Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet

While it is plain that no two writers ever have, nor ever will, go about writing a playlet in precisely the same way, and impossible as it is to lay down rules which may be followed with precision to inevitable success, I shall present some suggestions, following the logical order of composition.

First, however, I must point out that you should study the vaudeville stage of this week, not of last year or even of last month, before you even entertain a germ idea for a playlet. You should be sure before you begin even to think out your playlet, that its problem is in full accord with the very best, and that it will fit into vaudeville’s momentary design with a completeness that will win for it an eager welcome.

You should inquire of yourself first, “Is this a comedy or a serious playlet I am about to write?” And if the latter, “Should I write a serious playlet?”

One of vaudeville’s keenest observers, Sime Silverman, editor of Variety, said when we were discussing this point: “Nobody ought to write a tragic or even a serious playlet who can write anything else. There are two or three reasons why. First, vaudeville likes laughter, and while it may be made to like tears, a teary playlet must be exceedingly well done to win. Second, the serious playlet must be so well done and so well advertised that usually a big name is necessary to carry it to success; and the ’name’ demands so much money that it is sometimes impossible to engage an adequate supporting cast. Third, the market for tragic and serious playlets is so small that there is only opportunity for the playlet master; of course, there sometimes comes an unknown with a great success, like ’War Brides,’ [1] but only rarely. Therefore, I would advise the new writer to write comedy.”

[1] Written by Miss Marion Craig Wentworth, and played by Olga Nazimova.

Miss Nellie Revell, whom B. F. Keith once called “The Big Sister of Vaudeville,” and who was Vaudeville Editor of the New York Morning Telegraph before becoming General Press Representative of the Orpheum Circuit, summed up her years of experience as a critic in these words:

“The new writer should first try his hand at a comedy playlet. Then after he has made a success of comedy, or if he is sure he can’t write anything but sobby playlets, let him try to make an audience weep. Vaudeville, like any other really human thing, would rather laugh than cry, yet if you make vaudeville cry finely, it will still love you. But a serious playlet must be mighty well done to get over–therein lies a stumbling block sometimes. A few great artists can make vaudeville sob finely–but only a few. Comedy, good comedy, always gets by.

“How many comedy playlets are there to one serious playlet in vaudeville? I should say about ten to one. That ought to convince anybody that comedy is the thing to write for vaudeville.”

There have been many hybrid playlets which have combined tragedy and comedy to give some particular star an opportunity to show versatility in acting. [1] But some of these playlets have been merely vehicles for a personality, and therefore cannot be considered in this discussion.

[1] See Chapter XII, section II, topic 2.

On the other hand, there have been some serious playlets which have had comedy twists, or a light turn, which brought the curtain down amid laughter that was perfectly logical and in good taste. An example of the surprise ending that lightens the gloom is found in “The Bomb,” finely played by Wilton Lackaye, in which the Italian who so movingly confesses to the outrage is merely a detective in disguise, trapping the real bomb thrower–and suddenly he unmasks. If a serious playlet can be made to end with a light touch that is fitting, it will have a better chance in vaudeville. But this is one of the most difficult and dangerous effects to attempt. The hazard is so great that success may come but once in many efforts. [2]

[2] See Chapter XIV, section II, topic 3.

Since comedy should be the new writer’s aim, the following discussion, while conceived with the broad view to illustrate the writing of the playlet in general, brings into particular prominence the writing of comedy.


When should you begin to write your playlet? Assuming that you already have a germ idea, the next step is to express your theme in a single short sentence, and consider it as your playlet problem, which must be proved logically, clearly and conclusively. To do this you must dovetail your incidents into a playlet plot; but how far should you think out your playlet before beginning to set it down on paper?

1. The Use of the Scenario

Nearly all the playlet writers with whom I have talked during a period of more than five years have with surprising unanimity declared in favor of beginning with the scenario, the summary of the dramatic action. But they disagree as to the completeness with which the scenario should be drawn up.

Some merely sketch the main outlines of the plot and leave to the moment of actual writing the details that often make it a success. Others write out a long scenario, boiling it down to the essence for the stage version. Still other playlet writers carry their scenarios just far enough to make sure that they will not have to think about the details of plot when they set about writing the dialogue–they see that there is an effective reason for the entrance of each character and a clear motive for exit. But, however they disagree as to the completeness the scenario should show, they all agree that the plot should be firmly fixed in its general outlines before pen is set to paper.

It may be of suggestive value as well as of interest to point out that in olden times the scenario was the only part of the play the playwright wrote. The groundwork of the plot was fixed beyond change, and then the actors were permitted to do as they pleased within these limits. Even today, in the construction of hurried entertainments for club nights at the various actors’ club-houses, often only the scenario or general framework of the act is typewritten and handed to the performers who are to take part. All that this tells them is that on some given cue they are to enter and work opposite so-and-so, and are, in turn, to give an agreed-upon cue to bring on such-and-such a performer. In a word, the invaluable part of any dramatic entertainment is the scenario.

One valuable aid to the making of a clear and effective scenario is the use of a diagram of the set in which the act is to be played. Reference to Chapter IV, “The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres,” will place in your hands a wide–if not an exhaustive– range of variations of the commonly found box sets. Within the walls of any one of these diagrams you may carefully mark the exact location of chairs, tables and any other properties your action demands. Then, knowing the precise room in which your characters must work, you can plot the details of their movements exactly from entrances to exits and give to your playlet action a clearness and preciseness it might not otherwise possess.

2. The Scenario not an Unalterable Outline

But there is one point I feel the necessity of emphasizing, whose application each one must determine for himself: While you ought to consider your scenario as directive and as laying down the line that should be followed, you ought not to permit your playlet to become irrevocably fixed merely because you have written your scenario. It is often the sign of a dramatic mind, and of a healthy problem too, that the playlet changes and develops as the theme is carefully considered. To produce the very best work, a scenario must be thought of as clay to be molded, rather than as iron that must be scrapped and melted again to be recast.


This section is so arranged that the elements of writing discussed in the preceding chapters are summarized, and the vital elements which could not be considered before are all given their proper places in a step-by-step scheme of composition. The whole forms a condensed standard for review to refresh your memory before writing, and by which to test your playlet after it is written.

Every playlet must have a beginning, a middle and an ending. The beginning must state the premises of the problem clearly and simply; the middle must develop the problem logically and solve the entanglement in a “big” scene, and the ending must round out the whole satisfyingly–with a surprise, if fitting.

1. Points the Beginning Must Emphasize

Because the total effect of a playlet is complete oneness, there lie in the “big” scene and in the ending certain results of which the beginning must be the beginning or immediate cause. Such causes are what you must show clearly.

(a) The Causes before the Curtain Rose. If the causes lie far back in events that occurred before the curtain rose, you must have those events carefully and clearly stated. But while you convey this necessary exposition as dramatically as possible, be sure to make the involved dramatic elements subservient to clearness.

(b) The Causes that Occur after the Curtain Rises. If the causes do not lie in the past, but occur after the curtain rises, you must show them as clearly occurring right then and there. They must be as plain as dawn, or the rest of the playlet will be shrouded in the darkness of perplexing doubts.

(c) The Character Motive from which the Complication Rises. If the causes lie in character, you must show the motive of the person of the playlet from whose peculiar character the complication rises like a spring from its source. You must expose the point of character plainly.

But in striving to make your premises clear do not make the mistake of being prolix–or you will be tedious. Define character sharply. Tell in quick, searching dialogue the facts that must be told and let your opening scenes on which the following events depend, come with a snap and a perfectly adequate but nevertheless, have-done-with-it feeling.

2. Points that Must Be Brought out in the Middle

In every scene of your playlet you must prepare the minds of your audience to accept gladly what follows–and to look forward to it eagerly. You must not only plainly show what the causes of every action are, but you must also make the audience feel what they imply. Thus you will create the illusion which is the chief charm of the theatre–a feeling of superiority to the mimic characters which the gods must experience as they look down upon us. This is the inalienable right of an audience.

(a) The Scenes that Make Suspense. But while foreshadowing plainly, you must not forestall your effect. One of the most important elements of playlet writing is to let your audience guess what is going to happen–but keep them tensely interested in how it is going to happen. This is what creates the playlet’s enthralling power–suspense.

It is so important to secure suspense in a playlet that an experienced writer who feels that he has not created it out of the body of his material, will go back to the beginning and insert some point that will pique the curiosity of the audience, leaving it unexplained until the end. He keeps the audience guessing, but he satisfies their curiosity finely in the finish–this is the obligation such a suspense element carries with it.

(b) The Points that Balance the Preparation with the Result. Nothing could be more disastrous than to promise with weighty preparation some event stupendously big with meaning and then to offer a weak little result. And it would be nearly as unfortunate to foreshadow a weak little fulfillment and then to present a tremendous result. Therefore, you must so order your events that you balance the preparation with the result, to the shade of a dramatic hair.

But take care to avoid a too obvious preparation. If you disclose too plainly what you are aiming at your end is defeated in advance, because your audience is bound to lapse into a cynically smiling does-this-fellow-take-us-for-babies? attitude.

The art of the dramatic is the art that conceals art. The middle of your playlet must conceal just enough to keep the stream of suspense flowing eagerly toward the end, which is dimly seen to be inevitably approaching.

(c) The One Event that Makes the Climax Really Big. From the first speech, through every speech, and in every action, your playlet has moved toward this one event, and now you must bring it out so prominently that everything else sinks into insignificance. This event is: The change in the relations of the characters.

This is the planned-for result of all that has gone before. Bear firmly in mind that you have built up a suspense which this change must crown. Keep foremost the fact that what you have hidden before you must now disclose. Lay your cards on the table face up–all except one. This last card takes the final trick, completing the hand you have laid down, and everyone watches with breathless interest while you play:

3. The Single Point of the Finish

If you can make this final event a surprise, all the better. But if you cannot change the whole result in one dramatic disclosure, you must be content to lay down your last card, not as a point in itself surprising, but nevertheless dramatically.

The Finish must be Complete–and Completely Satisfy. You have sprung your climax; you have disclosed what it is that changes the relations of your characters; now you must show that those relations have been changed. And at the same time you bring forward the last strand of plot that is loose and weave it into the now complete design. You must account for everything here in the finish, and do it with speed.


Now let us say that you have expanded the first draft of your plastic scenario into a nearly perfect manuscript. But as you read it over, you are not content. You feel that it lacks “punch." What is “punch,” and how are you going to add it when it is lacking?

Willard Mack says: “’Punch’ is the most abused word I know. The dramatic punch is continually confused with the theatrical trick. Critics said the third act of ’Kick In’ [1]–in which the detective is overpowered in a hand-to-hand fight after a hypodermic has been jabbed into his wrist–had a punch. It didn’t. What it really had was a theatric trick. But the human punch was in the second act, when the little frightened girl of the slums comes to see her wounded lover–who is really dead. If the needle should suddenly be lost in playing the third act the scene would be destroyed. But the other moment would have its appeal regardless of theatrical detail.”

[1] Developed into a long play from the vaudeville act of the same name.

Punch comes only from a certain strong human appeal in the story. Punch is the thing that makes the pulse beat a little quicker, because the heart has been touched. Punch is the precise moment of the dramatic. It is the second in which the revelation flashes upon the audience.

While whatever punch you may be able to add must lie in the heart of your material–which no one but yourself can know–there are three or four ways by which you may go about finding a mislaid punch.

If you have turned the logical order of writing about and let your playlet drag you instead of your driving it, you may find help in asking yourself whether you should keep your secret from the audience.

1. Have You Kept Your Audience in Ignorance Too Long?

While it is possible to write a most enthralling novel of mystery or a detective short-story which suddenly, at the very last moment, may disclose the trick by which it has all been built up, such a thing is not successfully possible in a playlet. You must not conceal the identity of anyone of your characters from the audience. Conceal his identity from every other character and you may construct a fine playlet, but don’t conceal his motive from the audience.

The very nature of the drama–depending as it does on giving to the spectator the pleasure of feeling omniscient–precludes the possibility of “unheralded surprise.” For instance, if you have a character whom the audience has never seen before and of whom they know nothing suddenly spring up from behind a sofa where he has overheard two other characters conspiring–the audience may think he is a stage-hand. How would they know he was connected with the other characters in the playlet if you neglected to tell them beforehand? They could not know. The sudden appearance of the unknown man from behind the sofa would have much the effect of a disturbance in the rear of the theatre, distracting attention from the characters on the stage and the plot of the playlet.

If your plot calls for an eavesdropper behind a sofa–though I hope you will never resort to so ancient a device–you must first let the audience know who he is and why he wants to eavesdrop; and second you must show him going behind that sofa. The audience must be given the god-like pleasure of watching the other two characters approach the sofa and sit down on it, in ignorance that there is an enemy behind it into whose hands they are delivering themselves.

This is only a simple instance, but it points out how far the ramifications to which this problem of not keeping a secret from the audience may extend. Moreover, it should suggest that it is possible that your playlet lacks the required punch–because you have kept something secret that you ought to have disclosed. Therefore, go through your playlet carefully and try to discover just what you have not treated with dramatic frankness.

On the other hand, of course, if you decide you must keep a secret–some big mystery of plot–you must be sure that it is worth keeping. If you build up a series of mysterious incidents, the solution must be adequate to the suspense. But, I have treated this angle of secret-keeping in “preparation versus result,” so I shall now direct your attention to the other side of the problem of dramatic frankness–which may be the cause of the lack of punch:

2. Have You been too Frank at the Beginning?

Go back through the early moments of your playlet and see if you have not given the whole thing away at the very beginning. If you have, you have, as we saw, killed your suspense, which is the road on which punch lies in wait. The way to remedy this defect is to condense the preparation and so express it in action and by dialogue that you leave opportunity for a revealing flash.

In going over your manuscript you must strive to attain the correct balance between the two. The whole art lies in knowing just what to disclose and it when to disclose it–and what not and when not to disclose.

3. Have You Been Too “Talky”?

Remember that vaudeville has no time for “fine speeches.” Cut even the lines you have put in for the purpose of disclosing character, and–save in rare instances–depend chiefly on character revelation through action.

4. Have You Lost Your Singleness of Effect by Mixing Playlet Genres?

One of the most common reasons why playlets lack the effect of vital oneness is to be found in the fault of mixing the kinds: for example, making the first half a comedy and the second half a tragedy. It is as if a song began with one air and suddenly switched to a totally different melody. If your playlet is a comedy, make it a comedy throughout; it if is a deeply human story, let it end as it began; [1] if you are writing a straight drama or a melodrama, keep your playlet straight drama or melodrama all the way through. Go over your playlet with the eye of a relentless critic and make sure that you have not mixed your genres, which only in the rarest cases can be done effectively.

[1] See Chapter XIV, section II, topic 3.

5. Are You Sure Your Action Is All Vital?

Finally, if every other investigation has failed to develop the needed punch, go over your playlet again to see if it is possible that you have erred in the first principle of the art. If you have permitted even one tiny scene to creep in that does not hold a vital meaning to the single point of your climax, you have lost by so much the possibility of the punch. Remember, here, that a great playlet can be played without a single word being spoken and still be vividly clear to everyone. Realizing this, chop every second of action that is not vital.

6. The Punch Secured.

But long before you have exhausted these suggestions you will have developed your punch. Your punch has risen out of your material– if you possess the sense of the dramatic. If the punch has not developed–with a series of minor punches that all contribute to the main design of the “heart wallop"–there is something wrong with your material.

But even a realization of this ought not to discourage you, for there are instances every day of well-known playwrights who have chosen the wrong material. We all have seen these plays. You must do as they do–cast your playlet aside and begin anew with new material. The man who keeps at it is the only one who wins–but he must keep at it with the right stuff.


When you have trimmed your playlet by cutting off all the trimmings, your thoughts naturally turn to a title. More than likely you have selected your title long before you have written “curtain"–it is possible a title sprang into your mind out of the germ idea. But even then, you ought now to select the proper title.

1. What is a Proper Title?

A proper title is one that both names a playlet and concisely suggests more than it tells. For instance, “The System” suggests a problem vital to all big cities–because the word “system” was on everybody’s tongue at the time. “The Lollard” piques curiosity–what is a “lollard,” you are inclined to want to know; it also carries a suggestion of whimsicality. “The Villain Still Pursued Her," tells as plainly as a whole paragraph could that the playlet is a travesty, making fun of the old blood-and-thunder melodrama. “In and Out” is a short, snappy, curiosity-piquing name; it is a title that hangs out a sign like a question mark. “Kick In” is of the same class, but with the added touch of slang. “War Brides” is another luring title, and one that attracts on frankly dramatic and “problem” grounds. “Youth” is a title that suggests much more than it tells–it connotes almost anything. “Blackmail” has the punch of drama and suggests “atmosphere” as well. But these are enough to establish the fact that a good title is one which suggests more than it tells. A good title frankly advertises the wares within, yet wakens eager curiosity to see what those wares are.

2. What is an Improper Title?

An improper title, first, is one that does not precisely fit a playlet as a name; or second, that tells too much. For instance, “Sweets to the Sweet” is the title of a playlet whose only reason for being so named is because the young man brings the girl a box of candy–it does not name the playlet at all precisely, its connotation is misleading. Do not choose a title just because it is pretty. Make your title really express the personality of your playlet. But more important still, do not let your title tell too much. If “The Bomb” were called “The Trap,” much of the effect of the surprise would be discounted, and the unmasking of the detective who confesses to throwing the bomb to trap the real criminal would come as something expected. In a word, be most careful not to select a title that “gives it all away.”

3. Other Title Considerations

A short title seems to be the playlet fashion today; but tomorrow the two- or three-word title may grow to a four- or five-word name. Yet it will never be amiss to make a title short.

This same law of good use points to a similar variation in the context of even the short title–I mean that every little while there develops a fad for certain words. There may at any time spring up a wide use of words like “girl,” or “fun,” or color words, like “red “ or “purple” or “blond.” But your close study of the vaudeville of the moment will show you when these fad-words may be used advantageously in a title.

You need never worry over-long about a title for your playlet if you put the emphasis in your own mind upon the fact that your title is an advertisement.


But when you have a playlet manuscript that is full of laughter and vibrant with dramatic thrills, and even after you have sold it to a manager who has produced it, your work as a playlet writer is not done. You still must cut and polish it until it is a flawless gem that flashes from the stage. As Edgar Allan Woolf expressed it to me in one of our conversations:

“The work of the author of a one-act comedy is not over until, after several weeks of playing, his playlet has been so reshaped and altered by him that not a single dull spot remains. Individual lines must be condensed so that they are as short as they possibly can be made. The elimination of every unnecessary word or phrase is essential. Where a line that develops the plot can be altered so that it will still serve its purpose, and also score a laugh on its own account, it must be so changed. Where lines cannot be changed, bits of comedy business may perhaps be inserted to keep the audience from lapsing into listlessness. For it is a deplorable fact that a vaudeville audience that is not laughing outright at a comedy becomes listless. Vaudeville managers never book a playlet that makes an audience smile–for while the humor that brings a smile may be more brilliant than the comedy that gets a laugh, it must always be remembered that vaudeville audiences come to laugh and not to smile. Some of the biggest laughs in every one of my many acts I put in after the acts had been playing some weeks. And I attribute whatever success they have had later in the best vaudeville theatres to the improvements I have made during their ’breaking in’ periods.”

To sum up: While no two writers ever have written and never will write a playlet in precisely the same way, the wise beginner chooses for his first playlet a comedy theme. Your germ idea you express in a single short sentence which you consider as the problem of your playlet, to be solved logically, clearly and conclusively. Instinct for the dramatic leads you to lift out from life’s flowing stream of events the separate incidents you require and to dovetail them into a plot which tells the story simply by means of characters and dialogue skillfully blended into an indivisible whole, flashing with revealing meaning and ending with complete satisfaction.

After you have thought out your playlet, you set down so much of it as you feel is necessary in the form of a scenario. But you do not consider this scenario as unchangeable. Rather you judge the value of the idea by the freedom with which it grows in effectiveness. And while this process is going on, you carefully select the basic points in the beginning of the story that must be brought out prominently.

Then you develop the story by making the points that foreshadow your “big” scene stand out so as to weave the enthralling power of suspense. You let your audience guess what is going to happen, but keep them tensely interested in how it is going to happen. And you prepare your audience by a carefully preserved balance between the promise and the performance for the one big point of the climax which changes the relations of the characters to each other.

After you have shown the change as happening, you punch home the fact that it has happened, and withhold your completing card until the finish. In your finish you play the final card and account for the last loose strand of the plot, with a speed that does not detract from your effect of complete satisfaction.

In seeking to “punch up” your playlet, you go over every word, every bit of characterization, every moment of action, and eliminate single words, whole speeches, entire scenes, to cut down the playlet to the meat, seeking for lost punches particularly in the faults of keeping secrets that should be instantly disclosed, and in the too frank disclosures of secrets that ought to be kept in the beginning. And out of this re-writing there rises into view the “heart wallop” which first attracted you.

Finally, when your playlet is finished, you decide on a proper title. Remembering that a title is an advertisement, you choose a short name that both names and lures. And then you prepare the manuscript for its market–which is discussed in a later chapter.

But when you have written your playlet and have sold it to a manager who has produced it, your work is not yet done. You watch it in rehearsal, and during the “breaking in” weeks you cut it here, change it there, make a plot-line do double duty as a laugh-line in this spot, take away a needless word from another–until your playlet flashes a flawless gem from the stage. The final effect in the medium of expression for which you write it is UNITY. Every part–acting, dialogue, action–blends in a perfect whole. Not even one word may be taken away without disturbing the total effect of its vital oneness.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

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