Pursued By A Bear: “Should I write short plays or full length?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I see a lot of competitions asking for short plays. But it seems like theatres only put on full length plays. Should I write short plays (because it’s faster and fits in my working schedule easier), or am I better off trying to write a full length play and putting my energy here instead?”

This is quite the conundrum. Competitions are almost invariably asking for short plays, yet theatres always want full length pieces. What’s a playwright to do?

It’s worth thinking about why competition organisers tend to prefer short plays. Here are some reasons that occurred to me:

  1. Short plays are less labour intensive for the organisers; they take less time to read, so the organisers can read more of them and have a higher chance of discovering a gem
  2. Short plays are less labour intensive for playwrights; we’re more likely to take a punt on a ten minute play about a random topic, so the competition organisers will receive more entries than if they asked for an hour-long piece
  3. Several short plays can be combined in a single evening, giving coveted exposure to several playwrights, thus making the competition more appealing, and allowing the organisers to establish relationships with more of us
  4. It’s easier (arguably) to write a well-formed short play than a full-length, so the quality of work the organisers receive will generally be higher
  5. Short plays generally have fewer locations and characters, making them easier to cast and stage on a budget.

You may not agree with all of these, and they certainly don’t hold up in every situation, but I suspect it’s a bit of a numbers game with competitions. The organisers want to maximise the number of quality entries they can read, and subsequently the number of promising writers they get to meet.

For argument’s sake look at it this way; in one hour they can read ten short plays, or one full-length.

But how does writing short plays benefit us as writers?

First of all, it’s great practice. With a short play you need to tell a cohesive and engaging story within a limited timeframe. There’s no room for waffle, there’s little scope for spewing forth grand ideas, there’s just enough space for a good story. Writing plays is, first and foremost, the art of telling good stories.

You can write a whole bunch of short plays in the time it takes to write one full-length. This gives you the opportunity to develop the skill of telling powerful stories. I always find the restriction of telling a story in ten minutes forces me to focus on exactly what I need to say, and nothing more. All extraneous dialogue will be cut, every tenuously linked subplot is scrapped and the characters are kept to the barest minimum because there’s no room for extra development.

I won’t say it’s less challenging than writing a full-length, but writing a short play is definitely a different sort of challenge. Once you start writing longer pieces you’ll realise your storytelling skills and understanding of structure have to be absolutely on point or you’ll get lost. Writing a full-length means you have far more creative leeway, you have the scope to go anywhere and let your story twist and turn to your heart’s content. You can also go a lot deeper into complex issues in a long play.

A full-length play also needs to tell a coherent story, it needs to feel like a single piece of writing, it has to gel from beginning to end. This is a whole new challenge, and it requires the kind of storytelling instincts you can develop writing short plays.

Of course, writing short plays isn’t the only way to develop great storytelling skills. I’m sure there are a ton of writers out there who jumped directly into the full-length arena and kept slogging away until they slayed that particular beast.

However, I will say writing short plays is possibly less painful, and I think it’s probably a faster route. I’ve spent months working on a full-length before realising I had no idea what I was writing about. That’s a pretty crushing experience. The reason that happened to me was because I didn’t have a very well developed sense of what makes a good story at that time.

I’ve been in exactly the same situation writing short plays, but I’ve probably only wasted a week or so on each aborted endeavour. This allows me to take more risks and be a lot more experimental without losing a lot of time.

So you can write more short plays – great, but theatres want full-lengths don’t they?

Not necessarily always. Most of the competitions you’re talking about are run by or with a theatre. As I pointed out above, a lot of theatres want to meet playwrights. Short play competitions are a way for them to make contact with talented writers.

There’s nothing stopping you from writing a full-length play and sending it out to every theatre in the land. However, it will probably go to the bottom of a large pile of unsolicited scripts, so your odds aren’t great. Unless you know someone at the theatre. How do you get to know someone at the theatre?

Stalking is always an option. You could chloroform them and tie them up in your basement until they agree to read your play. Kidnap their prize-winning labradoodle and hold it hostage with a rehearsed reading as ransom. Disguise yourself as their nanny a la Mrs Doubtfire and tell them all about this great new playwright you stumbled across.

But all of those suggestions are clearly insane and highly likely to result in prison time. Or at the very least, community service. So don’t try them. And if you do try them, don’t tell anyone you got the idea from me.

You’re far more likely to be successful if you just send in a worthy entry to their short play competition. I would definitely recommend this route, and just to help you out (and shamelessly plug the column), here’s another blog post about deciding which competitions to enter.

Once you’ve entered a few short play competitions and made a bit of noise, you’re in a much better position to send a full-length to your new contacts. Your script is no longer unsolicited, you’re a known entity. They liked your short play so they’ll probably give your full-length debut a look on the strength of that existing relationship.

I’m not trying to sell the short play route to you as a shortcut or a back-door to success. It isn’t. You’ll still have to work really bloody hard and drag the most intriguing and spellbinding stories possible from the depths of your brain. I do think it gives you an advantage in the numbers game though. You can build up a bit of a rep, get your plays in front of a few audiences and theatrical gatekeepers, and make valuable contacts within the industry.

You’ll also be able to develop your storytelling talent while concentrating your efforts on specific goals and experimenting with different styles of theatre.

Don’t forget, the people putting on short play competitions want to meet playwrights. You want to be a playwright, which means you want to meet them. Invest a little time in writing short plays for worthwhile competitions and you could find it does a lot for your career.

At the very worst you’ll have written more, which is the only surefire way to improve.

A short play can also be a great way to explore whether an idea’s strong enough to carry a full-length play. Write it as a ten minute piece, get the bare bones of the story down, see how it plays, and then decide whether you want to invest the time in making it full-length. Think of it like a testing ground whereby you try plays out to see which one has the most potential.

The ultimate answer to your question is to do both. Full-length plays are the dream for most of us, you don’t really get into the Playwrights Hall of Fame without at least a few notable plays of length under your belt. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore short plays. Writing concisely is a great skill to have, and not every idea merits a two-hour epic. Some stories work best in ten minutes.

I find the odd short play increasingly satisfying to write. They can be a lot of fun and also give a more immediate reward than the months or years it takes to write a good full-length. Plus, as you say, short plays are a lot easier to fit into a busy schedule, so you can use them to keep your skills sharp when you don’t have the time to commit to a large project.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

1 thought on “Pursued By A Bear: “Should I write short plays or full length?””

  1. Really helpful! Thanks! Am at this very moment going through the ‘what is this play about’ quandary and 50 pages in! The fact that writing short plays is a great way for theatres to find writers as well as a muscle-toning tool seems obvious when you put it like that, but hadn’t quite managed to grasp it before reading this – so thanks for the tip.

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