Stage and Screen

This chapter may seem too short to cover both screenwriting and playwriting. But it's not, because the story form (conflict, action, resolution) is identical whether it's on the page, stage, or screen. There is no difference. So, what you've learned about story up to here has given you everything you need to create a story for the screen or stage. Also, because stories for stage or screen don't get into the mind the way the written story does, they're actually easier to write.

It's important to realize that books and courses on writing screenplays or stage plays are 95 percent story and 5 percent format. That tells us two things. One, story is the all-important ingredient. Two, there isn't that much to the format. What you get in this chapter is all you need to sell your play or screenplay—if you have a strong story. Have I said it often enough? It's the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.

I don't recommend any stage play or screenplay books (or any other books) on story craft. All the books I've read on story (over two hundred) are either too vague or too complicated or give misleading advice. I wrote this book to provide what I couldn't find in any of the books I read.

So, the story form moves comfortably from one medium to the other. Novels become movies. Stage plays become movies. Novels become stage plays and then movies (Of Mice and Men). Once in a while a movie is made into a novel, rarely successfully. Stage plays often lose something when made into movies, since they are created for a confined space. Opening them up without interfering with the flow of the story is tricky. Also, the chemistry between live actors and the audience is lost on the screen.

But novels tend to lose the most when translated onto the screen, with a few exceptions. Midnight Cowboy was a weak novel that was made into an excellent movie. A novel is almost always too hefty to get into a single movie, so we only get part of it. Lonesome Dove was made into a multipart TV movie that had pretty much the whole story. They did an excellent job—about as good as possible. But was it as good as the book? No. If it was as good as it could have been, but still was not as strong as the book, what was the problem?

That brings us to the important difference between the written story and the performed story. The written story, as I've said before, gets into the mind. It gets into the secret life, the secret thoughts, of the character—the things the character will tell no one. So, by definition, you can't express such thoughts on stage or screen, since you only have speech. The stage uses asides or soliloquies, but unless you're Shakespeare or deliberately writing in an antique style, it doesn't work with modern audiences. Movies sometimes use voice-over, but a little of it goes a long way. It works best in comedy (Alfie) and as used in the soaps is often unintentionally comic or heavy-handed. American Beauty used it well, but sparingly. In contrast, novels are full of thoughts presented word for word on the page as they occur in the character's mind.

You can get close to the character's thoughts, and you must, you must find a way for your character to express his deeper feelings, often by forcing him to reveal them. That's the tricky part of doing a stage play or screenplay. So, on the one hand, we could say that what's easier about a stage play or screenplay is that everything is spoken, it's all dialogue, and you don't have to get into the character's mind. On the other hand, we could say that what's trickier about a stage play or screenplay is that everything must be spoken. It's all dialogue. You cannot get into the character's mind. However you put it, you can never go as deeply into the character on stage or screen as you can in the written story.

So, the screenplay, because it's all dialogue (doesn't get into the mind) and is not confined by setting, is the easiest to write. It is, however, because of the nature of the film industry, a lot harder to market. A lot of people have to agree, have to come together, to work together and put out a huge amount of money to produce a film. All of these are obstacles. Stage plays are similar in that, again, a lot of people have to agree and cooperate to put them together. (More on stage play and screenplay marketing later.)

The story form is identical, but the format for screenplays and stage plays are quite different from the written story and from each other.

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