A one-act play is usually between 10-40 pages long, and is often called a “tenner” because of the short length. Writing one-acts can be an excellent way for new playwrights to learn the basics of story and character construction. While there are no set rules for how to write a one-act play, some basic guidelines may help clear away any confusing format or content problems and truly allow the writer to get their script out.
Traditional plays, and often one-act plays, sometimes conform to the unities of drama as discussed by the philosopher Aristotle. These guidelines suggest that a play should take place with a unity of location, time and action. In other words, plays should have one location, be set over a period of no more than one day, and have one central plot. These unities are somewhat more helpful in writing one-acts, as the 10-40 minute running time will not leave a lot of room for set changes or subplots.
A one-act play usually will have four or less characters that are developed in varying degrees. Depending on the story you are trying to tell, there may be one or more main characters. In some short plays, the roles are balanced equally, in others, some roles may only have a few lines. Even though your play is short, you should have a clear idea of who your characters are, what they want, and how they will try to get what they want.
Many experts believe that the most important element to any play is conflict. This does not necessarily mean fighting or arguing. A man being sad about throwing away his baby blanket is in conflict with himself. Equally, two people trying to decide what couch to buy is also a conflict. Conflicts are merely a contrast between desires or needs, but they are essential to give a scene and a play life.
Because a one-act play is so short, most experts recommend you avoid extensive exposition. If the play is about Mary and John arguing in a restaurant, the audience does not need to know where they were born, how many siblings they have or any information extraneous to the play. It does not mean that the playwright cannot know these things, but you can waste valuable time giving explanations or background about things that do not affect the immediate outcome of the scene or situation.
Once you have written a one-act and feel it is in good shape, give it to a few trusted friends to read. Insist that they give you objective criticism. While it may be nice to hear that you are an excellent writer from your friends, it will not help you as much as good, solid critique. Encourage any friends who write to try writing a one-act play. Evenings of one-act plays by several local playwrights are a great way to get your work performed.
You may wish to read examples of one-act plays to understand how they are written and what can be done with them, check out some in the genre you enjoy. If you like classical literature, Moliere and Anton Chekov both wrote extensive collections of one-acts. David Ives is considered by many theater critics to be the greatest modern mind when it comes to one-act comedies. For drama, you may wish to look at the work of Horton Foote or David Henry Hwang.
The most important thing to remember in writing a one-act play is to be passionate about your subject. Playwriting is not a key to a millionaire lifestyle, and whether you do it as a hobby or career it should be because it is what you love to do. Ignore all other rules in favor of getting your one-act play to be something you are proud to have written.