Special Techniques: Plays

15.11.2020 |

Episode #8 of the course Studying English literature: Excel in the study of novels, poems, plays, and more by K.C. Finn


Plays also have their own special branch of language usage, and this session explores how to spot those techniques, and the effects they have on readers. As with the techniques we examined in poetry, these features do make their way into all types of literature, but the dramatic text is a really great way to isolate and explore them outside of normal, formulaic prose.

In this lesson, we’ll take another five essential terms and break them down, as well as try out a small analysis activity to see them in action.


Five Essential Terms for Talking About Plays

Intonation: The manner in which someone speaks. This is usually indicated in parenthesis ( and ), and gives a sense of how a line is intended to be spoken.

Body language: Sometimes written in parenthesis or present in longer stage directions, this gives an indication of how an actor is intended to move on stage, which in turn reflects their mood and motivations.

Mood: Elements within the staging and directions of a play will affect its mood, which in turn is usually set by the genre of the drama. For example, the mood of a murder mystery will be very different from a farcical comedy and will be evident in the way the stage is set and how the actors behave.

Pace: This refers to how fast or slow a text is moving, which affects the dramatic impetus of the piece. A great indication of the pace is to look at the length of the lines because lots of quickfire dialogue versus a huge monologue will make a big difference.

Subtext: Trickier to identify, but really essential as a story moves on, the subtext behind a scene is a powerful effect that great writers can utilize. In a novel, intentions can be made clearer by the inner thoughts of the characters, but in a play, we may have to infer (or assume) based on a character’s words and actions instead.



As always, our analytical activity today must start with a piece of text. To get a good grounding of everything you’ll need for a good dramatic analysis, have a scan through the play’s pages and try to find a section that includes a bit of everything. The opening of any scene is a good place to look because it will typically include a scene description, stage directions, and sometimes descriptions of the character’s appearance, mood, and manner of speech. Bear in mind, however, that some playwrights like to leave the text more open to the actor’s interpretation, like the great William Shakespeare. Stay away from his works for your first attempt!

Take the five headings from the terms section and spread them out on a page. You may need to create little bubbles beneath each one for different characters if there are a lot of people in the play. Find evidence of different techniques and add a point to each one – for example “Intonation – “(through gritted teeth)” – showing reluctance or trying to save face”. This is going to come in really useful for the final two lessons of the course!



Whilst all of the techniques that we’ve examined today could definitely be translated back into the study of stories and novels, the additional study of plays and scripts really forces us to think about subtext in a powerful way. As you reflect on this lesson, be aware that every piece of media, created either to entertain, persuade, or inform, will have a subtext running beneath its surface. This connects strongly to the ideologies and motivations we discussed during the initial critical thinking lesson and will be very useful moving forward in the course.

For Lesson 9, it’s time to start thinking about how we will use the knowledge which we have acquired in order to talk about literature and write about it for our own personal projects, essays, reviews, and publications. To prepare for the next session, make sure you have some of the analysis notes handy which you’ve been doing as part of the activities so far.

Until then,



Recommended reading

If drama’s your thing, then there’s plenty more to learn in this area, especially the right terms to use when you’re discussing and writing up your analysis. Find out more over at AQA.


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