I’ve recently been networking with some other writers that were attempting to break into the stage or screen world, and I was surprised to find that they were writing their plays/scripts in Word. Word is a great general purpose word processor, and even works very well for books. But it’s not an appropriate tool for writing either stage plays or screenplays. The industry standard tool for this type of work is Final Draft. Final Draft includes a lot of capabilities that are industry specific, allowing the tool to go well beyond a customized word processor. But perhaps more importantly, using Word to create your stage play or screenplay immediately marks you as inexperienced in the industry. So if you’re not already using Final Draft, I recommend that you make the switch today.
With the creation of Level 4 Films, Inc. to focus on the film space, I’ve been looking at a lot of material from Level 4 Press Inc. and other sources (books, plays, screenplays) to identify properties that I think I could potentially sell. I’ve been fortunate to have spent a lot of time lately with acquisition executives in the film industry, and I think I’ve got a pretty good overall idea of the minimum necessary to at least get a script read. So here are some of the elements I (and they) are looking for.
Interesting Characters: Whatever genre you’re writing for, there will be characters. Those characters can behave largely as expected, or they can be quirky, strange, interesting, unpredictable. Interesting characters are easier to sell than plain characters that behave as expected.
An Interesting World: The world itself can be boring, just fading into the background of the story, or it can be interesting, deep, complex, unexpe. It’s obviously easier to create an interesting world if the world you’re writing about is inherently interesting. For example, this explains our fascination with Science Fiction, historical pictures, war movies, and so on. But even if you’re creating something taking place today, you can find a way to make the world of the story interesting as well.
A hook that is compelling and unique. In a brief sentence, what’s the heart of the idea? Is that compelling? Is it unique?
If you have these three elements in place and successful, that’s enough to get my interest. Even if the writing itself is flawed, that can be fixed as long as these elements are solid. But not even the best writing can salvage something that is lacking in one or more of these areas. In that situation, the best you can hope for is to start over, restructure and rethink, and then reuse components that will still work in the new framework.
I’ll wrap up this discussion with some miscellaneous lessons learned from the process of converting my stage play into a screenplay.
The spec script (which is the version created to sell the script) is a bit more of a literary document than the screenplay. In particular, the descriptions of the sets, then action, and the characters is expected to be a bit more colorful and complete than would be expected (or appropriate) in a stage play. People reading the screenplay expect to see the movie unfolding before their eyes. That same level of specificity is frowned on for stage plays because it limits the flexibility of the creative staff (Director, lighting, set design, etc.) I think this makes sense. There will be only one movie made (normally), but each production of a stage play is expected to be unique.
I ran into a bit of a problem figuring out how to handle transitions between scenes with the same characters where time has passed. Traditionally, a “Fade to black” could be used between the scenes to show the passage of time, but this gets a bit old and I wanted some different approaches to use. I ended up using one of three techniques in addition to Fade to Black. First, if I could include a different scene, with different characters, in between then that would solve the problem. (This is how I would typically handle this on stage.) On stage you do have the opportunity to show the passage of time by significantly changing the set, character ages, and so on, but typically only once as part the transition between acts. In movies you can do this more often, although I still felt like this type of transition has a bit of a jarring effect on the story flow, so I personally don’t like to do it too often. The third technique is pretty much specific to film. I found it worked well to focus in on one element of a scene (e.g., a candle on the table), then pull back to that same element but in a different scene (e.g., a candle on a alter). This approach seems to provide some continuity between the scenes, but to still allow a sense of passing time and different place.
Last post I began passing on my observations while moving a script from stage to screen. This posting continues that discussion.
The biggest change was plot. I’ve found that stage is very forgiving of non-linear plots, ambiguity, and a general looseness of story. In my experience, strong characters and dialog were the most critical elements on stage. On screen, I’m finding that the emphasis shifts to clear story telling. The characters and dialog are still important, but story is what propels things forward. I suppose this might have been true on stage as well and I just never got it, but on stage I could get away with it while on screen I can’t. So I do feel like the world of screenplays strengthens my writing in the area of story, and I feel like the world of stage strengthens my writing in the areas of character and dialog.
Speaking of dialog, another big change is that on screen the emphasis is on telling the story thorough visual elements, with dialog in a supporting role. On stage my experience has been that the emphasis is on telling the story through dialog with the visual elements playing a supporting role.
Another big change is that when writing for stage I was constantly aware of the limitations of stage. The cast is limited, so that must be considered. Doubling is typically used, so I needed to make sure actors had time to change costumes. I needed to keep track of who was on-stage, who was off-stage, and make sure that there was time for the actors to get from point A to point B backstage. It was my job to tell people when and where to exit, and when and where to enter. On screen, most of this doesn’t apply. There can be crowd scenes with lots of people. I still need to keep track of who’s in the scene, but I don’t generally need to worry about exits and entrances very much. Everyone just magically appears when the scene begins, they magically disappear when the scene ends, then they magically reappear somewhere else, perhaps wearing different clothes, much older or younger, and so on.
I’ll continue to share lessons throughout this process.
As one of the first steps in moving my musical about T.S. Eliot (The Wasteland) from stage to film, I’m needing to modify the stage script into a film screenplay. Like all writing, that process is iterative, but I’m getting close. So I thought I’d share some of my observations for any other writers out there that might be considering a similar transition.
One thing that makes this process easier is that there are really two film scripts. The screenplay that most closely corresponds to a stage script is known as a “spec script.” From a formatting perspective, it’s more-or-less identical to a stage script, and the purpose is the same. In film, the Director and other members of the creative team (e.g., Director of Photography) will use that as a starting point and create a shooting script. That’s the version that includes camera shots, close-ups, and other technical details specific to the world of film. So as writers, we don’t need to worry about that. In fact, trying to include that in the spec script is one of the marks of an amateur (so I’ve been told, anyway).
There’s another, more critical, high level difference between theater and film. In theater, the writer has full creative control and enjoys the status that goes with this control. As a minimum, this means that a production can’t deviate from the script, but can only interpret. This applies whether the playwright is present for the production or not. But it can go even beyond that, to include approving the way the script is interpreted. In theater, a writer can shut down a production if they have creative differences. When writing for television (good television, anyway), this is at least partially true as well (the writer with creative control in this case is called the Show Runner). But in film, this is virtually never the case. In film, the Director and Lead Producer have full creative control and are allowed to change whatever is necessary to realize their vision for the film. Part of this is simply a cultural tradition, but part is necessitated by the complexity and cost of creating a film.
Next month, I’ll share some of the nuts-and-bolts differences I’ve found between a stage script and a film screenplay.
My writing and production work to date (through American International Theater, Inc. and Level 4 Press, Inc.) has focused primarily on stage performances. Last Fall, I made a decision to move into the world of film. My thinking is that this new (to me) media would offer new creative possibilities, plus I’m attracted to the relative permanence and wider audience offered by film versus stage. In this Blog I’ll share some of my thoughts, observations, and experiences during the process. I’ll also occasionally diverge, talking about poetry, literature, and any other topics that captures my fancy. My first film foray will involve adapting my musical about the poet T.S. Eliot to a film titled “The Wasteland,” so you’ll be hearing a lot about that.
In working with various folks to help me with the transition, including Randy Becker, Laura Lundy and Heather Hale–I found that one of the first requirements was to take an inventory of assets, experience, etc. It was not dissimilar from the process an entrepreneur might go through when forming a new business. At first, this process of “taking stock” seemed like an administrative exercise necessary only to please my advisers. But the more time I spent, the more valuable I found the exercise to be for my own understanding. What did I learn? Well, I was surprised to find that AI Theater has produced 31 productions to date, ranging from staged readings through Actors Equity Showcase Productions. I was surprised to find that I’ve done more producing and directing than writing. I was surprised to find that we’ve won 53 literary awards, including 20 gold medals. I was surprised to find that we hadn’t updated our website in almost 10 years (a friend commented, “Your website is awesome. It has a very retro, antique look to it.”) I was also sad to discover that I have many friends “in the biz” that I’ve neglected, failing to stay in touch to encourage them in their career. I can do better, and this taking stock process was a good step helping to point me in the right direction.