If you’ve always had a story you want to turn into a play but don’t know where to start, or if your literary efforts have stalled after the first draft, or failed to enthuse others, then Shelly Frome’s useful tome may be the inspiration you need to reach the next level and give you the push to see your play on the stage.
The book first appeared in 1990, and has recently been reissued. Whilst the fundamentals of playwriting haven’t changed at all in the intervening quarter century, there are a few aspects of the book that betray its age. The first is a matter of style: Frome makes his case about how to construct good theatre through words alone. Although the book is short, with 160 pages on the actual subject matter (plus some for the appendices and index), it is presented purely as text, where the modern fashion is to break up words with diagrams and illustrations. This is purely a matter of taste, but if you tend to learn better with visual aids, this may not be the right book for you. If you prefer to follow unbroken tracts of text when presented with a thesis, you’ll find Frome’s writing clear and logical.
More fundamentally, the internet has changed aspects of the submission process, with literary agencies increasingly inclined to accept email submissions, and social media and forums playing a large part in maintaining a community of writers where advice can be sought and given. Thus the later chapters are now not completely redundant, but they are limited in their application.
The elements of the book that seem dated come later on, but the early chapters on what makes drama work, how to structure beats and scenes, how to craft credible characters and all the other vital components of playwriting are as astute now as they were when first written. The first half of the book is jammed full of extremely useful guidance, offering excerpts from well-known texts as examples. Where the fundamentals of the craft are concerned, you can’t fault Frome’s guidance.
A note of caution to prospective UK readers is that the book is written in favour of an American audience. The landscape is Broadway, and the example texts tend to come from American authors such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albee and N. Richard Nash. It is not exclusive, and Frome redresses the balance referring to works of a few European writers. He uses Hamlet to illustrate structuring the initial conflicts of a play, and there’s an excellent assessment of the shifting balance of power in a scene between Nora and Krogstad in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Non-American readers would do well to stay with the book until the end because there is a series of conversations between Frome and various people within the profession, most notably Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. The author’s exchanges with agents and publishers as well as established playwrights (Robert Anderson, AR Gurney, Connie Congdon as well as Uhry) provide valid insight from those best-placed to give it.
Overall, Playwriting: A Complete Guide to Creating Theater will help beginning playwrights the most, with condensed invaluable advice presented with clear explanations and well-known examples. Some of the later aspects of the book concerning the process of plays in development may now be dated, and of most benefit to American readers; but there is enough quality advice to recommend it as a valid and useful resource for writers for the stage, specifically for its sections on the craft of playwriting.