Writing for the stage or screen is a skill set different from that of writing books. Michael McGinnis explores the importance of understanding these mediums when learning to write for them.
Stage plays and screenplays are heard, not read. Writing them requires the scriptwriter to learn different skills than other writers. But scriptwriters also gain different rewards.
Poet T.S. Eliot said that he began writing plays because he wanted to reach out “not only to a larger audience, but to larger groups of people collectively.” He succeeded: 18 years after his death, he won two 1983 Tony Awards for his part in the musical Cats, but during his life, the 1950 Tony Award for Best Play for The Cocktail Party. By that time, he had been learning the rules of scriptwriting for more than twenty years.
1. Keep the story simpler
A script must be simpler than a book because a performance is bound by time. Count on one minute of action for each page of script.
At 47,000 words and 180 pages, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s very short novel The Great Gatsby would have been too short even to qualify as a NaNoWriMo winner, but a 180-page movie script would have run for three hours.
Only ten films longer than three hours have won an Oscar for Best Picture. A theatrical film is at least 80 minutes long, and an hour-long television show is about 42 minutes without commercials, while a half-hour sitcom probably lasts 22 minutes. The plot has to be simple enough to fit into those limits.
Time also limits the number of characters and the depths with which they can be explored. Because of these limits, a movie script might only be 7,500–20,000 words, while a bestselling novel might run more than 100,000 words. That doesn’t mean a script is necessarily light and fluffy, compared to a Russian novel. Shakespeare’s sonnets were about 100 words long, but they aren’t fluffy.
The human mind puts limits on scripts too – an audience can only remember so many names and events at a time. Any significant characters need to be distinguishable from each other, which could be a challenge if all the characters are soldiers of the same nationality, roughly the same age, and of course, wearing identical uniforms.
2. A script will be spoken and seen
Reading what you write out loud is helpful for any writer, but it’s crucial for scriptwriters. Actors must have a place to take a breath. And they don’t appreciate inadvertent tongue twisters. Complete sentences aren’t required in a script, any more than in a real-life conversation.
Watch the fast exchange of dialogue in a screwball comedy such as The Front Page (1931). The first newsroom scene is full of interruptions and omissions, but context and gestures help make up for missing words.
To improve the realism and quality of your dialogue, try collaborating with another writer, improvising scenes out loud, each one of you playing one character in a conversation.
3. A play has no close-ups
Stage plays and screenplays are both intended to be watched rather than read. But unless your stage has a huge TV screen mounted above it, your play can’t depend, for example, on the audience seeing the gold ring hidden in a character’s hand.
Visibility (and tradition) are two reasons that live theater is usually more auditory than films. Unlike a film, a play doesn’t allow fast cuts to a new location, so a film can handle large battle scenes more easily than a traditional play. But large motions fit the stage better than small ones since any motion has to be large enough to be visible.
In the play Once Upon A Mattress, when the queen says she’s hiding a pea in the princess’s bed, the audience has to take her word for it. Small motions work in very small theaters, however.
4. A talkie must not be talky
A stage play depends on the aural, but a film depends on the visual. In a silent film, any dialogue had to be displayed in a title and read by the audience.
Some of the first “talkies,” freed from that restriction, had to relearn the knack for visual expression that silent filmmakers had mastered. Certainly, there can be more dialogue in a film script than a novel, but too much dialogue swamps the film. If an audience member loses attention, then looks back at the screen, and the picture hasn’t changed much, he or she is likely to lose attention again.
5. Include only what the audience can see or hear
As I recall, one theater critic mocked Edna St. Vincent Millay for including stage directions such as “As they exit, we hear the sound of an angel tear.” The critic rightfully said that most directors don't know what an angel tear sounds like. It was a very poetic stage direction, but not very practical.
Everything in a script must be capable of being put into action. On the other hand, don't include action for the sake of action, as a three-ring circus does. Use action to show the character's inner motivations.
6. Don’t ask for impossible actions
Adding a new scene, or even a new planet, to your story doesn’t cost any extra, but it does if you want to film it. A screenwriter must keep in mind that every scene in their story has to be built and paid for. The more locations, the more the expense.
Harlan Ellison, one of the leading speculative fiction writers of the 20th century, wrote The City on the Edge of Forever, which is considered the best Star Trek episode ever created. But Ellison’s creative vision made it prohibitively expensive to film until it was modified by, among other changes, cutting a scene with a woolly mammoth. Apparently Desilu Productions didn’t have a woolly mammoth available.
When I wrote an adaption of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, I did it as a radio drama – fortunately. Since the title character has no gravity (they tether her down with string when it’s windy), it would be expensive to produce as a film, and difficult to produce on stage.
In live theater, more elaborate scenes mean the show runs longer. The audience has to wait for every scene change.
Scriptwriting can be a lucrative occupation compared to fiction writing. Because of collective bargaining, a film or television script typically sells for more than a novel, assuming it sells at all. In fact, many fiction writers make most of their profit when their work is adapted (or optioned to be adapted) for the screen.
Studios which have agreed to follow the Writers Guild of America Schedule of Minimums must pay professional screenwriters at least $24,437 for Story or Treatment, $32,922 for an Original Story or Treatment or a $74,479 minimum for Original Screenplay, including Treatment.
For a half-hour network TV show in the United States, they must pay the writer a minimum of $8,858 for the story, $19,053 for the teleplay, or $26,566 for both story and teleplay. If it’s later turned into a video game or a cable TV rerun, the writer continues to get paid each time.
But you don’t need to crack the major studio markets to see your script come to life. Cameras are more affordable than ever, and your local park can become a theater.
Are you interested in writing an original script or adapting one of your books into a script? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.