Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making the Transition From Story to Play

by Tom Mach
©2009 by Tom Mach

I always wondered what it would be like to make the transition from a short story or novel to a stage play (or screenplay). I made that transition and found I had to think differently and write differently when doing a screenplay versus a novel. I wrote and rewrote my play at least a dozen times. My agent loved it and is showing it around the New York playhouses. But the transition from fiction to playwriting wasn’t an easy one. Hence, I am sharing with you a few basic things a fiction writer must face when writing a play, and these include the following:

Difficult, if not impossible, to get into a character’s mind.
In fiction, we have the ability to write omnisciently, which means we are able to communicate to the reader what the character is thinking. Usually, this cannot be done when writing a play. I say “usually” because I’ve used a device in writing a play whereby the character’s thoughts are transmitted to the audience via a loudspeaker. But even with this device, we are limited in not being able to describe the character’s true feelings as we could if we described them in fiction.

Need for some minimum scene and stage directions.
In fiction, we can describe beautiful vistas, wide oceans, a quiet forest, a city landscape—and we can do so with considerable detail so a reader can visualize the background where the story takes place. In plays, we don’t describe the full stage set, we don’t need to because the audience is able to see it for themselves. We, as playwrights, do have to give some minimal description on the set and stage directions. For instance, in my play “Real Characters,” I open it with a bachelor part sign, party streamers, men standing about and chatting, drinks in their hands. I don’t describe the size of the room, the wallpaper, the name of the hotel, etc., which I might have done if I were writing a novel.

Pace and plot depend almost entirely on dialogue.
While dialogue is important in fiction, it is virtually the only major tool you have in playwriting. In plays, as in fiction, dialogue has to describe character and move the plot along. However, in fiction, we can help create a more distinct character by describing the physical and emotional traits that character has—and we can help move the plot along by describing action in very specific terms. We can do flashbacks to get a sense of the past and how it affects the future. We can show several scene changes with no problem.

Very restrictive scenes—often plays take place in one location
That brings to mind another important point. We have considerably fluidity in fiction. We change scenes, we go into different points-of-view, we can focus on a specific object and describe it. But plays are very restrictive and necessarily so. It costs money to design and change sets. The fewer the scene changes the better. Some of the best plays have occurred with only one set design.

You have to format what you type very differently

Script formats are very different from formats used in typing a novel. For instance, you need to type the brief scene description from the center margin, type the name of the character speaking in caps and center it, type in any important motion that character makes (laugh, taking something out of his pocket, etc) directly beneath the character’s name, double-space between speakers but single-space the dialogue of a given character. Here is an example from my copyrighted play “Real Characters.:-- (Please note that the line spacing and indentation in my example below is incorrect as shown since I am unable to make it appear on this blog as it should. ACT ONE is centered, skip two lines. Then, SCENE 1 is centerd and copy below it is single-spaced. There is a double space next, "FIRST MAN" is centered while (shakes his head in disbelief) is also centered on the next line. Then skip a space and the dialogue of the FIRST MAN starts about 1 inch from the left-hand side of the page)



A banquet hall. “Farwell, Bachelor Buddy”

sign and party streamers hand above. Four men

in their 20s, all with cocktails in hand, toast their

friend Troy Hudson, who will marry Lillian

Martin next week.

(shakes his head in disbelief)

Troy Hudson, are you sure we can’t talk you out of it?

(claps Troy on the back)

You can still drop out and keep your freedom, you know.


I could go on, but get the idea. Screenplay writing is different in many respects from fiction writing. But these forms of writing have two things in common: they must tell a captivating story and they must have compelling characters that become very real to the audience. It takes a while to learn how to switch modes of thinking and writing, but it is well worth it.

1 comment:

Character Education said...

Interesting article.. is it possible to get a good play from the story for everyone?