How to Write a Play

Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.

This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.

The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.

Observations on How to Write a Play

Having just spent about ten hours typing out this play, I feel I’m qualified to make a few observations about the way Reginald has written Twelve Angry Men – and how this might offer pointers to other would-be playwrights.

Keep the action focussed

There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.

Define the characters

Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:

  1. He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge┬áis a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
  2. He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.

Keep the tension high

Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.

You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.

  • Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
  • Page 18: Vote 10-2
  • Page 24: Change to 9-3
  • Page 26: Vote 8-4
  • Page 31: Interval
  • Page 33: Vote 6-6
  • Page 41: Change to 5-7
  • Page 42: Vote 3-9
  • Page 45: Change to 4-8
  • Page 47: Change to 1-11
  • Page 49: Change to 0-12

Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.

Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.

I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.

What do you think?