In 2015, I was working in Chicago when my friend Jay Paul Deratany handed me a play he’d written for me to direct.
The story was astonishing—a real-life soldier from the Civil War who, in modern terms, would be considered transgender (more on that in a moment). He was assigned female at birth, fought for the union, and survived battles, capture, and even won a court case to defend his service in his old age.
When I read the script, I was amazed. But I told my friend there was a problem.
“This story isn’t a play,” I said.
“It’s not?” He asked.
“No … it’s a musical.”
I grew up as a musical theater child actor in Indianapolis, and the age-old wisdom I learned as a singer, director, and eventually a writer—was that a musical “has to sing.”
This is because, though they borrow from other genres, every medium has its strength. A Movie has the closeup. Paintings have … well, paint. And when regular words aren’t enough in an ordinary story, the musical lets our heroes break into song to express something invisible that other storytelling methods could never express.
Together, my friend and I—along with my songwriting partner and trans activist Coyote Joe Stevens—took that idea and developed it into The Civility of Albert Cashier (now with the producers of Beautiful: the Carole King Musical). But the process made me wonder—what makes certain stories better as an opera and not a play? What makes an opera versus a show? Why was Albert’s story a musical—while Ava Duverney’s Selma is a movie?
And if there was a rule, can we use it to help writers make more effective and powerful stories for the world?
In college, I read rules from authors and texts, but very few writers work in all these mediums, so over time—and from many projects crossing the “stage to screen” or “feature to series to comic book to podcast” line—I found my own personal guide for various mediums and made the following, very loose rule for myself:
Plays are about IDEAS
Television is about WORLDS
Movies are about CHOICES
Musicals are about FEELINGS
It’s not definitive—I’ve often broken it on my projects—but starting from this structure helped me understand how certain stories thrive, how various techniques wow and thrill audiences, and more importantly, what audiences might be expecting.
In the land of musicals, two things are the bread and butter of a show: Spectacle and Soliloquy. Spectacle is the dance, the stagecraft … the Sun rising in The Lion King or Elphaba flying on her broomstick. And from Spectacle’s large and booming excitement comes the opposite—Soliloquy. Soliloquy is the rich inner life of a character, unseen by the world: it is Usher singing to themself in Pulitzer-winning Strange Loop or Hamilton in the eye of the hurricane.
In the case of Albert Cashier, here was a human being fighting in America’s bloodiest war, dodging enemies and cannon fire (Spectacle) while also hiding a secret he was still trying to understand himself. He had none of our modern words to define his experience or desires, forcing him to go on a deep, poetic search of the self (Soliloquy). Those two elements are shared on every Broadway stage—when a character’s feelings about reality become so complex and rich, ordinary life can no longer contain it. So … the character (and the audience) explodes out of reality altogether. To a world of music, dance, singing and expression. And from it, we discover new ways of expressing our everyday troubles and feelings (and get some beautiful music to go along with it).
When I work in musicals—this means every time I see a story—I ask a question: is this story larger than life? Are the themes more complex than can be said in regular reality or style (Spectacle)? Do the characters need an outlet the ordinary world would never allow? Do they need a moment of reprieve to think, explore, express or rage against their inner life (Soliloquy). And most importantly, would the audience connect to this story more with these devices?
That is the purpose of turning a story from one medium into a musical—because the feeling tells you so. Dorothy Fields, librettist and lyricist for such hits as Annie Get Your Gun and other Broadway standards, helped me the most when she said, “Write what you feel. Write because of that need for expression.”
In some cases I’ve been handed scripts that seem like they would make good musicals, but they actually don’t. The reason? Because though the feelings were strong, there were other ideas happening around the story that are more powerful.
And for ideas—we have something else.
General audiences sometimes consider musicals and plays to be part of the same organism. And though it's true, they are both on a live stage, we don’t call sharks and penguins cousins because they both swim. So, some distinctions need to be made.
The first reason: plays (or “straight theater”) are much, much older. In fact, the origins of theater predate written language. In the earliest time of Greek philosophy, Socrates famously crafted his theories through debate and discussion. He asked questions and forced his students to defend complex ideas and explain them. When Socrates was killed by the government (not the best start to Western philosophy), his student Plato took those ideas of debate and put them into writing. He crafted two characters, each one holding the opposite view on a subject, so the ideas they espoused could be “talked through” into a cohesive, well thought solution for his audience.
And as luck would have it, the Greek word for “talk through” is … dialog.
So, the very earliest forms of live drama were just that—characters holding differing ideas, giving an audience the opportunity to see those ideas, thoughts, and beliefs battle across a story.
In modern theater we can see Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play use its characters to explore the complexities of race, sex, violence, and politics. Or watch Antoinette Nwandu take the ideas of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot add layers and language of two young black men in the city for her play Pass Over to ask: “How do we get off this street corner and into paradise?”
Straight-plays can have mountains of artistic expression and technique layered over them, but when stripped to their essence, the non-musical play has its primary method of using its story to communicate those conflicts of purpose, or values, or ideals. As of the writing of this article, Lynn Nottage is the solitary artist that has both an opera, a play, a broadway show and a movie all in development at once, along with a McArthur Genius grant. And from her original work in playwriting, she held onto her ideas first. “We use metaphors to express our own truths.” And our audience sees those truths spoken out loud, and the metaphor of the play is the dialog between those truths.
But for our other mediums we must travel to what some cynics describe as the least truthful place of all—Hollywood.
A lot of playwrights get jobs writing for television, but they’re usually in for a surprise. For Tanya Saracho ("How to Get Away with Murder," "Vida"), she said that once she switched from playwriting to TV, “The way I tell the story [became] different ... I can’t dream [of] plays anymore. Now I dream stories that keep going. It’s weird.”
That’s not a huge problem, though. Ever since Charles Dickens, serialized stories have required some kind of “Engine” that not only propels the reader, but keeps the story going for as long as possible. Shonda Rhimes, arguably the queen of television, says writing for TV is like “laying track for an incoming speeding train. Every eight days, the crew needs to prepare a new episode” each episode costing millions of dollars. “The worst thing you can do is halt or derail [it].” Though the stories have to be compelling. The process of making them has to be clear. Succinct. And repeatable.
We may complain that Hollywood is formula-obsessed, but filmmaking is, first and foremost, a business. The plan is everything, or resources (and jobs) disappear overnight.
That means, for screenwriting, the elements of a script are pretty basic, but to say it out loud, a screenplay needs:
A WORLD … a CHARACTER ... and a GOAL.
For a film, these are often more clearly defined. Toy Story has a world where toys are secretly alive … about a toy cowboy … who wants to be his boy’s only favorite toy. Terminator has a world with time travel and deadly robots … where the future savior of humanity … needs to survive an attack from a deadly robot sent to kill her.
And yes, we know that worlds, goals, and characters are in every story. But their expressions are used differently. Theater uses characters to create a dialog of ideas. Musicals use a world of song to share deep and powerful feelings. For film and TV, they share the same elements, even camera equipment. But the difference is which one of those key elements change by the end of the story.
But for TV, the last thing you want to do is change the world—that’s the point of the show. To some extent, you don’t want to change the goals either (you can’t suddenly have lawyers start killing people on "Law & Order") but that core world is what holds it all together. It can be a genre (cop show, reality TV), or a location (Sesame Street), but the fundamental idea is what keeps the audience coming back week after week (remember the ratings and advertisers. Shonda Rhimes sure does).
Television lets us see how our characters—their goals, their desires, their love lives—transform with each new wrinkle (or patient, or lover, or secret backstory) thrown into the consistent world around them. The secret to a great show is how interesting that world can be—but the second you change the premise, you have a problem. It’s an unspoken agreement with the audience that the one thing you won’t change is the world. You can’t have "Gilligan's Island" off the island—at least not for long.
An example for me came while writing for the indie feature scene … I began a script as a feature, inspired by people volunteering to live on Mars. The script started as a simple piece about ordinary people facing a NASA compromised by meritocracy and elitist culture. But when the project joined the Producers of the Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, we found an endlessly complex and growing world our characters could play in. That ever-expanding world, naturally, took us to television. So, the original feature transformed into a spectacular cosmic adventure series. Many of the elements remained the same (it was still ordinary people becoming heroes), but the world around them could now thrive and become something truly spectacular.
There are of course caveats, like when the premise of a show is its main character, such as Issa Rae’s INSECURE, but even then, our excitement and interruptions revolve around the ways that the writers choose to complicate that character’s world. The only one that holds up more weakly is the ever-popular “season of TV as a very long movie” movement. But more on that in a moment.
No matter the details, television holds this fundamental difference to every other scripted medium in that it does not want to have an ending. It wants the love, the drama, characters new and old, to continue as long as possible, and it does that by keeping the world around our characters consistent, and watching how the world changes them.
And for the final medium—we finally get to see something truly exciting.
How to change the world.
The rules for drama are fairly old and simple: if you get what you want, it’s a comedy. If you don’t get what you want, it’s a tragedy.
For feature films, the ecosystem of genres and subgenres has flourished into a maze-like garden of dramedies and black comedies and zombie movie musicals. Cartoons. Or seasons-long films on streaming that hold up their own against summer blockbusters. And while the list of cinematic stories that can be told is constantly expanding, how they are told has not changed very much at all.
For this, we’ll go to Pixar, whose rules of storytelling are somewhat famous, but for good reason. Their goal is to tell a feature film in six sentences:
Once upon a time, there was a …
And everyday they …
Until one day …
Because of that …
Because of that …
Until finally … !
Even this list has the same three elements, “Once upon a time there was a (Character) and every day they (did what the World had always known they’d do)." Those first two sentences can be explained in a single movie scene: A group of monsters scare children to steal their screams. And because it’s the beginning of the story. Most of the time our world assumes that this “every day” will be how the world functions … every day. Exactly the same. Forever.
The magic for a movie comes when our hero chooses to do something different.
Robert McKee’s text on screenwriting says, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.” Another way to put that is—it’s not even what choice is made, but how your hero makes that choice uniquely. You can raise money for your spouse’s gender confirmation surgery, but if you do a bake sale you’re in a story like "Transparent," and if you rob a bank you’re in Dog Day Afternoon.
There’s a famous question writers are supposed to ask themselves when they write, which is “Why today?” Why is this morning different than any other morning? And why should I pay attention to this person today? What are they doing differently? And it’s that decision of a character to act that becomes the force to change the world around them.
Film has the unique power to show the impact of choice, in part because the story has to end soon (in about 90 minutes or so). Unless you’re just setting up a sequel (not anyone’s favorite job) you are telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
And obviously other mediums have heard of a “choice” for their characters, but choice is not their deepest purpose. Plays have no obligation to resolve their ideas, sometimes the irresolution is the point. Musicals are not meant to resolve a feeling, but instead to say that the feeling must be expressed. And television barely wants anything to change at all (that’s why you hear about those insane paychecks for star actors coming back for reboots).
For a movie, you create a World, your Character lives inside it, and whether by accident or fate, that Character did something.
Then the world reacts, and reveals the values of our story. Does the world respect and uphold the character’s dreams? Does it demand satisfaction because of an unjust system? That pushback forces our hero to realize something—that the world they live in wanted them to only live out their life in a very specific way. And that is the crossroads - the answer of “why today.” Because in ordinary life—or a bad movie—our hero could return to their old life. And if they did, there is no story. We don’t write ballads or give Oscars to little children who go to bed on time.
But if our hero learns from that reaction of the world—if they see that injustice or truly wish their dreams to become a reality - they make a choice, and it forces the world to react more. So, our hero reacts, too. Because of that, more figures join the fray, take sides, take action, and a single choice becomes a battle of families or ideals or factions or a home. They battle, whether they’re kids and parents, or orcs and elves, across large and small fronts, gaining speed, pushing to the brink ... until finally, one side wins, and our hero is either forced back to her old life (tragedy, or sad ending) or succeeds in changing the world for good (comedy, or happy ending).
Sometimes the story is telling us that change is impossible because of an injustice, and so we get a tragedy. Or sometimes we see someone nearly fail, but miraculously save themselves because of a decision we never expected—the grand, sometimes cosmic impact of even the smallest difference a person can make. The stakes can be small and quiet as a silent kiss, such as Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. But for the hero, it was the actions he took, the honesty he gave, and the bravery he had to talk to his lover that made the world around him finally match what was inside his heart. Because of our medium of using cameras, closeups, and editing, we can see the tiniest thoughts and changes of a person’s face to understand the gravity of those choices.
I like to imagine how Sondheim would write a TV series (he worked in TV for a time, actually) or to hear the music inside Spike Lee’s head. There are some very talented writers, directors, and thinkers who work across multiple mediums (many are mentioned above), but whenever I am handed a story, I think about those elements. Are the ideas electrifying and push me to think? Is the world so vast and exciting that I could spend years walking inside it? Is the choice of the hero so powerful that I see how it could alter the hearts and minds of others? Or are the feelings so evocative that I finally understand something about myself?
Each medium of art is, in its own way, a kind of miracle. It is a journey of belief that we, as an audience, choose to make, even when we know that everything we are seeing is a lie (the script was written, the actors aren’t actually fighting the Civil War). And the miracle is the time we spend believing those lies together—not because we are fooled, but because belief is a unique human choice to look over the dull and ordinary, and believe that your feelings are songs inside you, that your ideas are as powerful and ancient as statues that long ago became dust. That homes, people, and cherished places last forever in our minds. And that one person, one action, can create an impact that alters the course of history.
I don’t know how to write every story. But I know that these ideas have helped me see how the tools of storytelling can help heal, or teach. To relate. To educate. To inspire.
And the joy of writing—if we know how to use them—is that we can as well.
*Feature photo by Tima Miroshnichenko (Pexels)