Five Reasons Why Writing Plays Can Make You a Better Screenwriter

Posted by Jonathan Dorf on

What do such movies as The Hours, Shakespeare in Love, Empire of the Sun, Wag the Dog and The Untouchables have in common? Here's a hint: their authors are David Hare (The Hours), Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love and Empire of the Sun) and David Mamet (Wag the Dog and The Untouchables). Still stumped? Each of these movies--and we're talking about some very good films--was written by a playwright. OK. So a few good playwrights needed to make some extra cash, and they turned to the much more lucrative film industry to finance house payments and upscale vacations. That may be true, but what if I told you that they're all better screenwriters because they write plays?

At first glance, plays and screenplays seem very different. Plays are, at least to the untrained eye, mostly composed of people sitting (or standing) around and talking. In many cases, everything happens in one place. People may go in or out, but the general perception of plays is that it's all about the words. What a difference from screenplays, in which you can call for car chases, vast battles, settings that change with the click of a button--and the general perception is that it's all (or at least mostly) about the visuals.

But despite the obvious differences in the final product, playwriting and screenwriting are closely related forms of dramatic writing. Want to improve your screenwriting? Here are five reasons why writing plays will help you.

1. You'll write better dialogue

Writing is like lifting weights: the more you exercise your muscles, the stronger you get. Plays, for the most part, depend much more heavily on dialogue than do screenplays. So it stands to reason that writing plays will exercise your dialogue muscles more. In particular, writing plays forces you to create variety--too many sentences of the same length and rhythm will put an audience to sleep--and at the same time, it's great practice in capturing the rhythm of how characters speak. And equally important, writing plays means valuable practice in creating subtext through dialogue. Then, when you go back to your screenplay and have only a few lines with which to work, each one will have that crispness, sparkle and meaning.

2. Character, character, character

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee may very well be the best one-act play ever written. Its structure is as close to perfect as I know, with Jerry explaining to Peter about his trip to the zoo that "it's one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly"--and the structure of the play exactly mirroring that statement. Peter and Jerry. That's it. Rather than having a whole host of characters, many of whom appear only for a scene, writing plays forces a writer to focus on a relatively few characters, and because unlike in screenplays, where a character may be on for only a few moments before he's relieved by a shot of a burning building, the characters on stage need to be developed carefully, because we're going to have to live with them nonstop for the entire play.

3. Get more out of those confined spaces--and times

In screenwriting, the story jumps from place to place--literally--in the space of a single frame. While this can be a wonderful storytelling asset, it can also be a crutch. Have an unsolvable problem? Just move somewhere else and maybe that will work. Playwrights, on the other hand, don't have the luxury of being able to change sets at the drop of a hat. Yes, one can use suggested settings, and the influence of film has certainly made for more "cinematic" plays, but playwrights are forced to get more out of their settings.

Considering that many independent films want a limited number of locations, learning how to milk what you've got is a valuable skill. And remember that setting isn't just a location: it's a place in time, too. Once again, it's the playwright who is forced to select that place in time carefully, and to maximize the action that can take place there.

4. Understand structure beyond the three act cookie cutter

James Bonnet, in an earlier e-zine article, "What's Wrong With the Three Act Structure," offers compelling evidence why the three act structure is, at the very least, open to question. Yes, it's still the prevailing model for screenplays and for plays too, but theatre has long had additional structural models. The landscape play, for instance, is one in which we start with a blank picture (i.e. an empty landscape), and the structure of the play is the filling out of that picture, as if we're painting a picture of the landscape. Once we complete that landscape, the play ends. Or the process play, in which some particular action--for example, building a house--gives the play its structure, and when that action ends, so does the play. Because not every story you may want to tell on the screen can be told best using the three act structure, playwriting is a way to explore other possibilities.

5. It's not all about plot

Plot is important. Someone wants something, and during the course of the story, a series of plot events mark that character's trying to get it. But plot is not "action," which is defined as "a purposeful change." And sometimes screenplays get too caught up in plot. For example, when I was writing my play Shining Sea, I was having trouble with the last twenty or so pages. I had the good fortune to work with legendary dramaturg Leon Katz, who identified the problem: I had too much plot. As usual, he was right, and once I cut down on all of the characters running in and out and the multitude of tiny plot twists that didn't really add anything, I was left with a much clearer story, one that focused on--rather than distracted us from--the true action of the play. That kind of discipline is much more easily learned in playwriting, where there are fewer bells and whistles.

Tennis players improve their games by playing basketball. Actors improve their acting by studying psychology. Football stars take ballet. So if you're writing screenplays, why not cross-train by writing for the stage? And who knows--you might find you enjoy writing plays just as much as you do writing screenplays.

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