In 335 B.C. Aristotle released the first how-to book on playwriting. In his work, "Poetics," he says a good play has six characteristics: plot, characters, theme, language, music and spectacle. These elements have formed the backbone of successful plays through the centuries and continue to be important to playwrights today.
The All-Encompassing Plot
Plot is communicated through the telling of the story and is made up of every action in the play. Plot encompasses all the problems that characters face, whether internal or external. The playwright organizes events to create suspension and tension, to tease the audience and keep them interested. For example, the plot of "The Miracle Worker" is that teacher Anne Sullivan must teach Helen Keller, who is deaf, dumb and blind, how to communicate and function in the world.
Characters are those who act out the plot and deal with the problems and conflict of the plot. This is one of the most easily recognized aspects of drama because they are the people who populate the stage. For example, the characters in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" are Amanda Wingfield, Tom Wingfield, Laura Wingfield and Jim O'Connor. Characters need to be compelling, people that audiences are interested in learning more about. Good characters are likable or have charisma -- even if they are villains -- and do great things.
The Theme's the Thing
The theme is what the play is actually about, the abstract idea or metaphor of the play. It is the issue that the plot and characters examine. A good play might have multiple themes, but it will have one overriding idea that dominates the story. For example, the overriding theme in Shakespeare's "Othello" is jealousy, but it also deals with manipulation, racism, sexism, revenge and violence.
Aristotle insisted that drama is told with heightened language. This can take such forms as Shakespeare's iambic pentameter or David Mamet's clipped, interrupted speech patterns. Heightened language is a theatrical convention, and it often makes use of symbolism, exaggerated speech or poetry.
Sound and Music
There is a melody and rhythm to a play that speaks to how the story is told. Music is how the play sounds, and it can be either how the dialogue is delivered or the more literal meaning of song and music such as found in musical theater. It also encompasses sound effects, the voices of the actors or instrumental music played as a score.
Spectacle Brings a Play to Life
Spectacle is what separates a play from a novel or short story. Plays are not meant to be read, but to be seen and heard. They come to life with actors, costumes, sets, lights and sound. A playwright includes stage directions, notes about props and even descriptions of costumes when they are important. Some productions, such as "Phantom of the Opera," rely more on spectacle than such a show as "Waiting for Godot."