THE PLAYWRITING SEMINARS > SCREENWRITNG >
-- Fran Lebowitz
Available Here: PLAYWRITING SEMINARS 2.0
The new revised paperback and e-book edition includes an expanded section on screenwriting for Hollywood and Independent film.
Here's the full Table of Contents and ordering info for the new edition.
Many pages in the Screenwriting Unit have been revised and expanded for the new edition, Playwriting Seminars 2.0. The old pages are no longer available here.
A major newspaper once asked the question (in large type), Is There Anybody in America Not Writing a Screenplay? The answer is no secret and the only thing that’s changed since then is that the U.S. population has continued to increase.
In the theatre, words matter and so do the playwrights who write them. Nearly all the famous names in theatre are playwrights. In film, images matter and so do the directors who create them. Nearly all the famous names in film are directors. (Performers are always famous regardless of where they appear.)
On the other hand, screenwriting is a fine way to pay the mortgage, but a caution about those visions of wealth. If paying that mortgage is your only motivation, you'll never make this work. Screenwriting is a demanding discipline and being fascinated by the idea of visual storytelling is an essential part of the stamina film requires of writers.
The fact is that writers are paid a lot in Hollywood, but they’re valued very little. That’s the rap a lot of screenwriters lay on the industry – and a lot of playwrights as well who have worked in film. The reality is, they’re valued very little compared to bankable film directors and bankable stars. The machine won’t work without screenwriters, even though they’re only a cog in the mechanism. That’s the primary reason nearly all established screenwriters try to parlay their ability with words, images, and story into becoming directors. That’s where the real power sits in this industry.
Competition in the film industry is intense, to put it mildly, and that’s regardless of what part you want to play in it. For screenwriters it’s ferocious. The Writers Guild of America registers some 30,000 new screenplays, treatments, and related material each year. Hollywood studios produce about 100 feature films a year (the optimistic estimate is about 300). You may not want to do the math.
Playwrights turning to screenwriting is a basic fact of a life in dramatic writing now. Everybody’s doing it and for good reason. Film is a fascinating form to work in and – to be crass and materialistic for a moment – that’s where the real money is.
A growing number of contemporary American playwrights have figured out how to live in both worlds. In England, they've been doing this for decades and their ability to work both sides of the fence has finally become the norm in America. The best recommendation is still to earn recognition as a playwright and then mount your assault on the film industry with a horse that has a good chance of carrying you over those Hollywood Hills.
Even with all the years the film industry has been influencing the theatre, two rules remain unchanged – at least in America:
Rule 1: Playwrights tell stories verbally. Edward Albee nailed it: A play is a heard thing. I learned, to my wonder, that there is an enormous difference in time between a comma, a semicolon and a period, for example. And that a playwright notates very much the way a composer notates a score.
Rule 2: Screenwriters tell stories visually. Charles Fuller nailed it: When I write plays, I write what I like watching when I'm sitting out there. Movies, on the other hand, are written from something in my mind's eye that keeps running. The movie was written with me sitting down in front of a yellow pad, writing down picture by picture what was going to be on the screen. I see all the shots and write what I see.
The visual storytelling of film places much less reliance on the special voice of a writer compared to playwriting. That's not surprising. And it's not surprising that many playwrights can write well for film, while screenwriters are hardly ever able to return the favor in the theatre. This can be dismissed as the influence of money, but hardly any screenwriters seem to have the interest or, more importantly, the voice for playwriting.
Steve Martin and Woody Allen are among the few screenwriters who have managed to leap over the divide between film and theatre in the last several decades and do it successfully. In both cases, they had performing in front of live audiences in their bones before they ventured into screenwriting and then playwriting, thus developing a playwright’s voice and how to use language with live audiences. Ethan Coen is the most recent to attempt the journey from screen to stage, so we may see an increase in accomplished screenwriters testing their skills in the theatre.
What screenwriters have is a powerful visual voice that makes them extremely good at what they do. That visual voice – a second voice – is one playwrights need to develop to write well for film.
Film and theatre seem like they should be similar, much more similar than two sides of the same coin. All the pieces are superficially the same including dialogue, characters, conflict, plot and the other structural elements of plays. Both use settings, costumes, sound, and lighting to support the stories they’re telling – and of course, performers and audiences that buy tickets. Until recently, we always went to see both in theatres with lots of other people. (Having a large group is especially important in comedy for getting audience reaction – this is the genesis of laugh-tracks and more recently live audiences for sitcoms.)
Historically, the pioneers of Hollywood came from the theatre and many of the first screenwriters – especially following the introduction of sound – were playwrights with Broadway credentials. As the new entertainment medium evolved, it began to develop a language of its own, though even today it’s a language with the DNA of theatre. That’s why playwrights have an advantage in becoming accomplished screenwriters. Part of it is having a strong verbal voice to combine with that critical visual voice required for screenwriting. But those voices are so different that they may seem as if they’re from two opposing solar systems.
The concept of dual or twin plots is one of the core understandings of Playwriting Seminars 2.0 and was first suggested by the great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley. This insight has a long pedigree, but the real proof of the concept is in the practice of playwriting: It is nearly impossible to find produced plays by contemporary playwrights who don’t use this dual plot structure.
These twins (or pairs) are called suspense and emotional plots in this Handbook since the terms capture the key differences between them, but what they are named matters far less than the impact they have on contemporary playwriting. Why playwrights use this dual plot structure may owe much more to the way human beings have always told lasting stories than to theoretical understandings. While it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge for those who like to make clear distinctions between so-called "high" and "low" art, this dual plot structure crosses media from theatre to film and genre novels, and shows up in such seemingly dissimilar works as Hamlet and The Hunger Games. Plot structure is essential -- the desire for that and why people respond to it is probably built into our DNA -- but what is created on top of that plot structure out of characters and story ultimately determines the way audiences and readers will respond. Demonstrating this key part of the craft of dramatic writing is one of the goals of the new edition of Playwriting Seminars.