Playwriting and screenwriting are two different animals, and it can feel jarring when switching from one to the other. Both rely heavily on a structure, rich characters, and poignant conflict. But what about the action in a play? And what about the dialogue in a film? Generally speaking, images propel a screenplay and words drive a play, but there’s also a multiplicity of differences in their structure, format, and composition.
Check out these five insights from past AFF panelists and learn more about how to transfer playwriting skills to film and television.
Academy Award winner Kenneth Lonergan believes the distinctions between plays and screenplays are in the mechanics. His time at AFF in 2017 was spent discussing the limited nature of theatre and the unlimited potential of film, and how regardless of which form you are writing in, the core similarity is following your instinct and believing in your truth.
“So it’s just the thing about screenplays is you can do anything. The mechanics of the theatre are so much more limited than the mechanics of a film. A play is characters and a stage and a set and lights and possibly some sound, and movies have zillions of elements to them. Screenplays can jump forward in time and back in time and tell a story in split seconds, and plays can’t really do that. You can’t turn the lights off and on that fast. I mean, there’s physical limitations.”
-Kenneth Lonergan (2017 Distinguished Screenwriter Award Recipient) at AFF 2017
Bekah Brunstetter joined us at AFF in 2019 to discuss her transition from playwriting to TV writing. She spoke about how difficult it is for playwrights to have their dialogue cut or changed, and that letting go of your precious words can take you to higher places.
“Sometimes when your showrunner is looking at your script, it’s not that the dialogue is bad, it’s just that they need it to be theirs. So it’s sometimes kind of a lateral move, right? Sometimes a scene gets totally rewritten and that’s another thing, but sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you’re telling them the emotion— you’re succeeding in doing that, but they need to put it in their dialogue. It’s so personal, it’s their show.”
-Bekah Brunstetter (writer/producer This is Us; playwright The Cake) at AFF 2019
At AFF in 2019, Sofia Alvarez noted how important it is for transitioning playwrights to gain exposure in the room. In order to realize how different the jobs truly are, the first lesson a playwright has to overcome is the fact that they are not in charge.
“You’ve essentially been working as a showrunner your whole career, because that’s what a playwright is. It’s your idea, you’re the top of the food chain. So you have this great set of skills which makes you a really valuable television writer, but you also have this sort of pretension about your craft because you have been the top of the food chain. You kind of have to re-learn what your job is and make peace with your new role. That can be a hard lesson.”
-Sofia Alvarez (playwright; screenwriter To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) at AFF 2019
When Kelly Masterson joined us at AFF in 2017, he spoke about the thematic differences between plays and screenplays, and how in order to get your message across on film, you have to conceal it in the subtext of your story while keeping the action rolling for the audience.
“It helps if you come from out of playwriting. I think it really trains you in character and dialogue, but the vocabulary of film is different … I was a playwright in the past and I used to write a lot of message plays. None of them terribly successful and maybe because I hadn’t learned this lesson. If you want to say something in a movie, you have to make sure that you don’t say it. You have to make sure that you create a story that maybe represents it, that maybe will get that point across. You have to make sure to tell a story that is a story and it will be entertaining and draw people along… So that might be a clue in how you can start writing for film instead of a play.”
-Kelly Masterson (writer Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Snowpiercer) at AFF 2017
During her time at AFF in 2019, playwright and screenwriter Laurie Eason touched on the differing demands of plays and screenplays, highlighting ways to identify if your ideas fit better on the screen or should transition back to the stage.
“I think that at this point, when I have an idea, I feel like I either see it, like see it start to unfold visually like a movie or a television show, or I very quickly start thinking of actors that I know that I want to cast in that story as a play. It kind of reveals itself, but you also need different things. You know, you need the engine for television and it’s more of a world for me. Plays are much more an exploration of a question or a problem that makes me want to cry or vomit. Something that really terrifies me, whereas you know, television, the demands- the story demands are different.”
-Laurie Eason (writer/producer The Loudest Voice, Here and Now; playwright Sex with Strangers) at AFF 2019
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