So you want to write a play ...

Whether you are a theater fan or hope to someday pen a masterful play, "Playwriting for Dummies" offers fascinating insights into the birth of plays.

The how-to book is part of the ubiquitous "Dummies" series of manuals — known for their recognizable yellow covers and clear, upbeat and often humorous writing.

Award-winning playwright and instructor Angelo Parra is the author behind "Playwriting for Dummies."

Formerly a writer for a corporation, Parra took an improvisation class to overcome his fear of public speaking and so enjoyed the experience that he eventually became a playwright.

He acknowledges that most aspiring playwrights will need to keep their day jobs, but they still need to immerse themselves in the theater world, seeing and reading as many plays as possible.

His list of playwrights to know and admire include William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, August Wilson and Neil Simon.

Throughout the book, Parra provides examples from classic plays to illustrate his points — in essence providing a crash course in drama.

To create rich characters, he recommends writing up mini biographies for each that can range from a few paragraphs to pages. Playwrights must know their characters as well as they know their best friends.

According to Parra, most dramatic works — be they plays, movies or television shows — involve a character or characters overcoming, or failing to overcome, significant obstacles.

A character's path to victory must include hurdles along the way, plus setbacks and growth. If a character is destined to fail, Parra recommends allowing the person a triumph or advance before the bittersweet or even tragic ending.

Parra cautions that a play can deal with complicated subject matter and may have an ambiguous ending, but ultimately, it must be clear and accessible to audiences.

"Simplicity in this context does not mean dumbing down your story. It means telling the story with clarity," he advises.

Ideas for plays can come from many sources, including real life events. However, the playwright may need to alter events to make a play more plausible. A coincidence that happened in real life, for example, may not seem realistic to audiences.

Playwrights who are trying to convey an important message to audiences need to make sure that the play is still entertaining, not a vehicle for a lecture or sermon.

Unlike novels, which include descriptions of what characters are thinking, plays are driven by dialogue and action on stage.

Writing line after line of dialogue may seem daunting, but Parra points out there is usually action hidden in language. Characters aren't just talking, they are attacking, baiting, coaxing, deceiving, pacifying, dominating or otherwise carrying out their own agendas in relation to other characters.

To save money if a play is ever produced, Parra recommends going light on any special effects and avoiding large casts and frequent, significant scene changes.

Once the writing is done, playwrights need to get their plays noticed. He outlines a number of methods for doing so, including submitting plays to contests and competitions, networking with producers or directors, getting an agent, asking actors from community or university theaters to hold readings, or sending queries — which include a cover letter, play synopsis, and usually 10 script pages — to theaters.

If a play ever does go into production, Parra reminds playwrights that they must sacrifice most of the control to directors, actors, set designers and other theater professionals. Rewrites may be necessary and playwrights must take criticisms in stride.

Playwrights shouldn't make judgments during the early stages of rehearsal or get between the director and the actors.

Parra also offers instructions on how to copyright a play, get professional help to deal with contracts and other legal issues, or even sell the movie rights to a play.

"Playwriting for Dummies" is available through local bookstores and in the new books section of the Ashland library near the checkout counter.

For even more on playwriting, check out Will Dunne's "The Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories." Dunne's book, which is also available in the new books section at the library, features dozens of workshop-tested exercises for writers.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or Follow her at

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