Playwriting Vocabulary List
last updated 2/21/08
- Absurdism: humans live in a meaningless isolation in an
alien universe; existentialism--where beings move from a nothingness they
came with to a nothingness they will end with (life is hard then you die);
illogic, inconsistency, nightmarish fantasy; theater of the absurd presents
people as bewildered creatures in an incomprehensible universe (Samuel
Becket's Waiting for Godot).
- Act: a play traditionally had three acts, or you could say, three
sequences of rising action (not unlike the restorative
three act mentioned in Alternative Screenwriting) though that is
supposedly less common now; if you have a two act play, you are likely going
to end it with some major revelation that will then change everything, or
create a real hornet's nest, in the next act.
- Allienation Effect (Brecht): not allowing the viewer to suspend their disbelief (Coleridge) and get caught up in the world of the play, but making them aware at every turn that they are watching a play (usually absurdist); Brecht used this technique in the hopes that the audience would go out and make a difference in the world (that they would wake up, if you will, and not willingly go along with things).
- Alliteration: the repetition of initial identical consonants sounds or
vowel sounds (usually at the beginning of a word); Naked Playwriting
suggests that character personalities can be enhanced with this poetic
device (p. 160)
- Antagonist: the character that tries to thwart the protagonist; the
antagonist should not be any less complex than the protagonist; this might
be a Shadow figure, the dark side of the character which is overtly played
out in Star Wars. The shadow, of course, can be part of the
protagonist, their flaw (NP p. 135).
- Backstory: the background, or history, of your character(s), that
which is not in the present tense of the play.
- Beat: the smaller unit of a scene or French scene; when a sequence
of dialogue that revolves around one idea changes, the change is a beat
- Black and white hats (G. Lish): like in an old western where
the good guys and bad guys were easily designated via their clothing;
something to avoid in prose writing because complexity is usually much more
interesting to most literary readers (who don't want you to beat them over
the head; see NP p. 123).
- Bricoleur: someone who creates something from already existing
pieces; if all language is already existing, then we can only be bricoleurs;
the dada artists created collages from already existing photos, objects,
fabrics, and texts, so I would call them bricoleurs.
- Catalyst (NP p. 122, 129): the event or character that makes the
protagonist start to act to fulfill their core dramatic desire
- Character Arc (NP p. 128): the Fryetag's triangle of the
character--he or she will change, will be different by the end of the play
- "Cleansed of Invention" (NP p. 18): famous playwright and
screenwriter David Mamet's quote about plays that have obvious right and
wrong, good and bad binaries.
- Confidant (NP p. 155): probably a minor character, someone the
protagonist, or even the antagonist, can confess secrets to, or can tell
backstory/esposition to. Considered rather old school.
- Consonance: the repetition of ending consonant sounds, but the vowel
sounds are different.
- Deus Ex Machina: the thing/angel/magic that swoops in to save the day (avoid this
unless you are working with absurdity or comedy; NP p. 34).
- Dissection (NP p. 208+): usually oral or written summary comments
and critiques of the play, often after a public reading.
- Dramaturg (NP p. 285): the person at the theater who provides
everyone with background on the play and it's language and production
issues, as well as it's production history.
- Epic Theater: plays that work with many characters, sets, and that
span large amounts of time. Usually these plays are much harder to get
produced because of costs.
- French Scene: the smaller unit of a Scene; a slight change in the
dynamics on stage any time a character exits or enters
- Freytag's Triangle: rising action, crisis or climax, perhaps a realization
(epiphany), then a falling off or dénouement, and closure
(resolution? revisioning?); the classic
structure of traditional narrative; most traditional readers expect this
sort of arc in a piece of fiction.
- Internal Logic: what is the play trying to be? If it's a
parody, then you can't read it with realism lenses. If it's trying for
realism, you can't read it with absurdist or postmodern lenses (NP p. 211).
- MDQ: major dramatic question, or premise/theme of the play.
- Naturalism (NP p. 31): a grittier form of Realism that might focus
on "poverty, disease, and prostitution;" the American novel went
through a naturalistic period at the end of the 1800's. Sara Kane is
considered a naturalist playwright in that she deals with rape, family
decay, and insanity.
- Performance Art (NP p. 133): apparently anything that isn't realism
like monologues by Eve Ensler. I would say that performance art is
something less dialogue oriented, and thus less like a play.
- Persona: a specific and cohesive voice or personality; a mask that
we might put on for a specific audience or time
- Playwright: like a shipwright, someone who builds plays; this
metaphor makes it seem as if we bring all these pieces together and assemble
them in to a theater piece that feels fresh...oh, wait, that is what we
do. We are all bricoleurs, as Derrida said.
- Postmodernism: could be said to have started after 1945 when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima; the feeling that life is not only absurd, but impossible to look at with sane lenses; in terms of craft, a postmodern text might differ from an absurdist text in terms of increased excess, meta-theatrics (foregrounding the act of writing), extreme randomness...
- Premise: (NP p. 3--Egri) the theme of the play; probably something
that comes from the deeply held beliefs or ideologies of the
writer (yet one must not be didactic, or cleanse one's work of invention like
Mamet says NP p. 18).
- Protagonist: the central character in a dramatic play; does not
have to be a type (and shouldn't be in contemporary plays) like a
hero. Is likely to have some key flaw that prevents action, but
eventually the protagonist must act.
- Readings (NP p. 106+): our text doesn't really talk about
traditional workshops, but what it does talk about is having a private
reading of your work first where you take notes, and then revise.
Later, you might be able to find a theater that does New Play Development,
or public readings for a selected audience that is then followed by
- Realism: Naked Playwriting focuses on realism which relies on the willing suspension of disbelief of the audience and works with believability, with characters, situations, scenes, and settings that are not overly excessive or stylized (though still using dramatic action as opposed to everyday action).
- Relevance Test (NP p. 115): when building characters, ask yourself
if the an "element of a character's history affects the character's
actions during the onstage course of the story." If the answer is
yes, include it.
- Restorative Three Act Structure: (from Alternative Screenwriting)
- Scenario (NP ch. 4): where you lay out your acts, scenes, and
french scenes, and what the characters do in each.The lady
protesteth too much
- Scene: the smaller units of an Act; when there is a scene change
there must actually be a setting change or a time change; each scene has
it's own little arc of rising action.
- Shadow (NP p. 135): the Jungian
shadow is something that is dark within us, something that he says is
darker the more we deny it or are unaware of it. "The lady doth
protest too much," thus she must be hiding something!
- Topical Reference: a brand name or a dated detail that may not be
understood by all audiences later; NP might call this "Trendy" (17).
- Types (NP p. 2-3): Jung's
archetypes, or Joseph Campbell's mythic prototypes like "the Hero,
the Wise Old Man,
the Shadow, the Trickster,
the Elixir" etc.
- Unity of Action (NP p. 11): "the cohesiveness that brings all the
elements--conflict, crisis, characters, and action--to bear on a single