Why writing plays is good for storytellers

Writing for the stage

Playwriting is a fantastic medium for screenwriters who want to get rid of all the spoken words in their screenplays.

It is a piece of literature written to be performed in front of an audience, and can be read and acted. You are writing for the stage, a three-dimensional space encompassing live action performed by human beings.

 Filmmaking is a neurotic job; it’s abnormal to every creative process I know. In theatre the creative process is natural, not so neurotic. When you are the film director who has written the screenplay yourself, you have to be some sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because if Dr. Jekyll has written the screenplay Mr. Hyde has to direct it, and I tell you they don’t like each other that well. I think it’s a very schizophrenic situation. In the theatre; we are a group of artists who just come together – it’s fantastic; we come together in a house that is built for us to work in.

Ingmar Bergman, writer, director, producer

What do such movies as The Hours, Shakespeare in Love, Empire of the Sun, Wag the Dog and The Untouchables have in common?

Each of these movies—and we’re talking about some very good films—were written by a playwright:  David Hare (The Hours), Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love and Empire of the Sun) and David Mamet (Wag the Dog and The Untouchables).

Why writing plays will make you a better writer

  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 non-stop 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. P0.laywrights, 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 classical design: 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.

Read more about our The Drama of Writing A Play workshop

Read more about The Drama of Writing A Play