On Playwriting: Five Column Analysis

Using columns is a great way to understand a script. After I experienced this technique, I got so I could easily take a script apart, whether reading it or seeing it. The more shows I experienced, the better I got at taking them apart in my head.

Thanks to the late Rex McGraw, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for teaching me this.

Here’s how:

A. Take an act from a full-length play, or use a one-act play.

B. Type up the script. That gets every word from your fingers to your head. Yes, it’s boring. Trust me, you gotta do it. Otherwise, you’ll skip over things that you don’t understand.

C. Make a page with columns on it. Here are five areas to cover.

1. What happened before the play began? Before each scene? How do you know that?
2. Each character’s objectives. From moment to moment, what does each person want? A cup of tea? To kill their enemy? To charm someone?
3. Each character’s obstacles: I want to charm you. You ignore me. I decide to impress you instead. That’s my next objective.
4. Environment: words that tell the designers what to do. Words like: “The day is almost over.” “I’m cold.” or “Would you like some tea?”
5. Questions: Words, events, and references that you need to look up. If a character says “He absquatulated to Tahiti,” what the heck does that word mean? And why Tahiti?

Type or hand write your answers and responses. Studies show that handwriting is the best way to learn. Typing is second.

Once you’ve looked this over, find the “through line of action.” If all the characters’ objectives are beads, the through line of action is the string for those beads.

Then ask yourself the main question: why did the playwright break the silence of the universe? What’s the point of this story?

Fair warning: staring at the script and just “thinking” your answers won’t work at all. Unless you’ve been analyzing plays for twenty years.

Even then, if I’m directing a show, or commenting on it for another playwright, I carefully take it apart. With notes. Because I’m the note taker.

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