At the university I am enrolled in, there is no “Screenwriting” major, but instead, it is a “Screenwriting and Playwriting” major. These two areas of writing are very similar, but there are very different lessons that can be learned from both of them. Where some fundamentals of screenwriting do not necessarily transition well into playwriting, a lot of what you can learn from playwriting can greatly increase your screenwriting abilities. Here are just a few:
While every good story, from screenwriting to video games, needs conflict, conflict takes on a different importance in plays. On a stage, you cannot have fancy explosions or high budget CGI, so conflict and story are the biggest elements keeping your audience interested. The stakes must be kept at a high enough level that the audience is at the edge of their seats, but not too high to be unbelievable. The structure of conflict is ultimately the same, but every character’s role is defined by their function in the overall conflict in a play whereas, in screenwriting, the characters are separate entities that play roles in the conflict. The characters and conflict are more intimately entwined in plays because of the importance the conflict makes.
A play advances through the actions of characters, which makes their development really important. The difference between plays and screenplays is that characters are defined mostly through their dialogue. Since stages are only so big and advanced, plays rely on an enormous amount of dialogue that would choke the life out of a film. Just because screenwriting prefers actions over dialogue, that doesn’t mean you can’t use dialogue to help flesh out your characters. When you write character interaction in plays, it usually focuses on how these two characters talk…not just the words that they’re saying, but if they finish each other’s sentences or talk over each other or misunderstand a lot and more. By showing that a rather talkative character doesn’t speak much to another, you reveal a subtle conflict between the characters. Is it shyness? Do they have a bad history? Playwriting helps you juggle the dialogue better than the action-oriented screenwriting.
As previously mentioned, dialogue-heavy playwriting can help you create depth in your screenwriting dialogue. It doesn’t just help with character development, though. By studying and crafting plays, you can learn how to become an expert at exposition because, although it’s possible, it’s very difficult to explain backstory or plot in just action. You have dialogue, so use it! Of course, the well-made plays are all about dropping hints for the audience to know that not all characters have figured out yet, causing a tense irony. Learning how to not only withhold information from the audience, but also from the characters, is an important lesson from playwriting. When it comes to exposition, we want to get it all out, so that the audience has all of the information they need to fully appreciate the story. However, sometimes leaving them questioning and searching for the next clue can keep them interested. Plays like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drop hints throughout the story for the audience to begin piecing together until they finally come to a realization at the end. Dialogue is an art in playwriting and something all films could benefit from.
With such a small budget and stage at your disposal, when writing a play you learn quickly how some objects here and there carry a lot of weight. Similar to writing or designing an animated film, everything in a play is meant to be there. For example, the boots and servant’s bell in Strindberg’s Miss Julie represent her father and his power over Miss Julie and Jean, although he is never on stage. Items can be used as representations for character flaws or traits. Get creative in your screenplays and give the audience something to ponder over. Did the woman’s jacket, her father’s old biker jacket, represent something more than just a fashion statement? What about the items the man has on his desk, the picture frame, etc? What could they add to his character and story?
5. Director Proofing
While plays are usually put on by different directors of different styles, this can sometimes warp or change the meaning of the play. If there are certain details or actions you wish to put in your screenplay that you don’t want the director to change (while it is harder for screenplays than plays), then there’s something my professor called “director proofing”. If something symbolic is very important to you in the story, write it into the dialogue. Have someone reference it or handle it in a way that would be difficult to remove. In screenwriting, a big fear when selling scripts is that it’s going to be given so many alterations that the story will become corrupted. By strengthening what you must keep with dialogue and action, and making sure that its purpose in the story is solid, the fight to keep it is significantly easier to win.
In plays, you get one stage. Sure there are some set directors who are practically wizards and can create masterpieces, but you don’t always have much to work with. In scripts, it’s not always the best idea to have every scene somewhere else on the map. We were always cautioned of writing period pieces or scripts set in “exotic” places because if a script, no matter how good it is, looks like it’s going to cost more than a pretty penny, it might be overlooked. Always comb over your scenes and think about how they can be filmed on a budget, and where the biggest money drains are, and see if those can be adjusted or, if they’re needed, then find other places to strategically scale down and trim costs. Do you really need that much CGI? Does the car chase need to be that long with that many explosions?
Even though this article lists how playwriting can improve your screenwriting, you don’t have to write plays to benefit your film scripts; you can always write both. If you want to read more about playwriting, but aren’t that into writing plays, there’s a good book called The Collaborative Playwright by Bruce Graham and Michele Volansky that I highly recommend. Of course, there are many other ways playwriting can help your scripts that I may not have included. If you have something you wish to share that I may have missed, please leave a comment!