Both playwrights and screenwriters practice the art of dramatic writing with the same goal in mind. To tell a compelling story that leaves a lasting impact on audiences. The truth is, many screenwriters shy away from playwriting, distracted by the tunnel vision of their familiar medium.
If this is you, you may be missing out on valuable lessons and skills that come with playwriting that can then be translated into your next screenplay. Playwriting holds valuable lessons on the very art and nature of dramatic writing and is, therefore, a fantastic tool to learn from for budding screenwriters.
Table of Contents
What’s The Difference Between Playwriting and Screenwriting?
Although the goals for both mediums are similar, how the writer approaches it is very different.
The most obvious difference is that a play is a live performance while a film is pre-recorded using a camera then cut together. A film is a visual medium with screenwriting focusing on action while a play relies heavily on words with playwriting focusing on dialogue.
Films may use tools such as shot composition, camera angles and editing. On stage, these are traded out for stage direction, emotive acting and theatrical effects.
There’s a misconception that since plays are confined to a stage, a writer is limited in their storytelling devices. However, thanks to the technological advances of modern-day theatre, plays can utilize many of the same tools as films.
Furthermore, because the leap of imagination is inherent in theatre (the audience knows they’re not actually in the play setting) the possibilities actually open up. This encourages the writer’s imagination. If a play is at sea, how can this be represented on stage? If there is a crowd of hundreds of people, how can this be represented without hundreds of actors?
Using these playwriting tools to tell your story can be very empowering for any type of writer. As a screenwriter, you may be stuck in the comfort zone of storytelling for the screen. However, switching your story to the stage can unlock new ways of telling that same story in a more effective way. It challenges you to think of the visual implications for what you are writing and how that can best and most imaginatively be represented.
Having a universal script format helps a writer express their story while making it digestible for the reader.
When you look at a screenplay, action takes up a large chunk of the pages. On the other hand, pages from a stage play are covered in dialogue with very little action. Being fluent in writing both action and dialogue will strengthen your overall skill as a storyteller.
The format used for playwriting may vary depending on the writer, but commonly you’ll start by establishing the settings, time periods, character descriptions, and synopsis. Plays are broken up by acts and scenes. The beginning scene should be followed by a description of the setting and any activity happening at rise.
Sample from Doubt, A Parable:
Setting: St. Nicholas, a Catholic Church and school in the Bronx, New York, 1964.
At Rise: A priest, FATHER FLYNN, in his late thirties, in green and gold vestments, gives a sermon. He is working class, from the Northeast.
Center the character names, followed by their dialogue justified to the left. Leave stage directions to a minimum, but justify to the right in italicized parenthesis.
Softwares like Final Draft, Celtx, and Trelby have playwriting templates that make formatting easier.
Many plays and films both follow the three-act structure.
“The three-act structure is a model used in narrative fiction that divides a story into three parts, often called the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.”
Traditionally, acts are used to break up the story and allow intermissions. However, in modern plays and films, acts go about unseen by the audience. Acts are broken up differently depending on the type of play or film.
In playwriting, the length of the play will change the structure. For example, 10-minute plays and one-act plays don’t follow the three-act structure. Other types such as full-length plays and musicals primarily do.
Scenes make up the acts of the play. Scenes in playwriting are often left to a minimum. One act may only be comprised of one scene. In comparison, films have much shorter scene lengths that will only last for a few minutes. Therefore, screenplays are compiled of many more scenes.
This is, of course, a generalisation, and many plays, in fact, contain very short scenes (see the work of Caryl Churchill for example). What is important to learn from scenes in plays is their functionality. What is this scene adding to the overall picture of the story and is it as efficient as possible in doing so?
How Does Playwriting Help Screenwriting?
Playwriting is character-driven. Screenwriting is plot-driven. Most of the time.
When writing a play, the size of the stage and the budget can affect how many characters are written into the story. Often, stage plays have a limited cast of characters. Therefore, the characters must be complex and developed.
After all, having too many characters on stage can muddy the performance and make it difficult for audiences to distinguish one from the other. Also, having fewer, more memorable, characters can help audiences make emotional connections that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
Playwrights use the characters to drive the story forward. They often focus on personal transformations or relationships.
For example, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir are two Everymen who do a lot of nothing throughout the play. On top of that, the simple dialogue between both characters seems pointless. So, what makes this play so popular?
Each character represents a piece of humanity. Estragon and Vladimir, the Everymen. Pozzo, a man with a false sense of control. Lucky, repressed and burdened. Boy, Godot’s messenger. This mixed with the absurdist elements makes for a character-driven play rooted in deeper meaning revolving around the human condition.
Playwriting requires a lot of attention to dialogue. It’s a device used to convey information and reveal more about a character. Dialogue should be intentional and meaningful. One way playwrights do this is by using subtext.
“Subtext is any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds.”
Using subtext is much more engaging than a character expressing exactly how they feel.
In screenplays, the action shows us how a character feels. However, in a stage play, it’s the dialogue that typically shows us how a character feels.
Asking questions about what a character wants or what they care about can help to find your character’s voice. This relates back to making your characters complex, developed and distinguished. Therefore, if you know your character’s style of speaking, your dialogue will flow with a natural pace.
Dialogue can be one of the most difficult aspects for a writer to grasp. If you can write dialogue for a stage play, you can write it for a screenplay. Dialogue in plays might often seem surplus, but it’s, in fact, the sharpest tool the playwright has.
A device used to add deeper meaning in the context of your story. It’s both poetic and thoughtful and gives the audience a chance to add their own interpretation of the story.
On stage, everything has a purpose. In fact, every prop, spoken word and movement adds something to the story.
For example, Paula Vogel’s Indecent opens with the cast of characters dancing while ashes spill out from their clothing. Projected behind them, ‘from ashes they rise’, symbolizing the resurrection of Yiddish theatre. In the end, the ashes take on a new meaning when the play comes full circle.
These small yet powerful symbols add so much unspoken meaning to the story while creating an engaging and unique experience for the audience. In thinking of the dramatic power of symbols, think of how this can be replicated on screen. Theatre shows the depths that small pieces of imagery can plunge.
“Dramaturgy is the study of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on the stage.”
Stage plays have used dramaturgy as early as the 18th century. It’s a unique idea to playwriting and practiced by every role involved in the theatrical process.
A playwright will use dramaturgy to identify what is and isn’t working. This includes looking at structure, pacing, characters, dialogue, plot and more. It uses these elements to assure a deeper meaning behind the work. It also uses them to assure that the intentions behind each element are clear.
In the theatre, an individual titled the dramaturg is responsible for upholding the dramaturgy. They are in charge of making the deeper connections between the written word, actors and audiences.
Although the playwright and the dramaturg are two separate entities of the theatre, they work closely together with the same goal in mind. Their goal is to piece together all the dramatic elements of a production into a meaningful, productive storytelling experience.
Understanding dramaturgy and the role it plays in playwriting will better equip you with the skills to analyze your own screenplay in a way you haven’t thought about before.
Is Your Idea a Play or a Film?
Writers are constantly generating new ideas and stories to tell. Sticking to one medium can be confining. Your idea may flop as a screenplay, but have you thought about making it into a stage play?
Consider all the traits of playwriting and screenwriting we’ve gone over above. Which elements of stage or screen will best fit your story? Does your story rely heavily on action sequences or is it dialogue driven? Is it primarily about internal conflict or external conflict? The former might be better suited for the screen, for example, whilst the latter might work compellingly on stage.
Think about how you want your audience to experience your story. Stage plays have an exclusivity and intimate element in which each live performance is never exactly the same. However, watching a film on the big screen is a visual experience like no other. Added with a packed audience manifests feelings of unity and inclusion.
Overall think of how you see your story. Interrogate what is at the core of your intention and whether stage or screen is the better vessel.
Playwright to Screenwriter
Stepping into a new and unfamiliar territory can be intimidating for anyone. For inspiration, keep in mind all the brilliant screenwriters who started their careers as playwrights. It’s no coincidence that their storytelling abilities carried beautifully over to the screen.
David Mamet (Plays: Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Oleanna) (Films: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables, We’re No Angels, Homicide, Hoffa, The Edge, The Spanish Prisoner, Wag the Dog, Hannibal, Heist)
Lucinda Coxon (Plays: Improbabilities, Waiting at the Water’s Edge, Nostalgia, I Am Angela Brazil by Angela Brazil, Wishbones, Happy Now?) (Films: The Heart of Me, Wild Target, The Danish Girl, The Little Stranger)
David Lindsay-Abaire (Plays: Rabbit Hole) (Films: Robots, Inkheart, Rise of the Guardians, Oz the Great and Powerful, Poltergeist)
Abi Morgan (Plays: Skinned, Fast Food, Splendour, Tiny Dynamite, Tender) (Films: Shame, The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman, Suffragette)
Moss Hart (Plays: You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner) (Films: Gentleman’s Agreement, Hans Christian Andersen, A Star Is Born)
Paddy Chayefsky (Plays: Middle of the Night, The Tenth Man, Gideon, The Passion of Josef D) (Films: Marty, The Goddess, The Americanization of Emily, The Hospital, Network)
Neil LaBute (Plays: In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, reasons to be pretty, Reasons to Be Happy) (Films: Your Friends and Neighbors, Possession, The Wicker Man, Some Velvet Morning, Dirty Weekend)
Martin McDonagh (Plays: The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Hangmen) (Films: In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri)
The main difference is that a film is a visual medium with screenwriting focusing on action while a play relies heavily on words with playwriting focusing on dialogue.
Playwriting teaches the value of character-driven pieces, quality dialogue, symbolic storytelling and the idea of dramaturgy. When a screenwriter understands and masters these ideas of storytelling, they gain a new perspective on their craft.
Consider all the traits of playwriting and screenwriting we’ve gone over above. Which elements of stage or screen will best fit your story? Does your story rely heavily on action sequences or is it dialogue driven? What is the balance of internal vs external conflict?
Think about how you want your audience to experience your story. Stage plays have an exclusivity element in which each live performance is never exactly the same. However, watching a film on the big screen is a visual experience like no other. One experience is exciting in its transience, one in its form and permanence.
This article was written by Madison Kemeny and edited by IS Staff.
Get ALL our FREE Resources
Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!