A good drama is like a good joke.
A good joke is a streamlined arrow pointed straight at the punch line. Whether complex or simple, a well crafted joke contains only those elements that build that punch line. Bad joke tellers get caught up in useless details that veer the joke away from the punch line and make the listener lose interest and give a courtesy laugh. Sad, but true.
A good play, be it a screenplay or a stage play or even a skit, is like a good joke. Every moment, every aspect of the piece is focused on bringing the audience to an “aha” moment, when a light comes on. In comedy, its’ the big laugh of the piece. In drama, it’s the moment when the audience awakens to a new thought. In either case, each element of the play, each act, each scene, and each character, points to that moment. That’s the hallmark of good writing.
As I write for volunteers, I find I must often include characters to make sure they all get a chance to act. It gets difficult to balance the needs of the audience with the needs of the volunteers, so I use these guidelines for writing:
Begin with the end in mind. A good joke writer starts with the punch line and works backwards. That’s how you should write your dramatic piece, too. What are you trying to say? When you write for volunteers, you have to add a second question: how many people do you have to include?
Make each character support the point of the piece. Even if the character has two lines in a big scene, those two lines should add to the overall purpose. Say, for example, a lead character is meeting someone in a restaurant. The waiter comes to his table. The waiter is only in this scene, and won’t be remembered by the audience when this scene is done. But the waiter can augment the emotional setting for the lead. Perhaps it’s going to be a tense meeting. The waiter could add to the tension by being remote or austere. If it’s a romantic meeting, perhaps the waiter could be aloof and funny (you can use the funniness to bond the romantic characters together). The point is that even a three-line walk on can be used to convey meaning in a scene.
Be careful to keep characters real. As a caveat to the above, strive to keep characters realistic. Even though minor parts and bit characters need to add to the overall scene, their attributes need to support the overall piece. In the romantic meeting in the restaurant, the waiter can be funny, but not be so funny as to pull focus from the point of the scene, and, therefore, the whole piece.
Let subtlety rule the day. I find that pieces play better when they don’t hit the audience over the head with the big idea. No one character should ever say the point of the piece. Unless you’re writing melodrama, no character should ever say “Why, the whole thing was right here in front of my eyes all along. I guess we all need to stop and smell the roses.” People just don’t say those things in real life. Let the audience put the pieces together.
Finally, maintain the fourth wall. An audience willingly accepts a piece wherein each character they see is appropriate, believable, and subtle. They get comfortable with the circumstances you’ve created, and leave the outside world behind. They focus on the message you are trying to convey. An inappropriate character can jar the audience out of your scene and back into reality. Their focus is lost, and your message won’t get through.
If you focus your writing on building good characters, you’ll eventually find them showing up at exactly the right moment to move your pieces along. How do you know they’re good characters? They’re appropriate to the scene, they’re subtle in their dialog, and they support the overall goal of the scene. And, ultimately, your audience gets the joke.