It feels like a play.
Of all the notes I got in the beginning of my screenwriting master’s program, this one hurt the most. It didn’t matter who said it or how gently this (already innocuous) statement was phrased, it knocked the wind out of me every time.
Not because it meant I needed to do a major rewrite. I was willing to do a thousand rewrites, so long as I was rewriting a screenplay. My fear was that I wasn’t capable of writing in the medium I loved—that I might never be capable of it.
My transition from playwriting to screenwriting was tough. I quickly realized the challenges of coming into the screenwriting world pre-molded by a story form as unrestrained as playwriting. Where I was once grateful for those classes in cramped theater rooms and actors who brought my words to life, I began looking back at these memories with disdain, cursing myself for not having discovered screenwriting first.
It took a long time for me to fully understand the differences between playwriting and screenwriting, and it took even longer for me to see how my playwriting background was—and continues to be—a strength.
In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in making this transition to dive in, heart and soul—but armed with the knowledge I wish I had been given. Thus, I’ll share what I found to be the key differences between these two mediums, as well as some unexpected upsides of starting out as a playwright.
As a playwriting student, I never devoted much time to learning story structure. Most of the feedback I got revolved around character motivations, the dimensionality of a character, dialogue, and the beats of a scene. (Not surprising, since most of my playwriting peers were trained actors, whose minds were constantly fixated on characters and scene work.)
When I did ask my playwriting professors about story structure, everyone seemed to have a different approach. One professor suggested dividing a play into five acts, each guided by a different question. Another advised imitating the exact layout of your favorite play, but substituting with your own words. One professor simply stated a play could be anything—you just had to write it, and then you’d know whether it worked or not.
As I entered the screenwriting world with my heart set on writing features, I quickly discovered that not only did everyone agree on what a film’s structure should be, but they also insisted writers take this approach. Whether I was in a formal class or a casual writing conversation, I heard the same phrase over and over again:
Learning the three-act structure was by far the most challenging aspect of screenwriting for me. While I knew how to create three-dimensional characters with conflicting goals, I didn’t know how to orchestrate this conflict to have natural rises and falls over three acts. Every time I tried to plot out a story that fit into the “correct” beats, I cringed at how inorganic my story felt.
It was tempting to ignore the screenwriting experts and write the story my own way. But after studying my favorite films, I realized the same rises and falls that were driving me crazy were also what made the movies feel like movies. They’re the DNA of film.
While it took some time (and hair pulling) for me to understand this form, learning the three-act structure brought me closer to this craft than anything else.
Utilizing the Film Medium
Given how excited I was to write in the film medium, you’d think my first scripts would have contained every cinematic device in the book.
You’d be wrong.
My beginning scripts showed all the telltale signs of a stage play: long scenes of characters talking, very few changes in locations, and rarely any scenes of characters by themselves. (In hindsight, it’s no surprise I kept getting the note that my work “felt like a play”.)
The truth is, I just didn’t feel confident using cinematic techniques. I knew how to use dialogue and stage blocking to tell a story. I didn’t know how to use elements like facial expressions or time cuts. Was a look enough to convey a beat? Or could it imply the wrong thing? If a character needs to change locations, do I show them driving in their car? Or cut to the next location?
Paralyzed by fear, I resorted to writing my scenes with just dialogue. Then I’d go back in and take out lines, while adding in movement, close-ups of props, “interesting” cuts, etc. It wasn’t the most organic method, but it was a start.
However, this didn’t help me with what I struggled with most: writing a single character performing nonverbal actions. In playwriting, whenever I wrote a character on stage by themselves, I had them deliver a monologue. While I could’ve used this same technique (looking at you, Fleabag), I didn’t want to break the realism of film. So, I grinded through these scenes like a bad workout. My writing pace slowed significantly, which felt like a heavy price to pay at the time.
Fortunately, the more I practiced utilizing these elements of cinematic language, the more comfortable—and faster—I became. Eventually, I reached a place where it was natural for me to “think” in shots and edits, and I stopped fearing scenes that featured characters by themselves.
Best of all? I stopped getting that damn note.
Script Formatting & Action Lines
When I first started screenwriting, my biggest fear was script formatting (this was, of course, before I had heard about three-act structure). Every produced script I read approached formatting differently, and it seemed impossible to know which source to trust. It didn’t help that online forums warned about execs who would stop reading your script after the first mistake.
As a result, a lot of my writing sessions would devolve into me worrying over things like whether I formatted a message on a cell phone correctly. Since plays don’t involve cameras or editing software, I wasn’t used to my writing flow getting interrupted by formatting concerns.
Needless to say, it was an adjustment adapting to the highly technical rules of script formatting. But it might surprise you to know that it was even harder adjusting to how novelistic action lines could be.
Stage directions for plays are usually pretty simple. Sure, you can have very detailed, poetic descriptions à la Tennessee Williams. But it wouldn’t be out of the norm to keep things minimal. Talking to the playwrights I know, it makes sense. They don’t want to spell everything out; they prefer the actors to thoughtfully interpret the beats.
Whereas, in screenwriting, it’s generally encouraged for writers to take the reader through the emotions of the story. There’s also a good reason for this—oftentimes, the first person reading a script is an executive, not a trained actor.
However, knowing this didn’t make it any easier to write compelling action lines that told the reader what they’re seeing and hearing, in addition to conveying the emotional resonance of each beat.
In order to accomplish what the craft demanded of me, I was forced to once again slow my writing pace down. And read lots and lots of scripts. And take a script formatting workshop.
In hindsight, I realize I took the advice given to anyone learning a new language: consume as much as you can and practice as often as you can. Eventually, I became much more fluent. (Who knows—maybe one day, I’ll start dreaming in script formatting and action lines.)
Obviously, I faced many challenges transitioning from playwriting to screenwriting. So, how did my foundation in playwriting help me?
One word: Character.
Playwriting encouraged me to focus my attention on what makes a character feel three-dimensional (versus a stereotype), writing dialogue specific to each character, understanding what a character wants (throughout the play but also in every beat), and approaching character like an actor.
More importantly, it gave me the chance to study these things without simultaneously having to learn three-act structure, cinematic techniques, script formatting, and action lines.
Not only that, but it also helped me become comfortable working with the basic elements of a story. While cinematic techniques can definitely enhance a screenplay, I don’t feel reliant on them to make a story interesting. I know how powerful a scene can be with just two actors and nothing else.
While, initially, I believed my playwriting background worked against me, looking back on my journey now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
*Feature photo by Francesco Ungaro (Pexels)