How to write a ten-minute play

How to write a ten-minute play

Frankly I’m too busy to sit through some three-hour theatre epic let alone write one; there’s the dishes to wash, the dog needs a bath and I’ve got a few episodes of ‘Lost’ just screaming to be watched.

But a ten-minute play, well that’s easy. If it only takes ten minutes to watch, it can’t take much longer to write, right?

Well in reality it can be just as tough to write a smashing ten minute play as an awesome long one. All the elements are the same (character, dialogue, story, dramatic tension and theatricality) but you’ve got such a minuscule amount of time in which to express it all.

Ten minute plays are the in ‘thing’

Apparently the ten-minute format is on the up and up, which isn’t surprising in these times of bite-sized information download. How about trying to write a twitter play in 140 characters?

Here’s mine:

Tweetplay: Lights up. Dead body on stage. Bob: I loved him. Sue: Father? B: Lover. S: My lover! Stab. Two dead bodies on stage. Lights down.

Ten minute play writing tips

I’m not an experienced writer of plays but I’ve made it into Short and Sweet a few times and reached the finals once; so here (in my humble opinion) are my top ten ten-minute play writing tips, plus a few words from writers who are infinitely more successful in this art form than my good self:

1) Make sure it lasts ten minutes

Sounds obvious, but this simple rule is forgotten by many playwrights resulting in their plays being disqualified from competitions. One page of dialogue and stage direction usually works out as one minute of stage action – depending on your spacing and font size.

2) A sketch is not a play

Make sure the play has some kind of story ‘arc’. Two blokes exchanging wisecracks in a pub is all very well, but if we’re not taken on some kind of journey, we get to the end of the play and think, ‘So what?’

In the words of Gerry Greenland, a successful Sydney based playwright and expert ten minute play writer:

“A ten-minute play can be many things but it’s not a sketch. One approach is to write the minutes leading up to the climax of a humorous or dramatic story, and then the climax itself where the characters undergo a change, preferably a self-revelation, and where the action preceding the beginning of the play is self-evident. Simplicity, a single through line and compression are the key ingredients.”

Or Pete Malicki who currently runs Crash Test Drama Sydney and a fan of the ten minute play format who says:

Telling a 10-minute story is what makes a 10-minute play great. Too many writers drag a joke out to the point of torture or attempt to condense an epic emotional journey into the length of two ad breaks.”

3) Write a play not a screen play

If you’re lucky enough to get your play read, it will probably be done script in hand in a pokey room somewhere, with no props, costumes, lighting changes or the ability for an eight foot mechanical dinosaur to storm the stage halfway through. Keep your play simple and ensure it doesn’t overly rely on any of the above to tell the story.

4) Leave something for the actors to do

I’ve read many scripts that intricately dictate the movements and actions of everyone on stage. ‘Susan giggles nervously, coughs, smoothes her skirt, reapplies her lipstick, checks her mobile and says “Hello”’. Perhaps a simple ‘nervous’ would suffice. Then the actor gets to think of lots of clever ways to show ‘nervousness’. Remember, they’ve studied acting in college and are often quite good at it.

5) Leave something for director to do

Again, plays that list every position and movement of every actor and prop on the stage, leave the director little room to manoeuvre. By all means put it in, but don’t get too precious when the director decides to do things differently.

6) Ensure there is some tension or conflict

Plays about nothing much sometimes work, but plays with some tension or conflict really pull the audience in. It doesn’t have to be a car chase, a violent exchange or an explosion. Sometimes, the simple annoyance of someone having eaten the last muffin can be enough to create the necessary drama. Plays without drama are just dialogue.  If your character ends the play in the exact same place (mentally, physically or spiritually) where he started, he must have gone on some kind of journey to get there.

In the words of the Godfather of the ten-minute genre, Alex Broun

“The secret to a really good ten minute play is a great middle. Something needs to happen around the four to six minute mark that both raises the stakes and accelerates the action. It’s like the car’s been cruising along at sixty and suddenly it accelerates to one hundred. The play speeds towards a thrilling but inevitable conclusion. If you get that right the audience will get so caught up in the characters and story they will forget they are even watching a play.”

7) Avoid exposition

Exposition (or the part of a play in which the background to the main conflict is introduced) is a killer in ten-minute play: a) It uses up loads of stage time, and b) if you have to explain the story with a lengthy narrative it’s probably too complex for the format.  Also, don’t feel you have to explain everything; audiences are quite clever at reading between the lines and will work it out.

Successful NSW playwright Donatella Parise sums it up nicely:

“Leave out the crap. The audience will understand what you’re saying, without the actors saying it.”

8) Introduce your characters quickly

We need to warm to and understand your characters quickly. Use the actor’s skill to portray a personality trait rather than explaining it to your audience in words, for example, a nervous character is tessellating the beer mats before his friend arrives, a vain character quickly picks something out of his teeth and winks at his own reflection while his date is ordering. Show it, don’t say it.

Dona sums it up nicely again:

“You don’t have the luxury of introducing all the characters in detail, so whatever you do reveal about them has to be interesting, inspiring and essential.”

9) Make it interesting to look at

If you want your ten-minute play to be shown in the theatre as opposed to on the radio, aim to make it theatrical. So many plays are just two characters sat at a table chatting – DULL! Often actors are forced to stride up and down the stage meaningfully for no reason at all, just for something to do.

10) And I woke up and found it was all a dream

Just because it’s short, doesn’t mean you can skimp on the ending. Try to avoid a cliché and don’t feel pressured to wrap it all up nicely with a little bow. Open-ended plays with no resolution can work and leave the audience with something to discuss in the interval.

Finally, of course you must enjoy it. A fair few of my plays have been damned awful to begin with or have been massacred on stage. It took me a while to let go and just enjoy the thrill of writing and the bigger thrill of seeing my work on stage.

Over to you

What do you think makes a great 10 minute play? Please add comments below!

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