Novels rely on narrative. Period. Cinematic storytelling relies on visuals. Period. Live theatre relies on Dialogue. Period. BUT they can all learn from one another to enhance the quality of each type of storytelling.
A novice screenwriter can learn a great deal about dialogue’s inclusion, exclusion and character intensity by writing a few stage plays. One-Acts of 5-30 minutes/pages are like short-short stories and can be a training ground for some. For others, the 1-2 hour full-length plays are more comfortable. Don’t think the idea that the longer 60-100 page play means characters are allowed to be verbose in their speeches, though. I’m just saying longer plays allow for a more thorough story development that some writers need. When experimenting and learning, sometimes shorter is better until your brain “gets it” as in understands how drama’s dialogue works.
STAGE PLAY FUNDAMENTALS
Guess what? Stage plays utilize the “Aristolean” Beginning-Middle-Ending structure just like any other form of storytelling. Once-upon-a-time live theatre had the three acts signaling these constructs. One-Acts and Two-Acts are more common today, yet the simple weaving of story evolution still has to follow the three-part structure of Set-up-Mounting Complications-Resolution.
One key concept is the need to be constantly intense, empathetic and entertaining. Two people have to be enthralled and excited by the experience of the happenings on stage: the actor and the audience member. Think about it. If the actor isn’t involved in both the character and the lines show-after-show, the energy of the performance falls flat. Good or even great actors cannot emote boring speeches and stereotype relationships on stage. Once the audience member has lost the illusion of the play and is engaged in the mental reality of analysis instead of living the story with the actors . . . the play becomes an embarrassing exercise of humans trying too hard in front of other humans. Either a flat performance or a flat response will doom a stage play. The playwright has to create the foundation that will challenge and involve both actor and audience.
Play programs handed out to the audience will list the names of the characters and the actors playing them with little else. In the actual play script format the playwright creates, the number of male and female parts are given with the paragraph description of the play so the prospective theatres or companies know how many people must be casted.
Next in a play script comes the names of the characters, their ages and a brief character synopsis for each. These are for both the producers/directors AND the actors. They provide a thumbnail sketch for casting and a starting point for the actor’s to build the personalities of their characters.
Both play programs and the stage play script, list the scenes with time and place. The audience member is given a bare-bones entrance into what they are asked to accept in as the scenic backdrop of the story. In the script, some playwrights describe more elaborately than others. But the two things the writer has to keep in mind are 1) the variety of stages and 2) variety of financial and artistic means of the producing companies. I believe it is only imperative to describe sets absolutely essential to the story and leave the details to the producers. Sometimes even a bare stage with various spotlights is enough. That’s part of the visual magic of live theatre.
Formatting a Stage Play Script
Both Final Draft and Screenwriter’s Movie Magic have stage play formatting in their programming. If you are not familiar with the lay-out and look, I suggest you do what is suggested to beginning screenwriters: Read a LOT of stage plays. Samuel French is one of the biggest publishers of stage plays. You can also find collections of plays in your public library. However, read beyond the bound collections to get the “feel” for a viable play manuscript.
Stage directions are extremely minimal, even more than in a screenplay. Why? I refer you back to the concepts of a variety of stages and production companies who might be putting on your play. The choreographing or “blocking” of the actors is the responsibility of the play’s director. A playwright can micro-choreograph a play right out of consideration.
For brief do’s & don’ts and a visual of the formatting, go to http://www.comedyplays.co.uk/cpv5/scripts/spf.pdf
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DIALOGUE
A playwright’s focus has to be on the intensity of the dialogue and the succinct nature of the speeches. Yes, there are still soliloquies like you read in Shakespeare and the Greek plays. In fact there are many one-character plays that rely on that dramatic tool, but the majority of stage plays are about various people interacting with one another with minimal action and more speeches (the silent messages of mime aside).
Theatrical dialogue is a matter of both subtle and blatant content and intent. Just as in the course of anyone’s day, characters must say things directly. Sometimes the obtuse listening character will hear only the content and not the underlying intent. That kind of dialogue is intended for the audience to “get it” first. Audience awareness builds tension because there is an inherent anticipation of a consequence to the verbal exchange. So, Lesson #1: Write each speech with a consequence in mind, either directly stated or implied.
Have you ever read novel that was so lush with descriptive details that you were over-whelmed and you had to reread until you could imagine it all? Have you ever seen a movie with a similar extravagance of visuals that you know you missed something (AVATAR, for example), so you pay to see it again or you repeatedly watch it on cable or a purchased DVD? Dense theatrical dialogue can have the same effect. Too much delivered at a time and the audience will not get it. Lesson #2: One speech = One point.
In other words, break up lengthy, multiple point-making speeches into Point-Counterpoint or physical action interruption to give your audience time to consider. I challenge you to read Edward Albee’s “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and analyze the pacing of the argument speeches.
Finally, remember that novels have the luxury of internalization and cinema has the tool of close-ups and quick frame/scene changes to enhance dialogue’s emphasis. A stage play is “lived” just a short distance from the audience. So there are both 1) the distance of the stage and 2) the intimacy of NOW, that connection the actors make with the audience. Body language is the realm of the actors and the director. The playwright just has to give those artists powerful, emotional, evocative dialogue to translate for the audience to experience. So Lesson #3: Write succinct, character revealing lines that demand audience attention.
LEARNING FROM LIVE THEATRE
By now, you should have an inkling of how exercising your creativity as a playwright can take both your novel writing and your screenwriting to another level. It doesn’t matter if your playwriting experiments are “good enough” to be performed by your local community theatre, entered in playwriting competitions or published by a drama publishing company. What matters is that your writing abilities have been stretched and you have another creative tool in your writing arsenal.
Sally J. Walker