Things I wish I’d known when starting out: the difference between a ‘sketch’ and a short play

I recently was acting as mentor for a group of emerging playwrights. I read individual sample scripts and fed back to them in one to one sessions on how to develop the work and identify the weaker elements that needed enhancing. I believe in the old adage ‘good writers work on their strengths, but great writers work on their weaknesses.’ When I’m in a similar position, getting feedback and responses to new work I’m developing, I far prefer to have what isn’t clear or not working pointed out to me than be soothed with compliments, and so assume the same of those who have sought out my opinion on their draft.

During the day of feedback, I kept hearing the same phrases coming out of my mouth. ‘This isn’t working as a short play; this isn’t drama per se.’ My lovely enthusiastic writers were putting in the hours, but as novices they were still unfamiliar with the basics.

Several chose to write what could be defined as ‘sketches’ – short, sometimes whimsical pieces that revealed an idiosyncrasy or linguistic misunderstanding, usually at the expense of one of the (invariably naïve) characters. Others were comedy sketches, complete with an imagined drumroll and sardonic ‘wah-wah-wah’.

Now, there is nothing wrong with writing sketches. They require skill, timing, good pace and tempo-rhythm and an often quirky, fresh way of viewing the world. The short pieces I was given to critique showed promise and potential, but the writers wanted to move on to longer, fuller length pieces, and this is where their inexperience showed. None felt confident they could ‘stretch’ their material to cover a longer time frame than ten minutes.

The pieces they were writing were ‘sketches’ as the material was ‘thin’ – they had ‘sketched in’ mouthpieces, comedy stereotypes to deliver the material, which only existed to serve the punch line. They hadn’t yet created complex, three-dimensional characters who could be imagined to exist beyond the given scenario. The locations were often generic: ‘a shop’ – but where? Windsor, Isle of Snark, Barbados, Llantwit Major…? And what kind of shop, serving what kind of people, with what kind of life experience, aspirations, hopes, fears, antipathies, fatal flaws, intricate pasts?

But what of the material itself, the nub of an idea that a short play might be built around? We discussed the necessity of selecting material carefully, and identifying what might be rich rather than ‘thin’.

Many years ago I was at a masterclass Arnold Wesker gave on playwriting and one piece of advice always stayed with me. He said we needed to understand the difference between an anecdote and dramatic material. An anecdote he identified as something we tell across a dinner table. It is specific and engaging, but is gone the moment it is told. The stuff of dramatic material is something less definable – it is identifying what can be made powerful on stage.

Distinguish between… material that is anecdotal and material which resonates, carries meaning into other people’s lives across time and frontiers.’

From ‘Wesker on Theatre.’ Arnold Wesker.

The participants said they’d go away and think more about this and to take time with dreaming, compiling, selecting and distinguishing different kinds of raw material and its potential, rather than settling for the first possibility which presented itself.

I wish them joy and good luck.

4 responses to “Things I wish I’d known when starting out: the difference between a ‘sketch’ and a short play

  1. This is very interesting reading at a time when micro-plays are becoming so fashionable – a burgeoning interest in flash fiction is starting to influence playwrights and theatre programmers alike. I understand that the ambition is generally to present something fresh, authentic and immediate, but often the tiny word count can prove a limiting factor in terms of craft and scope. There is a huge difference between a sketch and a one-act play – nice to see it so neatly summarised!

    • I hadn’t put this together before – ie, the fashion also for flash fiction… so thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, too – and thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Even though I’m not a playwright, I find your posts extremely helpful and stimulating when facing creation in any kind of art. Guess you’re mentoring me at distance 😉
    Thank you so much!

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