Collision Course

Layer plot lines and characters to give your play the substance it needs to be a full-length production.
Publish date:

Taking your hero from start to finish of his quest should never look like an easy journey. How boring to have to sit through scenarios on stage in which the path is relatively devoid of speed bumps, competent adversaries or past scars that fill the protagonist with self-doubt! In concert, these obstacles are critical in addressing a common mistake new playwrights make in crafting plausible conflicts—specifically, if the "problem" can be solved in one conversation or task, it's not deep enough to sustain a full-length production.

For your characters' collision with destiny to be as credible as it is compelling, the trick is to show that what they want isn't always commensurate with what they still need to learn.

Layers of complication

Theatrical history is replete with star-crossed romances, mistaken identities and cunning one-upmanship in which players seek to take advantage of one another's confidence or ignorance. What makes these plots entertaining, of course, are the successive layers of complication stemming from two coexisting objectives that may or may not be compatible.

The primary objective, the "A" line, is the protagonist's central quest. For instance, the title characters in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet want to get married in spite of their respective parents' wishes to the contrary. The secondary, "B" line goal is their desire to keep both families happy. If it were as simple as the Montagues and the Capulets sitting down at the same table and being told by their offspring that the marriage would proceed with or without their blessing, it would make for a much shorter play. Instead, the forbidden romance forces the enlistment of confederates to keep their trysts secret, a condition that fuels an already volatile equation and results in the lovers' tragic demise.

In Arthur Miller's timeless Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman's "A" expectation is that his decades of loyalty to his employer will finally result in an in-town job. The play's "B" thread, however, centers on ageism and the phasing out of older workers in favor of younger ones (or, in a more modern context, the advent of technology). Loman's wishes run counter to the larger picture of society's indifference toward his welfare and that of his family.

Coming-of-age angst takes center stage in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. Gawky tween Frankie's primary "A" quest is for the world—or at least her immediate family—to pay more attention to her. In this play, the parallel "B" track is her inevitable transition to young womanhood, a segue that Frankie herself is unaware of until it actually happens and fulfills her need for validation.

Layers of collision

The layers of collision inherent in any given plot will also dictate the appropriate length necessary to resolve the "A" and "B" clash. One-act plays, for instance, can be likened to the format of half-hour TV sitcoms. In this venue, the lack of any below-the-surface ("B") journey or self-realization reduces the outcome to a simple yes or no. For example:

  • Will Joey and Chandler find the lost baby before Ross gets home? ("Friends")
  • Will Jeannie's evil twin sister steal Major Nelson's heart before the wedding? ("I Dream of Jeannie")
  • Will Raymond pull off a surprise birthday party for Debra? ("Everybody Loves Raymond")

In each of these scenarios, there's neither enough substance to stretch the material out for longer than 22 minutes nor enough tangential opposition to even achieve a balanced fight. Let's say that your theatrical plot is about a man and woman—former college lovers—who find themselves sitting next to each other on the same flight to L.A. With feelings of affection suddenly rekindled and the absence of external encumbrances such as spouses, life-threatening illnesses or incompatible careers, there's no reason they can't get together. There's also no reason for us to watch them for longer than one act because we've already figured out that they're perfect for each other.

What if we complicate the mix, though, with the fact that (1) she's the sister of his current wife, (2) her corporation is taking over his, (3) her teenage son just came out of the closet and (4) his latest health check-up revealed he has a heart condition and needs to avoid stress. Much as we may want them to take a second chance on love, their respective emotional baggage will now take more than one conversation to offload.

Furthermore, the plot's unpredictability is the result of their personal objectives being opposed, not necessarily opposite. The true resolution resides in the "B" level of their collision; specifically, whether they'll be able to put their hearts' desire above the expectations of those around them or be forced to part company because the level of jeopardy is too great.

Layers of character

The final component of your collision course is the question of how many characters in your plot are aware of the truth, secret or underlying risk. The ease with which the mystery is eventually revealed is dependent on the author's skill at keeping the right combinations from getting together and comparing notes. The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde), Charley's Aunt (Brandon Thomas), Lend Me a Tenor (Ken Ludwig) and Twelfth Night (Shakespeare) excel at these machinations, further supporting the fact that the more players involved in the duplicity, the longer time it will take to achieve an "A" and "B" alliance and tie up all the loose ends.

The defeat or triumph of a character in conflict isn't what ultimately resonates with your audience; it's the believability of the battle itself that forges a common ground.


The “Secret Sauce” Necessary to Succeed at a 30-Day Writing Challenge

In this article, author and writing coach Nina Amir lays out her top tips to master your mindset and complete a 30-day writing challenge.


Crashing Into New Worlds: Writing About the Unfamiliar

Award-winning crime author Stephanie Kane explains how she builds characters unlike herself and navigates their worlds to create vivid and realistic stories.


Plot Twist Story Prompts: Without a Trace

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave without a trace.


Vintage WD: The Truth about True Crime

In this article from July 2000, true crime novelist and former New York Times correspondent Lisa Beth Pulitzer shares with us some key insights for breaking into the true crime genre.


New Agent Alert: Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Evoking Emotion in Fiction: Seven Pragmatic Ways to Make Readers Give a Damn

Evoking emotion on the page begins with the man or woman at the keyboard. Dustin Grinnell serves up seven straightforward tactics for writing tear-jerking stories that make your readers empathize with your characters.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 546

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a spooky poem.


Learn Better World-Building Strategies Through World of Warcraft and the New Shadowlands Expansion

WD editor and fantasy writer Moriah Richard shares five unique ways in which writers can use World of Warcraft to better build their worlds—without playing the game.