Writing plays (for screenwriters)

Blog post description.


4/22/20054 min read

One of my twitter peeps has decided to write a play and posted this wonderful tweet:

Have been planning a play! So, I use the three act structure but in two acts?! Help!

I think that's the least of the screenwriter's troubles when they set out to write a play! There is plenty more to watch out for, but mostly I would encourage new playwrights to think about some of the salient differences between the two, how these differences play out in the writing process, and how EXCITING these differences can make playwrighting...

TO GENERALISE MASSIVELY, here are some points to contemplate...

Stage is it’s own thing - There are areas of cross-over and plenty of people who both well but you really have to take theatre on properly, just as you do with screen. It has it’s own demands, joys and frustrations. Approach with an open mind and it’s a great journey…

Action/Character mix When I first started writing plays I would start with about 5 or 6 things that happened and could comfortably write a full length play out of it. The first movie I wrote I tried the same thing and my 5/6 things got me into the beginning of the second act! Movies consume story at a massive rate where plays consumer character at a massive rate. Character complexity is much more important in plays, you have more time to explore relationships (because there IS nothing much else on stage) and consequently characters, relationships and their situations will form about 80% of the story and action the rest.

A play is always MCU A play happens with a fixed lens, somewhere between 35-55mm I guess. You can’t move the camera, only the set and actors, and you can’t stop it - now what would you put in front of the camera? What would be interesting?

If you do that as a thought exercise pretty soon you find that you are thinking about character and dialogue, and, more importantly, you will start to see that mucking about with character, form, time and language becomes the point of interest. This leads us to...

Language/Dialogue - Ahhh, yummy! On stage language can be a real star, there are so many ways to use, abuse and elevate it. The power of a good monologue, exploiting purely aural effects, running dialogue over the top of other dialogue, the moment where someone reveals the past through language…

On the stage language IS your camera, your unique POV and signature. In practical terms for most screenwriters this means loosening up, a lot. Even apparently 'realistic' dialogue is highly structured and poetic compared to most screen or fiction. Dialogue and language in a play must be the waves that your actors surf, it's got to be active and sound right 'off the tongue'.

Recommendation: start writing poetry again, just for yourself and READ IT ALOUD. Record it, play it back - make it better - that's how much attention your language requires!

Form - Aside from very realistic plays (and why are you writing those anyway, they are probably better TV!) you are going to want to look at the formal elements of the play quite deeply. There’s nothing wrong with bashing your way through from start to beginning but taking a more elastic approach to form (and time) is more often done in theatre - the audience has time to work it out you see.

For instance in several of my plays I run two scenes at once on stage in the same place (so you might get a mother/daughter scene from the morning running at the same time as the father/daughter scene form the night).

Stylisation can play a massive part in theatre too - from Brecht to Caryl Churchill's 'Serious Money', there are many ways to exploit 'performance modes' like music hall, football commentary or the even - gasp - the musical.

Tricky, fun, challenging - there is no end of inventive formal approaches in theatre. A couple of classic plays that spring to mind that muck about with form are "The Betrayal' by Pinter, 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' by Pirandello.

Getting away with more - Wanna take on a radical subject matter? Theatre is a great place to do it - the theatre is a lot less conservative than the movie world and can absorb greater shocks. It’s hard to think of a cinematic equivalent of the plays of Sarah Kane for instance.

The LANGUAGE school - what happens when you push all of the above to 11? You get extreme American playwrighting… there’s a whole bunch of playwrights who just kinda let rip and blow the notion of character and dialogue apart. This style of writing is too rich for most people in the UK, but it’s worth looking at to see just how far you can go… There’s a great book on this which I re-read all the time looking for new approaches (on Amazon.co.uk).

Some practicalities - Don’t write a lot of actors into your piece - the fewer performers the greater money each of them gets in your average co-op production. Many companies will have a realistic maximum number of players above which the cost of salaries becomes too much. This doesn’t mean you need to restrict character numbers, but you do need to figure our sensible ‘doubling’ - ie where one actor can playa number of parts - and whether doubling is appropriate in the form you are working (it’s funny in Farce but can be a bit dicky in a serious piece).

DO have readings - these are much more common in theatre - get some actors (or friends) around and read it out loud. I do this twice for every new play, it's essential. Not so much done on screen as there is less dialogue and the practicalities can be overwhelming, but this is your blood as a playwright.

Phew, I could just keep going, but really Theatre is a great thing to write for, and I would encourage any screen writer to at least have a go - it's a great writers medium. It's very satisfying seeing real actors tell your story night after night in front of an audience, and while the industry is not without it's quirks (like there is NO money in it) you can probably get something decent on stage a lot quicker than screen.

Oh, and to answer the question, act two has two halves so you have the interval at the turning point - that is, if you are writing that kind of play...