Tips for Screenwriters: Learning to Write Drama

From the start, it’s important to understand that the name of the game is screenplay. New screenwriters are budding playwrights, not novelists. Novels and all forms of narrative prose belong to the art of literature. Although plays may be literary in nature, drama is a separate art with its own requirements and goals.

I know English professors who insist that everything is literature. My dictionary, however, defines it as “creative writing with recognized artistic value that typically appears in print.” The same dictionary says drama, which comes from a Greek word that means to act or to do, is “Performance by actors on a stage that tells a story, usually of human conflicts and emotions.”

Novelists use words written in narrative prose to describe and explain story events and human behavior. They rely on adjectives and adverbs…words that describe and explain words…to get their point across. Moreover, from The Tale of Genji to the 2005 best seller Mary, Mary, when a novel is published, it is finished. It can sit on a shelf for centuries, never undergoing the slightest change. To the bargain, you can sit down anywhere and read a novel. Certainly no performance is required.

On the other hand, performance is a play’s primary goal. Moreover, when a play is ready, viewers gather in a special place to watch the story unfold. Traditionally, the special place was a theater stage, but with the advent of film and television, the stage became a screen. Nowadays, thanks to modern technology, we can watch a play in our living rooms in front of a TV set or in a jet cruising at 30,000 feet. With film, we can capture a show and keep it forever, but plays don’t have to be published, and screenplays rarely are.

While you can read plays just as you would a novel, dramatic text may seem incomplete and feel disappointing. Especially with screenplays, you will notice that the content is terse and spare. It relies on the strong use of concrete nouns and strong verbs. Narrative prose and narrative devices…describing and explaining things…are used sparingly, if they are used at all. Descriptive words…adjectives and adverbs…are used sparingly, if they are used at all.

Many things you can find in novels are stringently avoided in drama. For example, consider the phrase, “She is thinking that she should have kept her appointment this morning.” If you were reading a novel, you wouldn’t think twice about such a statement. In a screenplay, however, if you were an actor, how would you perform it? An AMC documentary, Blocked: The Novelist’s Experience in Hollywood, includes a segment in which Carrie Fisher reads a passage from a novel. Smiling, she comments, “Isn’t that lovely?” Then she asks, “But how do you photograph it?” These are key and crucial questions. Generally, screenwriters should write lean and mean, limiting themselves to dialogue and behavior that actors can perform and the camera can capture.

Indeed, such restrictions stymied some great novelists, including William Faulkner. They simply could not make the transition from narrative prose to drama, and the special needs of cinema left them cold. Novelists who succeed as screenwriters understand drama and can handle both art forms.

Another aspect of drama often confuses beginning screenwriters. It is a collaborative art. Playwrights and screenwriters are creative artists who work with interpretive artists… the actors and directors. Indeed, writers present their stories by creating behavior (action) for actors to perform. Therefore, while novelists can work alone and do pretty much what they want, a dramatist has many people’s needs to consider, and writing a script is merely the beginning of a complex process.

Most people are accustomed to narrative prose that describes and explains things to us. From childhood, we learn that those elements make a good storyteller. For dramatists, however, the term “storyteller” is a misnomer. In fact, one cannot “tell” a play. In the beginning, most people try, but the result is “talking heads” characters who discuss themselves and their problems but don’t really getting involved. This is called being “static.” The solution is for them to stop storytelling and start story DOing.

Remember I said that the word drama comes from a Greek word that means to act or to do? In drama, action means human behavior, and dramatic action is behavior that one character directs toward another, forcing a reaction. In short, it is people “doing to each other.” On a stage or screen, telling stalls a story. Dramatic action gets a story started and keeps it moving.

To illustrate, imagine a scene in which Jane and Mary sit in a coffee shop discussing poor Pamela who is breaking up with her husband. That is narrative prose. Storytelling. On the other hand, imagine a scene in which Jane and Mary visit Pam and find her throwing her husband’s belongings out the front door. That is dramatic action. Story DOing.

The transition from storytelling to story DOing is the most difficult and important shift that beginning screenwriters make. To that end, you need to educate yourself. Do you need a college degree? No. Do you need to spend a lot of money? No. But a generous investment of time and thought is essential. Here are some steps that can help:

1. Read. There are a staggering array of books on screenwriting, and, as a screenwriting instructor, I would nix most of them. (They tend to be too vague or too complicated for beginners.) But there are some good books that will be extremely useful. Perhaps the best is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It was first published in 1942, but don’t let that throw you. Its principles remain sound, and it remains one of the industry’s most recommended volumes. You probably can find The Art of Dramatic Writing at your library, or order it through interlibrary loan. I got a copy on amazon.com for $13, including postage.

Also, read produced stage plays and screenplays. You can find books filled with produced stage plays at libraries and bookstores. As noted above, screenplays are rarely published. When they do appear in book form, they tend to look like stage plays, and you could not make a movie from them. But there are sites on the Internet where you can downloads an astonishing array of produced screenplays. My favorite is Drew’s Script-o-Rama (www.script-o-rama.com).

Always try to find first drafts or early drafts. Avoid shooting scripts. (Which actually are the director’s province.) Be careful to read primarily for content and story development. Many of these pieces have been around for years or were written on assignment. They contain format or style elements that a beginning screenwriter should not copy.

2. Study acting. Since you will be writing for actors, this is a shortcut that can streamline your learning experience. Take an acting class or at least persuade a drama instructor to let you observe. Join a community theater group or at least persuade a director to let you observe. Once you really get into drama, you will have a much better idea of how to write drama.

3. Get behind a camera. Capture brief, sharp visual images. Teach yourself to look at an image, writing simply and clearly the action that you see. Then put your images together to create a complete story that does not require description and explanation.

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