the actors and director. They’ll know how to include the right business. I’m sure it infuriates these people no end to be told through stage direction each and every step and movement they are to perform.

4. Give your character a WANT/DESIRE. And then put obstacles in her way. This will create tension. Tension is good. Tension is necessary. Your character needs to propel–be propelled–into the heart of the play. Nothing moves a character more than a shiny carrot dangling just outside of their reach.

5. I think there’s a fine line between KEEP IT SIMPLE and GIVE IT PIZZAZZ. Keeping it simple is required. You only have ten minutes to tell a full story, to bring a character from one place in their life to another. This is not a movie. You can’t have extraordinary props. Your goal is to get to the audience’s raw nerve–be it through comedy, drama, fear, what-have-you. Leave the glitz of the movie world on the silver screen. But this is not to say you can’t give your play pizzazz. You want to make it theatrical, larger than life. You can do this without explosions and special effects. You need to find a perfect balance between simple and exciting. Think of simple as budget-related. Often, you’re working with bare-minimum stage props. Think of exciting as character-related. Give your characters great dialogue and a great compelling story the audience won’t be able to tear themselves away from. Make the walk to the climax a dazzling crescendo.

Scene from Perfect Timing, one of my 2013 InspiraTO Festival plays.
Scene from Perfect Timing, one of my 2013 InspiraTO Festival plays.

The best advice I could give someone who aspires to get into the 10-minute play business? Surround yourself with people in the know. Approach theatre groups. Take in 10-minute festivals in your area. Nothing teaches one more about writing than reading. Nothing teaches one more about 10-minute playwriting, than watching 10-minute plays. Don’t be afraid to write a play and submit it. There are 10-minute festivals all over the world, now. You don’t have to have the title of playwright to write a play. That comes after. Just dive in!

Scene from Perfect Timing, one of my 2013 InspiraTO Festival plays.
Scene from Perfect Timing, one of my 2013 InspiraTO Festival plays.

(I’ve had some great opportunities from people willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity. 10-Minute festivals are a great way to get your foot in the door of live theatre. Without people like Jeremy Smith of Driftwood Theatre and Dominik Loncar of InspiraTO Festival, I’d still be dreaming about being a playwright…instead of being a playwright. Go forth and find your way in.)

Scene from Perfect Timing, my 2013 InspiraTO Festival play.
Scene from Perfect Timing, my 2013 InspiraTO Festival play.

Suggested Reading: The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

Photos are from PERFECT TIMING, one of my 2 InspiraTO Festival plays. Those involved in bringing it to life include:

Dramaturge / MC Thompson
Director / Kim Sprenger
Cast / Liam Doherty (Carl)
Cast / Jennifer Gillespie (Melissa)











You can check out my novels at my AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE They are: Summer on Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, The Reasons, Burn Baby Burn Baby, and, Half Dead & Fully Broken. The horror anthology Purgatorium, which includes a short story by me, is also listed there.

Writing Really Good Dialogue

(When I was first asked to write an article on this topic, I was blown away. This meant that somebody out there in the world must think that I write good dialogue. Somebody is asking me for advice on writing ‘really good dialogue’. I was over the moon. Then, as I began to analyze my methods, I realized I didn’t have any methods. I came to the conclusion while writing the article below that I may just be a savant. But, then, I feel that may be giving myself too much credit. Maybe I just get lucky? Maybe it was an accident that I ever wrote good dialogue? Maybe, they just wanted me to feel good? Maybe the author they originally had booked to write the article was crushed in an ugly double-decker bus accident? Maybe…

Writing Really Good Dialogue

(This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of the WCDR Word Weaver. Past issues can be found here. Most recent issues are available to WCDR members only.)

I was flattered to be asked to address the topic of writing great dialogue. Then I tried to tackle it. How does one write dialogue? It’s the one aspect of writing I feel I’m good at. My confidence level as a writer is low, but I feel confident with the dialogue I create. But to explain how to write great dialogue seemed way too daunting a task!

So I Googled it. None of the online articles had anything to do with my approach. They said, writing good dialogue is hard work; a great read is a hard write; it’s incredibly difficult to write good dialogue; you must know your characters before you can create great dialogue.

Bullsh*t, I say. For me, I must stop thinking before I can write great dialogue. Just write. Thinking gets in the way of dialogue. After I read a few articles and realized I couldn’t relate, I almost gave up. I don’t know my characters. Sometimes I can’t even remember their names after writing an entire novel with them. But I do know this: what I know about my characters I did not find out before I wrote their dialogue. To me, that notion is just ludicrous. I discover my characters as the dialogue comes out of them. The dialogue forms the character, not the other way around. Their words give me a true picture of who they are.

To write great dialogue, you can’t write what you hear on the street. People are staccato in conversation. They prattle on and change topics and say so much that does not pertain to the task at hand. In fiction you can’t do this. Every word must count. Dialogue has to be written MUCH better than real life conversation. It has to focus on the story and stay within its parameters. Great dialogue would probably NOT happen in real life, but done right and the reader will swear it sounds like real-life conversation. Like the rest of the fictional landscape, dialogue has to be larger than life. It’s a conundrum, really. Write dialogue too authentic and you’ve blown it, write it too stilted and unauthentic and you’ve blown it.

A writer needs to create individual personalities through dialogue and keep their characters on task while doing so. Characters will shape themselves and the story through their words. But knowing what they need to say to keep the story moving is only half the work. How they say things is important to the reader’s ear. This is why I read all my dialogue out loud by itself. I remove tags and the surrounding prose and then I have a conversation with myself to listen to HOW my characters are saying what they’re saying. And I speak the dialogue fast, so I can see where contractions would come into it in real life conversation. We’re a lazy bunch, us talkers. The use of contractions alone will go a long way in making your dialogue appear authentic.

As I sat down to write this, I discovered I might be a bit of an automaton when it comes to writing dialogue. Then I realized you NEED to be an automaton, to just write dialogue without thinking about it. Most people these days just open their mouths and speak. I’m not saying this is right, but it is the way it’s done. So when you’re in the grip of story, become your characters. Get inside their heads and spit out the first words that come into their mouths. That’s probably what they would say, and that’s also what would make them each unique. Stop thinking and start speaking.

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