What makes writing a screenplay so much different from writing a play?
Transcript From Podcast:
The process of writing a screenplay is different from writing a play in many essential ways. The first is the difference in the use of action.
For screenwriters, action is the primary tool of structure. But for playwrights, the primary tool is dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong. As a playwright, you need to visualize to some degree what is happening on the stage in order to really create your dialogue, in order to create the piece. But you don’t have to communicate that to anybody else. People don’t need to see your play in their mind like they do when reading a screenplay; they need to hear it, and they need to see the big elements.
You get to rely on the director, because plays have this thing called rehearsals.
It is crazy that rehearsals, for the most part, don’t exist in filmmaking. Even though some of the really great film directors do rehearse– for example Francis Ford Coppola had a history of bringing the cast up to his estate to rehearse– most film directors don’t rehearse at all.
That’s for a very simple reason: stars cost about $20 million bucks, and who has that kind of money to spend on rehearsal?
So you end up in this very weird process where not only you are going to have no rehearsal, but also you are going to shoot all your scenes out of order. So you aren’t even going to have a continuity of knowing “this, leads to this and then this leads to this and then this leads to this…” as you shoot your film. So it becomes much harder to track the structure from scene to scene as you shoot, as you could if you were rehearsing a play.
Writing a play can take place on a much more intuitive level, because you don’t have to communicate what you’re seeing to anybody else beyond just the very basics. But for a screenplay you need a much more substantial infrastructure.
The second element that makes playwriting so different from screenwriting is that plays have fewer moving pieces than screenplays.
Screenplays have way too many moving pieces! And this is actually part of what led me to create Seven Act Structure for myself.
When I was a playwright, I didn’t need any way of consciously dealing with structure, because intuitively I am pretty good at structure. So, when I was a playwright I didn’t think about things like “Okay what is going to be the big turn or the big structural choice here?” I just got to dig in.
As a playwright, I always thought of writing like peeling the layers of an onion. I want to meet some people who want some stuff, and as they try to get the stuff that they want, slowly I am going to get to know who they really are and what they really want. Slowly they are going to reveal themselves to me, and to themselves, and to each other over the course of the play. And that is a very intuitive process; it is like getting to know someone. It’s the same thing that you do every day when you connect with someone… You meet somebody you think, “Oh they are cool!” So, you hang out.
You think you know who they are, then you start to learn things as you both pursue what you want in the relationship– you start to learn who they really are, and who you really are with them, and who you both really are in relation to each other. And changes start to happen; sometimes they are beautiful changes, and sometimes they are catastrophic changes and usually they are both.
So that is a very intuitive process and it is one of the reasons we are able to channel it faster as playwrights.
The third thing about plays that is very different from screenplays is that playwriting audiences, theatre audiences, are much more comfortable with metaphor than filmmaking audiences.
And this is changing a little bit. For example, we saw magical realism in Narcos, we have real world human beings with surrealistic animal elements in Bojack Horseman, and even the new Wonder Woman, which most people certainly wouldn’t consider expressionistic in any way, has a character who exists for metaphorical, rather than plot driven reasons: a Native American character who randomly shows up at the German Front during World War 2.
He is there for a metaphorical reason. The metaphorical reason is, as we discussed fully in last week’s Wonder Woman Podcast, that the film is really an exploration of war, a look underneath the fundamental assumptions of most action movies: a movie that raises the question are people actually good?
Wonder Woman’s love interest in the film is an American spy, Steve. And, of course, as an American in a Hollywood movie, in relation to this theme, of course this character is the most fundamentally good among all the wacky good guy sidekicks.
And so they show up at the German front, and there’s a random Native American that joins the team. And one of the characters asks him the same damn thing that we’re asking– “Why the hell are you here?”
And here’s his answer: “Well somebody took my land.” “Who took your land?” “That guy – the good guy? His people.” Which, is pretty impressive for a mainstream action movie– and starts to deepen the theme, and deepen the question at the center of the movie– that fundamental assumption of all action movies that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys– and that all we have to do to make a better world is find a way for the good guys to win.
In a play you just have the Native American show up. You just let him serve his metaphorical purpose. You don’t have to explain “Well I am also here for the money…. you see… well, there is nothing left for me in the United States…,” you don’t have to explain him, he is just there.
So this is the other difference– the different level of tolerance for metaphor versus pragmatic content in plays and screenplays.
And this is just because screenwriting is a newer art form; playwriting has been around forever, and when it started off, it wasn’t all that metaphorical.
When they started off it wasn’t Theatre of the Absurd, it wasn’t Expressionism, it was- “all right let’s tell a bunch of stories– and it is always going to be the same formula; there is going to be a good person, they are going to commit an act of hubris, and eventually through that act of hubris they are going to try to escape their fate, and eventually that hubris is going to lead everyone to die or suffer horribly.”
No matter what, the fate is going to happen. Like a Three Act Structure or Save The Cat! it is just a formula. Back from when theatre was young.
And then what happened was, over time, people saw play after play after play… and they started to realize, “this is frickin’ boring!”
It isn’t that the plays are boring, but the same thing again and again is boring. And over time, new movements came up and theatre evolved, just as we’re seeing film– even big action movies– start to evolve now.
And as a result, people who see theatre are much more comfortable with the idea that weird stuff is going to happen on stage. In filmmaking, in the middle of a giant fight scene, you can have like a really funny quip, or you can kill somebody’s father, and they are sad for two seconds, and then we are on to the next scene and it is a love scene. Or you can jump off a building and land by catching with your pinky and we are comfortable with that.
We are used to that kind of expressionistic stuff in action movies– “this is what it feels like to be an awesome action hero” versus, “this is what it actually looks like to be an action hero.”
So, most audiences are comfortable with that level of expressionism, but most audiences aren’t that comfortable yet with metaphor.
What this means is that in theatre, you can translate your instincts in a different way from the way you translate them in film.
In theatre, the line between dreams– your interior world, your impulse, what it feels like to you, the random image that popped up into your mind– and what makes it into the final draft is a much thinner line.
And that means, plain and simple, that screenplays often require more rewriting than plays do.
Part of the reason for that is, to some degree, theatre always looks fake, whereas most movies– with the exception of art films like Where the Wild Things Are— the adaptation of the children’s book that was actually purposely made to look fake– that was made to look the way a child might imagine the place where the Wild Things are, as opposed to how a brilliant CGI artist would imagine it…
But with the exception of films like these, especially in the non-animated world, we haven’t really seen a lot of movies that purposely try to look fake. Even our animation is moving more towards looking real.
In theatre, you can’t look real.
In theatre, people are very, very, very aware that there is a stage and there are actors up there. And if you do accomplish something that looks real, you will get applause, because people are so consciously aware of what it took! “Oh my god, how did they do that?”
A couple of years ago I took my niece Mia to see Mary Poppins on Broadway, which is one of the worst adaptation of a great film that has ever, ever, ever occurred.
But it was one of my proudest moments as an Uncle. She was so young; this is her first play, she was maybe five years old. And halfway through the play she looks at me and she says, “This is boring to Mia.”
The reason it was boring to Mia– well first off, structurally, they took the story out! So, basically, they were going to sing “Spoon Full of Sugar” six times, and boil it down to a fight between bad medicine and good medicine– which I don’t even know what the hell that is.
And they take all the Women’s Suffrage stuff that you could actually connect to, because I guess that is just too radical for Disney. So there is no story there. And what they are doing instead is spectacle.
So what you are watching is you are watching Mary Poppins, live on stage pull crazy shit out of her bag.
And the adults- look I didn’t enjoy the story because I was angry, but as an adult, you are still riveted. You’re thinking, “how did they do it?” “She just pulled a freaking lamp out of that bag?” And she is moving it around to different places on the stage, so you know there’s not just a hole under the stage that they are using. How is she doing this?
And so you are watching and you are like, “oh my god…” and the audience is like, “oh my god a lamp!” And at one point they make her fly, and you just—you can’t really tell how.
And it is amazing. And many of the adults are blown away, and the kids aren’t.
The kids are like “She is frickin’ magic dude; of course she just pulled shit out of her bag!” They are used to film where it isn’t a big deal to create magic. It is a lot of money, but it isn’t a big deal.
So what is interesting is, in theatre, for an adult audience, it always looks fake.
Brecht called this the alienation effect.
Brecht thought the mistake was trying to make it look real, because the audience knew it was fake. So if you really wanted to get the audience to connect, Brecht said what you do is– every once in awhile– you suddenly break into a song– you assault the audience’s expectations. As soon as they start to connect, you assault them with the fact that, no, you are watching a play, this isn’t real.
And what he had stumbled into when he did that was actually a hypnotic idea which is called a “break state”. The same idea Shakespeare had also stumbled into when he put comic relief into his tragedies.
The idea of a break state, hypnotically, relates to bringing someone into trance– which is what you are really doing as a writer, whether you are a playwright or a screenwriter– what you are doing is you are bringing a person to trance, bringing her or him to a space where you aren’t speaking to their conscious mind, which knows they are somewhere fake; you are bringing them to a place where you are talking to subconscious mind that doesn’t know that.
As a writer, you are inducing a trance in your audience where they start to accept your fictional world as real.
And if you get really good at your craft as a screenwriter there is no limit to what you can achieve with this.
Many people call this “suspension of disbelief,” as if it was a choice.
But it isn’t a choice. It isn’t “suspension of disbelief.” Nothing gets suspended.
What happens is, we actually start to communicate to a different part of the mind; we start to communicate to the subconscious mind.
So this isn’t “suspension of disbelief,” this is, “did we actually believe it?” Is the writer putting it on the page in such a way that it played effortlessly on the little movie screen in my mind and became real to me.
It isn’t the disbelief getting suspended, it is the belief getting triggered. Not consciously, but unconsciously.
And that is why, even as we know that these characters aren’t real, we weep for them, we feel our heart rate quicken for them, we jump scare for them. The conscious part of us knows they aren’t real, the subconscious part has no idea.
Hypnosis is just a way of inducing a trance state. In hypnosis if you want to get someone really deep, you bring them down, down, down, then you shake them out of it; then you bring them back down, down, down, down again.
And you can do this as well, by developing your craft as a screenwriter. In the way you put your images on the page, and the way you shake up your audience’s expectations as you cut from one image to another, inviting them in to tell themselves the story of your movie, rather than spoon feeding it to them.
Brecht did this with songs, Shakespeare did this with comic relief, Eisenstein did this with montage, and even a big budget silly action movie like Wonder Woman does this as well. Not just in the way the images on the page build the world, but also in the way they shake it up.
You are in the middle of this super serious war-epic-drama fantasy film, and then suddenly there is this goofy love story happening! And it is totally lovely. It breaks the state for you, and you suddenly remember, “Oh that is right, I am in a fun movie!” And then suddenly you’re sucked back into the action, and even though you were just reminded it was fake, it somehow feels more real.
How does that relate to theatre and how does that relate to film?
In theatre there is always that level of awareness that you are watching a play, and because of that you can play with this idea called theatricality.
Making use of theatricality starts by asking how do you make the fact that we are watching this on stage fun? How do you use spectacle? How do you play with the fact that it is fake to make it cooler?
If you’ve seen the play Angels in America versus the HBO miniseries Angels in America, the brilliant thing about the play is that you can really feel all the gears and pulleys. You could feel how clunky it is. But in film, that wouldn’t work.
So if you watch the HBO adaptation of Angels in America, which is beautiful, you can see that they actually made a lot of changes to the tone of the piece. And they had to, because they had to make it feel more real for television, because fake doesn’t work as well right now in film.
The whole movement in film is generally towards how to make it look real.
The exception for that is probably B-Movies, like the ones we show every month at Bad Movie Bingo. Those are movies that you enjoy because you can see they are fake.
When you watch The Room and you enjoy it, that is actually the theatricality that makes The Room enjoyable. Because you aren’t actually experiencing the movie; you are enjoying watching the man try to make the movie.
So, all these things exist in theatre. And on the simplest level that means when writing a play, you don’t have to be as clear and you don’t have to dramatize as much and you get to play around a little more.
There is less translation that happens in playwriting than there is in screenwriting.
And even if things aren’t completely clear, if you hit that high note, during your rehearsal people figure it out. And you will figure it out! Because you are usually in your rehearsals, and you are making changes. “Oh my G-d I’ve got to kill this scene, change this, this is okay…” that is what you are doing in rehearsal.
Whereas, in film, you are often no longer involved by the time the shoot begins, and then there is no rehearsal anyway. It’s very rare that screenwriters on set. Generally the only screenwriters that get to be on set are the ones who are also directing. And if you are also directing you don’t have any time to rewrite, because you are frickin’ directing.
So for all these reasons there is a second layer that needs to exist in a screenplay that doesn’t need to exist in a play.
It’s a layer of clarity that makes it easy for everyone to see, hear, and feel every moment– to play it on the movie screen in their mind, to fully understand your intention, without having to spend hours mulling or rehearsing the script.
And creating that clarity can be difficult, because of another big difference between plays and screenplays.
Plays have this idea of Unity of Place.
What this means literally is that everything is going to happen on one stage. But it also means, in general, because everything has to happen in real time, and we don’t have the power of the cut to help us, it means we don’t tend to have a lot of locations.
Television actually is similar in this way. Even if you think of like a really expensive show like Game of Thrones, we keep on coming back to Castle Black, The Wall, The Palace, The Throne Room, we are going to keep on coming back to the same places.
Part of that is pure budget– you’ve got to make X many episodes and they are going to look good: let’s not build a lot of new sets.
Unity of Place in theatre exists primarily because is it is hard to change sets; it is slow because you have to physically do it. And so what that means is that we tend to let scenes take place in one place rather than in many places. And what that means is that we have lots of time for characters to talk to each other and to really kind of drill, drill, drill…..down deeper and deeper in a conversation… and it can all happen a little slower.
As a result we end up with fewer moving parts. We’ve got 2-5 acts, each with a handful of nice long scenes. Whereas if you think of how many scene headings you have in a screenplay, how many times you cut in a movie, it is constant.
In theatre, the most powerful structural element is the Entrance and the Exit.
Every time somebody enters in a play, it is going to change the balance of the scene; the scene will never be the same. And every time someone exits in a play, the scene will never be the same.
And this is actually the way we build the structure in playwriting– by allowing entrances and exits to shift the balance of power.
And then we have lights out, lights up, and that is basically the way structure is built in plays and everything is happening in the same darn place.
So what that means is that, generally, you can hold that structure in your head. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to hold on to every single thing that is happening. And we have time to sit in our dialogue and allow the characters to drill down and explore.
I am not saying playwriting is easy; playwriting is hard, just like every writing is hard. But, from a craft perspective, it is much less complicated. In fact there isn’t even a standard format for playwriting, everyone writes in their own font, in their own format, everyone has their own style. There is no standard format because it isn’t necessary.
In screenwriting, on the other hand, our most powerful element of structure is The Cut.
In playwriting, it isn’t The Cut we’re building around, but the Entrances and Exits, which don’t happen that often (even if you’re writing a farce with people coming in and out every scene, the numbers of Entrances and Exits is still a tiny fraction of the number of cuts in a movie.)
In fact, in a movie, not only are we cutting every time you have a scene heading–INT. CLASSROOM or EXT. STREET– we are also cutting inside the scenes. Every time we type a period in a sentence of action, it’s like a little cut, which slowly adds up with all the cuts around it to create the character’s journey, and the audience’s experience of that journey.
And if you do it right, this can also become an intuitive process.
As you know if you’ve taken our Write Your Screenplay, Level 1 or Level 2 Classes, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to call out every shot in your movie. Nor should you if you want to hypnotize your audience.
You don’t have to say “Close shot on Mary, reverse angle on John, close shot on Mary, reverse angle on John” to show that we’re cutting back and forth.
But you don’t get to just say “Mary and John are talking” or “Mary is typing” either.
You have to actually capture it in a way that allows the reader to visualize it instantly in the movie screen in their mind, and tell themselves the story of your movie, your character, your character’s journey.
You might say, “Mary’s cracked fingernails click on her keyboard.” Or you might say “Mary’s perfectly polished fingernails click on her keyboard.” Or you might say,“Mary’s callused hand scrawls with an old fountain pen” Or you might say, “Mary’s bejeweled hand signs a letter.” You see those are all completely different versions of “Mary is Writing.”
In screenwriting, we have to lock down that image of Mary’s cracked fingernails, and then we may follow that with another action sentence like “Mary snaps her laptop closed.”
And you can see, we just went from an INSERT to a WIDEN TO INCLUDE shot.
We didn’t have to say WIDEN TO INCLUDE because we just wrote: “Mary’s cracked fingernails click the keyboard. Mary closes her laptop” and you already saw it in your head.
Add, “She throws her chair across the room at John.” And we just went to an even wider MASTER SHOT. But more importantly, you just told yourself a story.
And you can see that every single one of those shots advanced the story.
We haven’t even gotten Mary out of the classroom yet. But without calling a single shot, every single sentence worked like a little cut inside the scene, and each cut advanced the structure.
And what this means is that movies move a heck of a lot faster than plays. Each scene flies by like “that!”
And if I changed one part, if I showed Mary first throwing the chair and then typing on the laptop, it changes the whole story.
And if instead of seeing Mary throw the chair at John, I cut instead to Larry’s shocked expression as he watches, and hears the CRASH of the chair against John’s body, it tells a different story.
And so this is why screenwriting is so much slower that playwriting and also so much more visual. Because in screenwriting, we get to make all of these decisions.
This is also why we need more advanced structural tools in screenwriting; this is why you need Seven Act Structure or some kind of approach that is going to allow you to break down your movie into digestible chunks for yourself. So that in all those little details, we don’t lose the thread of what does Mary want?
So that in all those little details, we don’t lose the thread of what choice did Mary make and how did that affect her next choice?
Because there are so many moving parts, we need a different filing system to make sense of all these parts. And that’s what screenplay structure really is.
And what’s interesting is that if you learn to do this craft stuff really well– if you master these techniques on the moment to moment level in your action, rather than glossing over the action in your screenplay as if it were the description in a play, the little moments of action help you build the bigger structure, and help inspire your creativity as you do so.