How to Transition from Playwriting to Screenwriting
This episode is for the playwrights among you. We are going to talk about how to make the transition from playwriting to screenwriting, the difference between plays and screenplays, and how you can use some of the incredible skills you have as a playwright in order to make the transition into screenwriting or TV writing.
What is the difference between playwriting and screenwriting? And how do you make the transition from playwriting to screenwriting or TV writing?
There’s an interesting phenomenon happening in TV writing. TV producers are looking for playwrights to staff their writers’ rooms.
There’s a vast number of playwrights who are making that transition into screenwriting– a field that’s very different from the one that they’re used to.
And why are playwrights getting staffed in writers’ rooms? Because quite frankly, playwrights are a lot better trained than most screenwriters.
There’s a simple reason for that. Choose the playwright of your dreams, and pretty much guaranteed, they are teaching at some university. Nearly all playwrights need to subsidize their income with these teaching positions. Whereas successful screenwriters get paid vastly more than playwrights. And for that reason, there are just far fewer experienced screenwriters who are teaching.
Unlike playwrights who are mostly trained by experts in playwriting, most screenwriters have actually learned by taking classes with and reading screenwriting books by academics, not by working screenwriters.
As a result, these books and classes tend to be much more academic, much more conscious mind focused, and quite frankly, a lot less interesting than those about playwriting.
Unlike screenwriting, most playwriting education begins not with craft, but with character.
This causes a challenge for many playwrights as they transition from playwriting to television writing or from playwriting to screenwriting.
They have this intuitive organic process that they have developed over time, that works when they are writing a play. But when they start to read books and seek mentorship about screenwriting, if they don’t find the right teacher, they will often learn a lot more about how to plan a script than how to actually write one!
Rather than learning how to develop a great movie or tv show from the blank page, they’re learning how to reverse engineer one, deconstructing it like a critic, rather than learning the process of developing it like a screenwriter.
This can cause tension in the writer and often cause their screenwriting to go flat in a way that their playwriting does not.
Of course, if you’ve never been a playwright, the effects of this can be even more dramatic.
Playwrights at least have that strong foundation in character underneath them, which can sometimes help them transcend the formulas that are being taught when it comes to screenwriting.
Whereas if your only education isn’t screenwriting, there’s a good chance that you’ve barely been taught how to write character at all.
And yet, if you look at the best movies, the best movies are all about character. The best TV shows are all about character, the structure of the shows and these movies is all about character.
That’s true whether you are writing a blockbuster popcorn movie like Top Gun: Maverick, which, (despite the concerns I bring up in my previous podcast), succeeds because it is not really about the air-fights, but about the relationship between Maverick and Rooster, between Maverick and Penny, between Maverick and Hangman, between Maverick and the Forces of the Army. As much fun as the stuff happening in the sky might be, it’s really about the dramatic relationships.
And that is also true in other dramas. Whether you are writing a TV show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel– which is really about a woman trying to break out of the role that society tells her she’s supposed to have in order to express her real voice.
Or whether you’re writing a little feature like Coda, which is really about a girl who is just trying to pursue her dreams and break out of the patterns that her life has always followed.
This is what we do as screenwriters, just like it’s what we do as playwrights. Our job is to find a character, step into them, inhabit them, see the world through their eyes, understand what they want, take them on a journey that changes them forever.
And in the process of taking them on a journey, our job is to take ourselves and our audiences on a journey as well, so that they, and we, can experience that feeling of catharsis, that feeling of change, that feeling of that’s me up there.
On the simplest level, playwriting, and screenwriting are exactly the same thing.
They’re a process of taking a character on a journey of change. And occasionally, they are a story about a character who refuses to change under great, great pressure.
We’re doing the exact same thing in a play, and in a screenplay.
The biggest difference between playwriting and screenwriting is that playwriting has this element called Unity of Place.
What Unity of Place means is that it is challenging to change sets on the stage, even in today’s Broadway world where we’ve got turntables and hydraulics. Anything that moves or changes on a stage needs to be physically changed, and that takes time.
As a result, in playwriting, the scenes tend to take place in fewer locations and tend to unfold over much more time. In addition, because it’s so hard to just “cut away” on the stage, in playwriting, most of the action actually takes place off stage.
Unless you’re doing something radical (like The Vampire Cowboys who perform real-life fight sequences on stage), most plays are not able to accomplish these kinds of action sequences on stage. And outside of playing around with lighting changes and complicated sets, we can’t as easily hop back and forth from place to place like movies and TV shows do so effortlessly. Most of the action happens off-stage, and characters enter and exit to report, deal with, and make choices about that action, “Hey, this happened, can you believe this crap.”
What this means is that playwriting scenes tend to be a lot longer. And because they’re longer, we have fewer of them. And we have a lot of time in playwriting to unpack the story to peel away the layers of the onion.
In a play, our primary way of peeling back the onion in this way is through dialogue. This is another reason why playwrights are so great at character, because dialogue is also just an expression of character. It’s also just a way of a character getting what they want, in the unique way that they try to do it.
Playwrights are used to a simpler form of structure than screenwriters. You don’t have a lot of scenes, so you can mostly remember the scenes that are in your play in your head.
You can keep those scenes straight for yourself in a much more intuitive way, and you get a lot of time to unpack stuff, explore stuff, because you’re not capturing the beat-by-beat action of what’s happening. Rather, you’re often dealing with the aftermath of what has happened, and then the choices that characters make in relation to what’s happened.
So plays are just built differently.
The next major difference between plays and screenplays: because plays take place on stage, in front of a live audience, there is a level of play and theatricality that is easier to achieve.
In most screenplays, there’s an expectation that things look real, even if we’re doing something crazy.
Even in an action movie or superhero movie, where we know someone could never actually survive this fight scene, or certainly not make funny quips right in the middle of it, there’s still an expectation in most screenplays, that visually, it’s going to look real.
Whereas in playwriting, there is a level of unreality that we can embrace in a different way. Because there’s some degree where the audience can see that it’s not real, because it’s literally happening in front of them.
If you look at a play like Angels in America, for example, there are ways that you can use that theatricality to get more metaphor on the stage.
Whereas in screenwriting, we have to develop our metaphors differently, because there’s just less tolerance, especially in most mainstream movies for things, for things to look anything but real.
The third major difference between playwriting and screenwriting is the primary tool of structure in plays and screenplays.
In plays, the primary way that structure is built is with entrances, exits, and drops of the curtain. (Or lights out, if you’re off-off-Broadway.) That’s the primary way that we feel the completion of one scene, the punctuation of one moment, and the beginning of another.
When a character enters in a play, that’s going to completely change the dynamic of what’s happening on stage. And similarly, when a character leaves, it’s going to completely change the dynamic of what’s happening on stage.
In fact, this is how farces are built. This is why a farce has so many different doors, so that we can watch those characters go in and out of the unified place. And each opportunity where somebody leaves or comes back leads to an opportunity for mistaken identity, humor, jokes, etc.
In plays, entrances and exits are hugely, hugely important. In fact, when the star enters for the first time, the whole audience applauds.
There is a complete change every time an entrance or an exit happens.
Unlike in a play, in a screenplay, it’s very rare that we’re actually even going to see an entrance or an exit. That’s because the main structural tool we have in screenwriting is the cut.
In fact, in The Room, which is famously the worst movie ever made, there’s a sequence where they’re shooting in a rooftop. And because they’re very poor filmmakers, they’ve only given themselves one master shot– they have nowhere to cut to.
There is a door at one end of the roof, and then there are two characters at the other end of the roof. And every time somebody enters, you have to watch them, in real-time, walk slowly across the entire roof in order for the scene to resume.
It’s comical to watch, which is one of the reasons that The Room is actually fun to watch. It’s so bad that it’s actually compelling.
But it’s also an incredible lesson. Because you watch that scene, and you’ll never write an entrance or an exit again, unless you’re doing it for a really powerful reason.
Whereas If The Room was a play, they would have no choice but to walk that character across the stage because the person physically has to be able to do it.
Entrances and exits, and even these act breaks where the curtain comes down or the lights go off, are not the primary tools of screenwriting.
The next obvious difference between writing a play and writing a screenplay is the one that every playwright is nervous about: Help me! I’ve got to write all this action!
You see, in a play, we need very minimal action. Because plays have this wonderful thing called rehearsal, that (for reasons I’ll never understand) in the film industry, only Francis Ford Coppola has figured out is actually a valuable thing.
In playwriting, you can put the words and minimal action on the page and trust the directors and the stars to work that out in rehearsal and figure out what it looks like.
And part of the reason for that is, until the set is built, until the concept of how the set is going to work is completed, it’s hard to even know how all that blocking is going to happen.
In playwriting, it’s really about finding it during the rehearsal process with a director and some fabulous actors. And as a playwright, in theatre, you know you’re going to be in the room. You’re going to be deferred to, cared about. The director is going to see part of their job as serving your vision. And your words are going to be very important.
If you want you can insist that an actor doesn’t change a single word that you wrote.
You’re going to be active in the rehearsal process, you’re going to be revising, you’re going to be editing.
In feature films, that is just not true.
Maybe one in ten writers is actually going to be there for production. And oftentimes, there will be another writer on the project by the time it’s in production, maybe two writers, maybe three writers, maybe four writers, maybe seven writers.
In fact, unlike playwrights, who almost universally have solo credit on the writing of their plays, in screenwriting, there is usually a whole flock of writers involved in developing a screenplay.
In fact, most of the money that screenwriters make is not even from spec script sales anymore, it’s from rewriting jobs, and work-for-hire jobs.
Screenwriting is a very different world.
And in TV writing, while you are much more likely to be involved during production, not only is there a showrunner who’s going to be reworking, rewriting, giving you notes and changing your stuff, there’s also a whole team of writers in the room that you’re collaborating with.
So there’s a very different process in the actual writing experience.
In screenwriting, we really have to capture exactly what we’re going to see.
Now, this doesn’t mean directing the work on the page. Your job is not to capture the shots.
You can take a deep breath, you don’t have to know 100 different camera angles. In fact, you’re better off not knowing them and not putting them in your script. Because any decent director is going just cross them out. That’s not your job. That’s their job.
And any reader who reads a bunch of camera directions gets reminded, hey, this is this weird thing called a screenplay. It gets in the way of you hypnotizing your reader and allowing them to see feel and hear as if they were in the story.
At the same time, you do need to capture what it’s going to look like.
You don’t need to capture the how of the shot, but you need to capture the look of the shot and the feeling of the shot.
And most importantly, you need to capture what your character is doing. The choices they make. The actions they take. And what makes those actions visually cool.
You’re not looking to get too micro. You’re not directing the actor’s performance. You’re not going beat by beat. This is not about parentheticals (“sadly,” “sarcastically,” etc.)
Just like a playwright, you’re still going to trust the actor to do a heck of a lot better job with the performance than you can do.
What you’re building is a concept that I teach in my Write Your Screenplay Class, which is called Isolating Visual Moments of Action.
But on the simplest level, Isolating Visual Moments of Action is a way to hypnotize the reader with your words, to allow them to see what you are seeing on the little movie screen or TV screen in their mind.
It’s the way you capture the big moments, the big choices the characters are making, and the actions that they do that reveal their How.
How do they start as a character? And how are they changing over the course of the script?
Capturing how a character changes is more challenging to do in a screenplay than in a play, because unlike plays, where we have Unity of Place and these long scenes that can peel away like an onion, in screenwriting, we have hundreds of tiny little scenelets.
Additionally, in most screenplays, we have far less dialogue than we would ever have in a play.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If you look at the first scene of Inglourious Basterds, for example, that scene is almost structured like a play. Or if you look at an Aaron Sorkin script, there is a much higher percentage of dialogue than the average screenplay.
But even in screenplays like these, there’s going to be a much higher percentage of action in the screenplay than there would be in a play.
This is true not only because we don’t have rehearsal. It’s also because we have to actually find all these locations and pre-plan all of this during pre-production on a physical level that does not exist in theater, where you’re really just building a set and then figuring out the stage pictures within it.
But there’s a whole other level to why we have a higher percentage of action in screenplays than in plays, which grows from the fact that we don’t have Unity of Place.
We don’t have these long scenes where we unpack the action that happened offstage. Rather, we are usually going to dramatize that action.
Unlike in a play, in a screenplay, everything happens now. Now! Now! Now! Cut! Cut! Cut! It happens so fast, because our powerful structural tool in screenwriting is the power of the cut.
In screenwriting, the story doesn’t exist inside of the individual scene. It’s actually found in the cuts between the scene.
It is in the cut between the scenes that the audience tells themselves the story of the movie or the show.
It’s in the cut that the audience realizes, Oh, because of this, that happened. Or, Oh, the character wanted this, but… oh no! Now that’s happened.
It’s actually in the cuts that we tell the story and the structure of the film.
This is a different way of thinking about structure. It’s not about entrances and exits. And it is not about talk. It’s about action and dramatization of what is actually happening.
It’s about finding the big choices that characters make in relation to what they want, and in relation to the theme.
So what does all this mean?
All this stacks up to the biggest reason why playwrights have trouble transitioning into screenwriting. And the biggest reason is, structure works differently in screenplays.
Now, the underlying concepts of structure are exactly the same as the concepts that you learned as a playwright, meeting a character and taking them on a journey of change.
But in a screenplay, because we have so many cuts, there are so many pieces of the puzzle, that we tend to need a stronger infrastructure to hold all that stuff together.
In playwriting, it’s like putting together a smaller puzzle where you can see and remember most of the pieces. Whereas in screenwriting, you’ve got hundreds of little puzzle pieces. And often in an early draft, they are all jumbled up, and it’s easy to lose track of the forest for the trees.
What many screenwriting programs do, to the detriment of the writers in them, is make organizing the puzzle pieces the most important thing.
That’s why so many of them start by teaching the ridiculous formula du jour, as if all stories were structured the exact same way.
“It’s always The Hero’s Journey.” “It’s always Save the Cat.” “It’s always 3 Act Structure. “This exact same thing always happens on this exact same page.”
Which is, of course, total baloney.
You know it’s total baloney if you’re a playwright.
You know that neither life nor characters follow a formula. And you know that if you did follow a formula, you’re going to write something boring. And that boring thing is not going to sell. You’re gonna write something predictable, that predictable thing is not going to sell.
As you make the transition from playwriting to screenwriting, you have a challenge to contend with. You don’t want to fall into the same trap that many struggling screenwriters do of depending on some formulaic structure that robs you of the one thing anyone wants to buy: your voice.
Remember, structure is just the “filing system” by which you organize the “files” that will become your screenplay. What’s actually important is not the organization system, which is different for every screenplay, but the content of the “files” themselves: the characters and their journeys, the choices that they’re making, the incredible scenes that you’re writing.
We don’t want to lock ourselves into a rigid formula. And at the same time, we often need some kind of filing system so that we can kind of understand the movements of our screenplay, so that we can remember Oh, yeah, that’s where I am. Oh, yeah, that’s what’s coming up. Oh, yeah, that’s the way I wanted to build this. So we don’t get distracted by all the hundreds of little scenelets. So that, rather, we can see the big movements.
And this is what I teach when I teach 7 Act Structure. This is how structure works, it’s understanding the movements of your character’s journey.
A lot of people think they’re talking about structure when they’re really talking about plot, about what happens on what page.
But that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about structure. What I’m actually talking about is the movements by which your characters change.
In screenwriting, acts are different than they are in plays. In plays acts are those moments where you’re changing the set, where you’re dropping the curtain. Acts in plays are built around the unique strengths and challenges of theater. And for this reason, acts in plays are more like parts.
But in screenwriting and TV writing, acts are structure. Acts are big choices and big changes that the character makes in relation to the theme, the hook, what they want, and the obstacles standing in their way, that create that journey of change for them.
*Edited for length and clarity