Most writing, whether that be for screen, for stage or in novel form, shares things in common. The differences between the different modes of storytelling can be subtle, or they can be significant. When it comes to writing for screen, the difference is not just worth noting, it’s vitally important. You can very easily come under fire for not adhering to the norms of a screenplay, in a way that you are unlikely to have happen with a novel, for example. Novels can be quite abstract, and there’s a lot to be said for pushing the boundaries of it as a medium. Screenwriting is more prescriptive, and you run into a lot of issues that don’t occur as much with stage plays, so let’s look at some of those.
Directions are the biggest issue, by a comfortable margin. Writing for screen and stage always requires ‘directions’ of some sort. These are the instructions and descriptions that happen outside of the world of the line to line dialogue. But there’s a difference in the way that screenplays and stage plays need to take on directions.
“For screenplays, directions need to capture a rich visual world. You can afford to be more present as a writer in how you describe the setting of your scene and the way your characters move through the world of your script. Stage is more abstracted, partly because of the technical limitations but partly because more is left up to the productions of your play to decide”, explains William McCloud, content writer at WriteMyx and BritStudent. The visual fabric of films can be more realistic and more intricate than on stage, so the directions can do more work in that regard.
Say Less, Show More
Showing not telling is a pretty classic concept that has been highly regarded as a philosophy to live by as a storyteller. Film is a decidedly visual medium which, even though you are a screenwriter you have to acknowledge for the sake of the final product. This means that if someone opens your script and it is simply wall-to-wall dialogue, they’re going to be doubting you from the get-go. Whereas in a stage play there isn’t as much onus on leaving space for visuals; dialogue can be longer and mention of what the audience will see can be very sparse, non-existent in some cases. A screenplay has to lay off the dialogue and let the director translate meaning through visuals.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to runtime, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to still consider it and consider the differences which do exist between writing for stage and writing for the screen.
“Writing a screenplay requires forethought about run-time and a very intricate knowledge of how long your non-dialogue moments are going to take. A line in a script that says ‘A car chase plays out’, could be anywhere from 1-10 minutes in screen time, which makes a huge difference”, explains Phillipa Murray, film blogger at 1Day2Write and NextCoursework. Stage plays need to have a concept of length of course, but there’s a lot more flexibility there, where careful calculation is key in the other situation.
The broad concepts of genre exist in both theatre and in film, making it an important path of writing for both. That said, the chopping and dicing and the intense detail attributed to the many genres and sub-genres of film mean that there’s more out there to consider as you write. You never want to be beholden to genre but having it in mind as you write will really help you as you keep pushing to test your audience’s expectations. Film is a populist genre where theatre is more traditional, so understanding the boundaries of genre will really help you get a grasp on your audience.
Overall, the differences between screenwriting and stage writing can be generally characterized as meaningful but subtle in the writing period. It’s advisable for you to consider these differences to avoid falling foul of any customs as you craft your work. Hopefully, these suggestions have opened your mind a bit to what it means to write a screenplay vs a stage play.
About Joel Syder
Joel Syder is a film critic and writer at Origin Writings and PhdKingdom. He enjoys guiding people in their understanding and appreciation of films in general, as well as creating his own articles about films that inspire him for AcademicBrits.