Finding Good Literature for Competition


There are tons of books of poetry and prose on the shelves in the library, there are dozens of scholarly journals dedicated to printing new poems, short stories, and plays.  Unfortunately only about 5% of what you are going to find in the library will work well in competition.  But I can offer some suggestions.  However, there is no substitute for simply immersing yourself in a literature search and spending hours and hours reading.


"Finding Stuff"

Find something that is appropriate to you (skinny/fat, short/tall, young/old) but that doesn't mean all of your characters have to be pasty white kids if you are a pasty white kid.  As long as it is a believable characterization.  Part of interp is learning to see things from different perspectives.  So I wouldn't tell you to shy away from something just because the character isn't the same as you.  But if you are 6 feet tall and 110 pounds you will have a hard time getting an audience to reconcile what they see with the fact that you are portraying a morbidly obese dwarf.


Find something freshClear Glass Marbles by Jane Martin is one of my favorite drama pieces of all times.  But I give it out as a "punishment piece."  When a student has promised she will have a Drama script by a certain time and doesn't she gets this piece that she has to perform in two weeks.  It's a good script but judges have seen it so often they will sometimes actually role their eyes when they hear the first line.  You want a judge to have an open mind when they listen to you.You don't want to be running the "same old same old"


Find something that is good.  "no kidding" is an appropriate response.  But when we think about what constitutes good it makes more sense.  What makes a piece "good"?  Well start with the basics: 1.  It has a beginning, middle and end, 2.  It is unique, and 3.  It leaves something to the imagination. 

The first criteria seems overly simplistic.  But it is important.  More and more contemporary American prose that I have read recently has a good beginning, and good middle and then it is just over.  It doesn't really have an ending it just ends. 

The second criteria means that the piece should offer us something unique.  If we can guess the ending when you are a minute into it it isn't really unique.  I remember a comment from a judge on a ballot that said something like "Okay, they are a wonderful couple, wonderful friends, and great for each other.  So I am assuming either he is gay or one of them has cancer or AIDS."  The sting was that the male character develops AIDS.  The piece should be unique and not predictable. 

It should also leave something to the imagination. One of the criticisms of Woody Allen's plays is that you can watch any performance anywhere with any cast and they will be virtually the same.  Because there is nothing left to the imagination of the performer.  No chance for individualized characterization.  As you look for a piece look for something that gives you the opportunity to use your imagination but also something that asks the audience to use their imagination to see the story or images unfold.


Find something you like.  You are going to be spending a long time with this piece.  You should really like the piece and the message it has if you are going to do well with it.  My observation is that not doing well with a piece you really love is easier than being competitively successful with a piece you just hate to perform (but honestly people rarely do well with pieces they hate).


Find something that gives you an opportunity to showcase the talents you have.  If you can do 20 voices well find something with multiple characters.  If you have exceptional comedic timing find a piece that allows you to capitalize on that.  If you can be emotional find a piece that allows you to showcase that.  Now that doesn't mean all of your interp pieces should be a cavalcade of characters just because you do characters well.  But you should find ways to capitalize on your strengths.


Find a piece with levels.  Riding a train can be fun.  But it can also get boring.  After you get over the initial "I'm riding a train for the first time" feeling you don't pay much attention to what is going on unless the train goes through a tunnel or past a river or through a town.  Those are interesting things.  They are the interp equivalent of levels.  But train rides are long and have a lot of down time.  You have a maximum of ten minutes for your interp train ride so it is more like a roller-coaster ride.  It is slow as it climbs, fast as it plummets, scary as it corners and exhilarating because of those levels.  But the important thing is that when the ride is over you are satisfied that it is over but still want to do it all over again.  Do that with your piece.


Find something that can be done in 8.5-9.5 minutes. I have clear memories of a very talented competitor who did a wonderful prose for me at NFA nationals when he was a freshman.  It was clearly the best piece in the round and the only 12 minute piece in the round.  He didn't make it into the top half of that prelim round.  But he learned his lesson and was in the top five in pent his junior and senior years.  Not all stories can be told in under ten minutes.  You MUST find one that can be told in under ten minutes (including an intro).  


Find something that challenges you.  It would be easy to find be the kind of performer who can cry on demand and then find pieces that all lead up to an emotional climax in which you cry (I have seen it done).  But then you become a one trick pony.  When you walk to the front of the room people know how the story is going to end.  You want to find pieces that challenge you and stretch your abilities.  Forensics isn't just about winning, it is about learning and growing.  


Okay, now let's start with Prose.


Good Prose

Most of the successful prose we see (when I say most I mean over 95%) is first person prose.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first person writing style allows for more internalization of emotion on the part of the presenter and the language used tends to express a greater degree of immediacy.  In addition the stories themselves tend to be stories with clear conflict (internal and/or external) and resolution to that conflict.  That gives a sense of closure and completeness to the performance.  Many explore the human condition and allow us to better understand life/humanity/ourselves through their exploration.

Unfortunately, the bulk of contemporary U.S. writers don't seem to be writing in a first person style.  That is partly a result of the literary journals having an apparent biased against first person prose.  Fortunately, there are some good journals published outside the U.S. that we have access to that have a good deal of first person prose.  There are also a couple of magazines that routinely carry first person stories.  They are listed below.

You will want to find literature that is "new" and "fresh."  Chances are if you have seen it performed anywhere it will be considered "old" on the college circuit.  To help eliminate things that may have already been found I would suggest looking at things that have been published in this calendar year.  Before you get too attached to a piece run it by your coaches to see if they have recently seen it or heard about it.

Books Journals and Periodicals

"The Sun" it is a great little publication with few to no ads and good pieces.

Pushcart Prizes: Best of the small presses

The Paris Review

Prize Stories (from the O'Henry Awards)

The Prague Revue

The Best American Short Stories 2000

The Prairie Schooner

A variety of collected works of various authors Atlantic Monthly

The New Yorker

While classical writers like Hemmingway and Dickens write wonderful stories they usually don't yield very successful prose pieces.  The more contemporary the better.  Science fiction usually doesn't fly very well either.

Some General Literature

These are just generally good websites with some good prose/poetry in it.

Good Poetry

There are more sources for poetry but still few sources of quality poetry.  There are several journals that publish poetry but many of them limit submissions to 36 lines.  While there are a few good journals that have longer poetry you are probably going to find most of your stuff in "chapbooks" and books of author's collected poems.  Chapbooks are collections of poetry usually from various authors.  The problem is that you can sit and read through 100 of them looking for poems on a specific topic and still not find exactly what you want.  So let me introduce you to your new best friend.


Granger's Index to Poetry 
Reference Section


Granger's Index to Poetry lists thousands of poems by subject matter.  The people at Granger's go through tons of anthologies of poetry and list each poem by subject, title, first line, and author.  Once you have found a particular poem or topic that you want to use to construct a program of poetry Granger's can help you fill in the rest of the program.  There are several different volumes of Granger's and each one covers different anthologies so it can't hurt to look through them all.  Unfortunately there are two drawbacks to Granger's:  1) it doesn't cover all the poetry books and journals and 2) we don't have all of the books it does cover.  For the books we don't have we can always do Inter-Library Loans (ILL) but that will take 5-14 days usually.  So start early, start often.

In terms of what to look for in poetry I can give you general guidelines but it is really up to you.

Rhyming poetry tends to be frowned upon but it can be a nice addition to any program in my opinion.  Delivery of the rhyme needs to down-played in the performance but still, it can be an additional dimension to explore.
You can either do one long poem or a program of poetry.  Either one is fine they experience equal success.

Classical literature and epic poetry is rarely done partly because it is harder for an audience to identify with the poetry.

You will need all of the titles and authors for your poetry when we go to nationals (it wouldn't hurt to have original photocopies of the stuff too) so make sure you get all of that when you find your poetry.
There are resources available on-line that can yield excellent material.  But remember, anybody can put anything they want on the web and that includes REALLLLLLLLY bad poetry.  Below are some links to well respected and established publications that typically have high quality literature suitable for competition.  That does not mean that just because it came from one of these sites it is good and something you want to use.  But, coming from one of these sites, it stands a pretty good chance.


Start With These

1.  Atlantic Monthly

2.  Doubletake

3.  Harper’s Magazine

4.  Kenyon Review

5.  The New Yorker

6.  Ploughshares

7.  New England Review

8.  Missouri Review


Other Magazines to Look At Start With These:

The Baltimore Review


Indiana Review


Mississippi Review

Missouri Review

Notre Dame Review

Crania Review


Oyster Boy Review

Poetry Magazine

Some Slam Poetry Sites

Poetry From Spam Emails 
Dean Blehert 
Poetology (Poem of the day on lower left)
Draco Star

National Slam Poetry Achieves (It just lists authors names and piece titles.)

Other Literature Link Pages

(I can't attest to the quality of everything on these pages but they do link to poetry and prose):

Carolina Quarterly

Poetry Machine


Good Plays

For Duo and DI you will need play scripts (sometimes for POI as well).  The easiest (and probably most successful) kind of plays to use are one act plays. Things like one act, off Broadway, and off off Broadway plays are what we are talking about in terms of a library search or catalog search.  I have had the best luck searching on the phrase "Contemporary Playwrights Series" but I still end up doing interlibrary loans for most of the scripts.  Again, we want stuff that is not more than a year old.  Things published this year are best.  Once you find a script, before you devote long hours to cutting it to time and really "becoming" the character, you might want to send out a little to everybody asking if they have heard of the play (just send title, author and a real brief description of what happens in the script).  That way if it was in the final round at nationals last year we can toss it now (otherwise narrow minded judge, of which there are many, will reject it because it has been done before and is now "old").

There are also some on line resources available for you but the most efficient way of getting scripts might be to go straight to the publishers.  Purchasing individual scripts from Samuel French Publishing or Dramatists Play Service or Baker Plays is relatively cheap (usually between $5.00 and $9.00 for an individual script).  The catalogs usually have a brief description of what the script is about and will tell you how many characters are involved in the play.  While DI can have as many characters as you want Duo is limited to two for the most part.  It's not a rule just usually a good idea.  A lot of the DI pieces we see are simply monologues.  There is nothing wrong with that.  They are very successful.  Right now we are in a bit of a transition stage from what I understand.  We, as a forensics community, are beginning to swing from monologues to dialogs (or maybe it is the other way around, I lose track).  This happens a lot, I would say it is a five or six year cycle.  So if you like monologues do them, if you prefer dialogs, do them.  It matters not to me (at least right now).

Here are a couple of  groups that have published good collections of one act plays in the past.


      • Humana Festival
      • Ensemble Studio Theatre


Duo is a very popular event and I know many of you would like to do duo this year.  I am all for that, but, you would be best served finding your own scripts for this event and probably finding them before you come to school in the fall.  The scripts are cheap to buy if you chose to go that route.  Once you have found one from a playwright service don't forget to check's used collections.

You can pretty much forget about Barnes & Noble or Waldins Bookstores carrying what you are looking for.  One act plays are a bit of a specialty and going right to the publishers might be the best idea.  Call them for catalogs, etc.  They are also a good place to get the title and author of scripts and then order them through interlibrary loan or buy them off

Dramatist Play Service 

The Drama Shop

Baker's Plays

Samuel French Play Service

Dramatic Publishing

The Dramatic Exchange

Eldridge Publishing Company

New Theatre Productions

Stratford Playscripts

Pioneer Scripts



Websites Added In 2008, Some Drama, Some Poetry, Some Prose.

You will need to do some digging around to find what you are after.


NY Theatre

The Internet Theatre

Writer's Digest

Abe Books

13th Warrior Review

2 River



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