In the five years I have been on Stage 32, I have read many threads and conversed with at least a dozen playwrights making the transition to screenwriting, in whole or in part. This is not surprising given the growing opportunities in the filmmaking and television industries and the shrinking budgets and opportunities in the theatre.
In the past 20 years, I have written over twenty produced plays and musicals (I’m currently revising my 21st), for a variety of ages and audiences. Although, by contrast, I have only written four screenplays (all in different genres, one of three produced), I say with confidence that the skills needed to write screenplays are more similar than different to writing stories for the stage. The overlaps are obvious: both center on characters and their arcs; in most cases, they have a definable structure based on the Three-Act Model; they tell a story; they have a theme of some kind, which is some derivative of “Boy Meets Girl” or “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
But what about the differences? After a great deal of thought, and putting my outline through several revisions, I have settled on seven points of difference that I believe are the most profound and important to any writer who wants to tell stories in these worlds.
This difference is without question the most fundamental. As a matter of fact, it is so fundamental, it informs everything else when making a comparison. In 2015, when I was commissioned to write my first screenplay, this was the area I knew would be the biggest challenge. Not only was I a playwright—I was a poet and novelist. Words had always been my foremost tool for storytelling.
On the stage, information is almost always given through dialogue—both literal and through subtext. Aside from stylized presentations (think of Bertolt Brecht), visual elements reinforce rather than replace the dialogue. The same is true when revealing a character’s thoughts, motivations, or psychology.
In a screenplay, words are only used when images cannot stand on their own. As a result, the steepest learning curve when moving from playwriting to screenwriting is getting away from reliance on the word and finding images that drive your narrative. The great news is, it will make you a more efficient and imaginative playwright. You’ll rely less on words and find more ways for gesture, body position, and the use of lights, sound, and scenery to tell your story.
Aside from one-act plays (comparable to short films) and classical plays like those of Shakespeare, the prevalent model for the stage is the same as for the screen—the Three-Act Model. I have relied on and written and taught a lot about it in the past three decades because it makes a lot of sense. It correlates to a Beginning, Middle, and End and sets up, works through, and resolves the Main Problem. It helps to set up and track the Circumstances, Conflict, and Climax. It has other benefits as well, like tracking scope and strategic use of secondary and tertiary characters.
In your typical three-act play, there will be under a dozen scenes. The first two acts will be similar in length and the third will be shorter. The scenes will stick to a minimum amount of locales. (More on that later.)
For a film, if you follow the masters of the craft like Robert McKee, Syd Field, and William Goldman, there will be a minimum of 56 scenes: 14 in the first act, 28 in the second, and 14 in the third. As you can see, that means proportionality is different in a screenplay. Some reasons why are illuminated in the sections that follow.
I have found the ability to use different modes of storytelling—flashbacks, nonlinear time, dream sequences—to be one of the best aspects of screenwriting when compared to playwriting. I also find a greater ability to vary the length of scenes (in a film, a scene might be only seconds long). A third aspect is using the second half of the second act in a screenplay to more forcefully move toward the third-act climax than you can in a play. Again, much of this has to do with the greater amount of, and variable length of, screenplay scenes.
As a screenwriter you also have greater opportunity to use juxtaposition, which is another compelling way of using visuals rather than words.
One of the tools at the disposal of the screenwriter is the use of juxtaposition—two images that, together, tell the story by means of a visual alchemy that cannot be duplicated on the stage.
Using a camera to designate the frame, rather than the boundaries of a stage, there is greater control over what is in and out of the frame. It was the work of Judith Butler that really brought home to me, as a writer and director, how what is left out of the frame is just as important as what’s in it.
In cinema there is pin-point control of audience attention. To an extent this can be achieved by lighting in the theatre, but what is beyond the light frame is still partially visible.
A caveat: Before you think that the camera gives a storyteller a much greater advantage over the stage/audience eye, consider that, in the age of CGI, there are also disadvantages, especially if you are a writer who writes for actors. I have long been amazed, being a veteran of the stage, how film actors in heavy-CGI projects lament how hard it is to “pretend” without sets and costumes. This creates an opportunity for the writer to take a stronger position in helping the actor create the world through the words.
Now that I brought up actors, they deserve their own section, because the differences in approach and presentation for actors are tremendous and I have found that writing with them in mind is crucial. As an actor I initially struggled to adapt from the immensity of the stage (even black box) to the small frame and level of intimacy that are the parameters through the camera’s eye, especially because I am an energized, physical actor with a background in both theatre for young audiences and musicals.
Once I started booking on-camera gigs, I studied everything I could find. I recommend Michael Caine’s Acting in Film (both the book and video series) and anything that David Mamet has written about working in the cinema.
There’s a great story about one of Jack Lemmon’s first films. The director, George Cukor, kept asking him for less until, completely frustrated after numerous takes with the instruction to “do less,” Lemmon retorted, “If I do any less I won’t be doing anything at all!” to which Cukor replied, “Exactly.”
Because film actors have to adjust for scale and intimacy, the sounds of words, nuances of language (including subtext), and the use of the pause can be used to greater effect on screen than on stage. So seize the opportunity. Anyone who tells you words don’t matter as much in screenplays is dead wrong—and definitely not an actor. There are less, but each one matters more.
Although, for actors, the scale and intimacy in film are much more controlled, the overall scope in a screenplay is much larger than in a stage play. The main reasons are access to resources and (much, much) bigger budgets.
In the early 1990s, a regional theatre in New Jersey made national news for having a budget for a hi-tech production of The Wizard of Oz that exceeded a million dollars. Casting aside outliers like Julie Taymor and U2’s horrendous and dangerous $75-million-dollar Broadway version of Spiderman, the most expensive Broadway productions have cost no more than $30 million. And these are lavish musicals, where Broadway uses Spectacle and big names as an inducement to get asses in otherwise empty seats. Non-musicals, even featuring film stars, don’t come close. For instance, current hit To Kill a Mockingbird, produced by Scott Rudin, adapted by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jeff Daniels, cost under $10 million.
Big budgets mean elaborate sets or expensive CGI, and lots of costume and scene changes. No wonder a writer’s work and words get lost.
If you are thinking about transitioning from playwright to screenwriter, there is something you should know: screenwriters do not have the same position in the world of film that playwrights have in the theatre. First and foremost, “A film is made in the editing room.” This has little to do with a screenwriter and a lot often changes. Joss Whedon has been very vocal over the years about how decisions in the editing room have rendered his dialogue incomprehensible and plots absurd. Also, the role of the director is also different—while stage directors primarily focus on bringing the playwright’s script intact to the audience, film directors have a broader array of tools to make their vision happen, which often leads to big changes to a script while filming is in progress.
This is not to say that playwrights are deified and their words are sacrosanct. They are not. Theatre scripts evolve. Scenes are cut and moved. Even after a play opens, there are at times major rewrites and endless workshops.
Still, the transition can be tough. I’ve been a screenwriter for four years and the lessons do come hard. Getting the knack of submitting to the right competitions and festivals takes time. Access is more difficult for the beginning screenwriter. It’s not easy to find a group willing to workshop a screenplay the way stage scripts are. I recommend the documentary Tales from the Script (2009) for an insider’s view of the industry. William Goldman’s two books about screenwriting are also excellent.
And use the resources at Stage 32, like the screenwriter’s lounge. Take advantage of the pitch sessions and coverage opportunities. Ask questions and seek feedback. There are a lot of very wise, very accomplished Creatives just waiting for you to do so.
As I write this, there’s a maelstrom of good and bad buzz around Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats. Hooper split audiences with his adaptation of Les Miserables. Audiences were also split over Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. Nevermind the live network television “events”—that is an article in itself…
Whether or not you like musicals, or will ever write one, narrative is narrative and character arcs are still a key component, especially in these examples, so watch the stage and screen versions and compare. You’ll clearly see all of the differences I’ve mentioned.
There are plenty of stage plays that have also been adapted for film. They are another invaluable source for learning the differences between these two forms.
No matter what you write, it is difficult work, rejection is inevitable, frustrations are part of the journey, and there are times when you will feel devalued and ready to give up.
But the joy in seeing your stories told by a collaborative group of Creatives, on either the stage or screen, makes all of the challenges worth it.
Other Stage 32 Posts by Joey Madia:
How Blogging [& Networking] on Stage 32 Landed Me Jobs
Preparing For Auditions: 7 [Guided] Script Approaches that Land You the Job
Seven [Less Talked About] Pre-Production Essentials for the Beginning Director
7 Steps for Writing Escape Room Narratives (And How to Find Opportunities to Write Them)
7 Steps for Writing Knights and Dragons Fantasy
The Pros [And More Pros] of Intuitive and Analytical Writing
Joey Madia spent 25 years in the theatre as a playwright, actor, director, and teacher.
Today he is focused on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series,
writing story lines for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical
Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the life of Che Guevara.
Joey is the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of
New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. He is also the author of two
novels and 17 produced plays.
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