Ask the Expert – Writing for Theatre and for Film

Question: “What are the main differences and similarities between writing for the stage versus the screen?”

Answer: An idea comes … like a whiff of smoke. I chase it … sometimes it vanishes in the wind … I turn one way, then another, and it’s gone: there’s nothing there. On other occasions, I locate a fragment or nugget … but nothing worth my time, nothing worth working on for months. But when I’m fortunate, I discover the source of the idea, and it’s rich … a place where my imagination can run free, one idea leads on to the next and the next … and suddenly I’m not thinking about writing something, I’m doing it. As this happens, something concrete begins to take form.

Then I have to decide: What is this? What does it want to be … a poem? A story? A play? A movie? Usually the mandate is very clear … incontrovertible. The thing announces its identity.

Then I can start thinking about structure. If it’s a movie, I’m going to need a lot of event … a lot of plot and a lot of time spent thinking about the evolution of the narrative. If it’s a play, the unfolding of narrative is more gradual … revealed in dialogue … scenes are extended … and of course you can’t cut. Okay, you can, but that’s a particular kind of play … a play with shorter scenes, even fragments, like a movie … a kind of play I’ve never written.

In both cases, I then begin writing notes to myself … about theme, character. Snatches of dialogue – even whole scenes – come to me.

If it’s a movie, I’ll write a lot of outlines. I tend to write them over time … as other things … character arcs, mythic underpinnings … reveal themselves. I’ll probably write a dozen outlines … most of them partial … before I begin writing the script. And of course, if it’s a movie, I’m going to be thinking of (and in) images … looking for a visual language particular to this story.

Something else. I don’t like to read scripts. They’re boring … the form is boring because no matter how you do it, a lot of words are the same in every single script. INT/EXT. DAY/NIGHT … and so on. To keep myself interested writing a script, I often have to invent a literary construct … this script will be written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald … that kind of thing. I do this primarily to keep myself challenged and engaged, but it also to make the experience different for the reader. No one will know I’m mimicking Fitzgerald, but they’ll know that something unusual is going on with the prose.

So if it’s a movie, I do a ton of preparation … I’ll often prepare for months before I begin writing. If it’s a play, I’m inclined to do less preparation … to let the characters tell me the story … to watch what they’re doing, listen to what they’re saying … to let them surprise me with undercurrents, subplots, sudden revelations … when I’m writing well, the play is just happening in my mind and I’m recording it.

And of course, as a movie must engage my visual imagination, a play must engage my aural one: I don’t (in most cases or most scenes) see the play; my primary experience is hearing it.

Of course the biggest difference between film and theater is feel and flow: concision
versus elaboration. Say there are two characters, Joe and Harold, sitting in a bar. Harold says, “I’m breaking up with my old lady. She’s tired of me. She doesn’t know it, but she is. Last night we went to dinner at Dupars, and she told me she was thinking of taking a life drawing class. Crystal? An artist? I broke out laughing and of course that pissed her off and she walked out of the restaurant.” Joe responds, “So it’s over?”

Okay. Not an immortal exchange, but it’ll do for our purposes. In a play, you’d probably include the whole thing. In a movie, you might condense what Harold says to one line. “My old lady told me she’s gonna take a life-drawing class.” Joe: “So it’s over between you?” That might be all you’d need.

Obviously there is room for great dialogue in a movie, but in most cases, a short scene is better than a long one, and the writer’s goal is to find the essence of the interaction … to distill the scene down to its core. In a play, the flavor comes in the opposite way … in the relatively leisurely exploration and unfolding of an increasingly dramatic situation.

One of the great benefits of being both playwright and screenwriter is that skills developed in one form nourish me in the other. Writing screenplays developed my narrative muscles. Writing plays taught me to value character and the eccentricities of speech.

The process feels the same. The process feels utterly different. Both things can’t be true. But they are.