Start Small with Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “Playwriting with Purpose”

In Playwriting with Purpose: A Guide and Workbook for New Playwrights, Jacqueline Goldfinger says right off the bat, “I am not here to tell you the ‘right’ way to write your play.” There isn’t a right way, she says. The play itself dictates how it needs to be written. What she can do, however, is give you some tools to use — some “creative screwdrivers and wrenches” — and set you on the right path.

Goldfinger is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, and librettist. She teaches workshops and seminars at college and university theater programs across the country.

Her book — a primer really — is positive, practical, and concise, with twelve economical chapters and a set of appendices. Most of the chapters are devoted to an element of the craft of playwriting, such as character, dialogue, theme, play structure, and scene; the concluding chapters deal with revision and submission of a completed play for development and production. The book can be read from front to back or in pieces and out of order. Chapters include craft exercises, “pro” tips, ideas for combating “writer’s block,” and recommended readings.

The book is definitely a “guide and workbook,” as stated in its subtitle. Playwrights reading the book might wish to have pen and paper at hand, or they might want to read the book in front of their computer with their fingers poised above the keyboard. The exercises, such as the character development questionnaires and the use of visual art to stimulate creativity, are indeed a strength here.

In addition, there are several concepts in the book I found useful in my own thinking about playwriting. Goldfinger highlights a “counterintuitive” reality of theater: “the more specific your characters and their situations are, the more universal their stories become.” This is absolutely true for storytelling in other genres as well.

I liked the idea that characters have to do something with their language. “Action is Character,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in caps in his notes while writing The Last Tycoon. And in Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field wrote, “What a person does is what he is, not what he says.” Goldfinger tosses in some acting lingo, too: “Dialogue is Objectives Filtered through Tactics. It means that what a character says in a scene (dialogue) comes from what a character wants (objective) in that scene and how they go after it (tactic).”

Both the concept of the “well-made play,” following traditional Western storytelling structure, and the characterization of an individual scene as a “mini-play” were valuable. And Goldfinger’s advice and exercises on writing a short (ten-minute) play are particularly helpful for new playwrights or for those not ready to tackle a full-length play.

I can easily see this book being used in undergraduate “Introduction to Playwriting” courses, especially when assigned along with some of the plays Goldfinger recommends. For example, a teacher might supplement the information in the book on monologues with a play by August Wilson.

The approach in Playwriting with Purpose feels just right: to write a full-length play can feel overwhelming at first, but to write a monologue feels just right. Start small. The other day my fifth-grade daughter told me Confucius said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” My advice? If the mountain is your play, let Goldfinger help you carry away some small stones.

Playwriting with Purpose: A Guide and Workbook for New Playwrights
By Jacqueline Goldfinger
Published August 17, 2021