Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - Screenplays, Plays, Novels . . . What’s the difference?

So I’m doing a daily thing these days, Friday is Baby-Blogging, Monday is Movie Madness and from now on Wednesdays will be Rapping on Writing Day . . .

Today: Screenplays, Plays, Novels - What’s the difference?

One thing a person hears, and hears A LOT, when writing screenplays, is that screenplays ARE VISUAL.

Plays are verbal, a lot of talking, in other words, and movies are visual, lots of sights.

This is a trope one hears much, it’s a chestnut in and of itself.

The stereotypes were rooted in necessity, perhaps, because for a play all you need is an actor and a stage, and with movies you don’t even really need actors, just a camera and a view. In the beginning with film, one couldn’t even have talking, since pictures were silent, so folks got used to writing movies without much dialogue, since it couldn’t be heard anyway.

So thereupon was set this idea that plays are not visual and movies always are.

As someone who’s written a lot of plays and a quite a few screenplays (and many other things) I can honestly tell you this:

It’s a bit bogus.

Sure, each has tendencies, and that it rooted in the belief that movies are visual and plays are blah-blah-blah.

But the tendencies are not the reality.

Screenplays can be just a verbal as plays and be successful (lots of talking in Pulp Fiction, I’d note) and theatre can be just as visual as any movie, if not more so (as Cirque de Soleil would demonstrate).

Novels can be equally visual as movies, if not more so (the struggle with turning the novel PERFUME into a film was translating the visual descriptions of a person’s sense of smell into a cinematic reality, which, one can argue, something the filmmaker’s ultimately failed at) and ultimately they are visual in a person’s head.

In terms of STORY, in other words, what I’m telling you is that there is no visual difference between plays and screenplays, novels and the like. Format is different, but the stories themselves are not.

There is ONE crucial difference between plays and screenplays, novels and other forms of writing.

Do you know what that is?

It’s the role the AUDIENCE plays.

The part the audience plays in the unfolding of the story dictates what form it is in.

So whether or not whatever it is you’re writing is two people talking for two hours at dinner (MY DINNER WITH ANDRE) or an action film with little dialogue (my then-girlfriend noted, when we went to see CLIFFHANGER, that one could take away the dialogue and still enjoy the film, if not more so because we didn’t have to listen to the inane characters) the important thing to consider, at all times, whether it’s a play or movie or novel, is what’s the audience’s role in this story?

Answer that, and you’re all the way home.

That’s my view.

4 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Screenplays, Plays, Novels . . . What’s the difference?”

  1. Larry Brooks Says:

    I was pleased to read this, not only because I agree wholeheartedly, but the mistaken belief that the differences in novels and screenplays and plays are significant and therefore create lines which cannot and should not be crossed… it’s all over the place and it’s just plain wrong. At the core of each venue is the art of storytelling, the craft of characterization and dialogue, and the aesthetic of visualization and place. Drama is drama, it has its rules, standards and formats.

    In fact, in my workshops and on my website I advocate novelists who are struggling with their story consider writing it first as a screenplay, which demands the structural discipline that many novelists have trouble getting their head around. Screenwriters don’t wander through their storyline in search of subtext, character arc and plot exposition — but too many novelists do — they work it out beforehand and their work fits nicely into the constraints of the format. I like to say, within the bondage of those 120 pages the screenwriter is set free to creative without limits. Novels can learn from what screenwriters know.

    Thanks for echoing the truth here.

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