How do I Write a One-Act Play?

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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.


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Post 5

I am writing a one act play and I would like to know how many minutes is a successful show.

Post 4

I'm entering a one act play writing competition and I'm not yet sure what defines a one act play specifically, as opposed to a play having more than one act.

What I mean is that I want the play to take place over a period of time (days) and for it to have different scenes (maybe about five to seven). The majority of the scenes will be in the street. Does this still qualify as a one-act play?

Post 3

I am a college student, and I am currently composing two one-act plays. Both may be considered "borderline" depending on your take on it. I love to play around and kind of put a "spin" on religion, such as the ever popular one-act play by Terrence McNally, "Corpus Christi".

Would there be any other way to receive publication without actually having it performed first? Seeing as the performance part of it would be a difficult task without it being a published work. Please let me know what I should do.

Thank you, Borderline Playwright

Post 2

Hi, young writer. As a playwright myself, let me tell you- the first step to publication is getting a performance of your play done. Publishers will only publish plays that they know have a strong history of performance or have won awards. If your play is for young people, hold auditions at your school and talk to school officials about having performances on campus. If it's for adults, contact local theater groups and see if they are interested in new material. If you can establish a few local productions of the play, it will be easier to get published. Also, do an internet search on playwriting competitions. There are some excellent ones for people your age. If you can win or place high, you may win money and valuable exposure as a writer.

And keep writing! If you can't get this one published, you may be able to get the next one!

Post 1

I just wrote a 20-page one-act play and I want to get it published. I am 14 years old, but I am an excellent writer. Could i get some advice on how to get it published? If it helps, I live in Virginia Beach, Virginia.~Young Writer

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