The holy trinity of writing plays: psychology, journalism and poetry

Plays are classified as literature, but I’ve always understood writing plays as a combination of psychology, journalism and poetry.

When all three elements work well together, the best work tends to come out. So it’s important to understand the different qualities you need to bring, or the different ‘hats’ you need to wear, when writing a play.

A playwright is, first of all, a psychologist.To write plays, you need a deep interest in people and an intuitive understanding of human nature. That means high emotional intelligence, but it doesn’t stop there. You should want to know what it actually feels like inside someone else’s skin. Not simply to have empathy and insight, but be able to inhabit a character. A character you’ve created. 

So, you make up people in your head and write scenes from interactions they have with each other. It sounds crazy when you put it like that. But it’s closer to psychology than anything else. A creative form of psychology.

To write characters that are complex and real for an actor to fully bring to life, you must be able to understand what their thoughts, feelings and actions would be in any situation. When you’re writing well and you’ve done the preparation, this can happen effortlessly. But more often than not, it’s hard work.

Sometimes the characters you must inhabit aren’t very nice people. Or they’re a good person in a harrowing situation. It might be a paedophile, a drug addict or a domestic abuse victim. 

It’s impossible not to be affected by that. I’ve carried out some disturbing character research over the years. But those difficult characters hold a fascination for me, like a criminologist or a therapist, and that’s the key to it. To have no fear of what you might create or what dark corners you might find yourself in. 

A playwright is, secondly, a journalist. Some playwrights are more obviously on this end of the spectrum than others. But I think all playwriting involves some level of journalism. And in modern theatre, particularly, it’s important that a play comments on the society around it. 

Playwriting as we know it began in Ancient Greece, where it’s primary function was political discourse. Playwrights were required to provide commentary on current events and issues, even if through stories about the Gods.

It’s similar now, but more subtle. Particularly in terms of what motivates venues to program, and audiences to watch, a new play. They want to learn something, to see new perspectives on their world. Being ‘current’ is a huge box office draw. So having a well-written play on a hot political topic really boosts your chances of getting a venue’s attention. 

So a playwright must also think like a journalist. We are often motivated by themes and issues that we want to explore through the medium of a play. But the research and thought process can be similar to a journalist. And we have the same responsibility for the integrity of what we offer. 

Some playwrights even write about real events and people. We differ to journalists in our use of artistic licence but, fundamentally, we’re contributing to the discourse and we can’t hide behind it being ‘art’ if we haven’t got our facts right. 

And finally, a playwright is also a poet.

The Elizabethan dramatists in England, led by Shakespeare and Marlowe, were literally poets. They were colloquially called ‘theatre poets’, and often wrote in verse. Today we don’t write in verse (although a few brave playwrights like to) but the characteristics of poetry are there.

This is how playwriting really differs from conventional literature. For a play is really about dialogue, the interaction between characters. Whether it’s a naturalistic kitchen sink drama or an abstract dreamscape, it relies on the spoken word. The fragments, rhythms and subtexts of everyday speech; and it has a lot in common with poetry. 

The average commercial novel contains 78,000 words. In comparison, a five-act play runs to around 4,000 words of dialogue across 2 hours. And a poem? Perhaps 200 words across 2 minutes when spoken aloud. So the ratio of spoken words across time is similar in poetry and plays.

When you have fewer words to work with, it really focuses the mind on what each one can do. Playwrights and poets both understand the power of combining simplicity and complexity. The beauty of space and silence. And the thrill in allowing words to take centre stage. 

Which ‘hat’ do I enjoy wearing the most? Psychologist, journalist or poet? It varies according to the project. Sometimes I get swept away in the journalism and become engrossed in research. Other times I’m compelled by the psychology of a character as I grapple to understand them.

But mostly it’s the poetry I love – that’s really why I got into playwriting in the first place. It was the most natural progression from the poetry I’d been experimenting with. 

Only, in writing plays you can use swear words. Which is much better.