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Screenwriting vs. Playwriting

Venk Potula breaks down the differences between scripts for theater and for film.

When we watch a movie, usually the first thing we experience is something visual.
(courtesy of Microsoft Office Images)
In this article, I would like to focus on the differences between playwriting and screenwriting. Although both forms of writing tell a story, usually through some kind of structure, the differences are much more informative to look at. Plus, the structure and format for a script is too technical for this article.


The Venk Definition: A writer creates a story to be performed on the stage.

• Plays generally do not have a gargantuan number of scenes.
• In Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and Eugene O Neil's Long Day's Journey into Night, the scenes all take place where the characters would meet, like Tyrone's summer home or Corrie and Paul's top floor apartment.
• Lengthy descriptions of what the setting is like are often found at the beginning of an act. This gives the reader a full impression of the character of the set and of the theme of the play.
• In a play, the performers establish a fourth wall with the audience, while the audience eavesdrops on the lives of the characters—including all the juicy secrets of the character's desires, fears and conflicts.
• Syd Field in his book, Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, explained the essence of a play best: "...the action of the play occurs within the language of dramatic action; it is spoken in words that describe feelings, actions, and emotions." (19)


The Venk Definition: A writer creates a story to be filmed.

• Because a screenplay is the basis for creating a moving picture, it is a visual medium that dramatizes a basic story line.
• When we watch a movie, usually the first thing we experience is something visual. You see the history of the 9 kings who went mad with power in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. You see the violent flipping of pictures that show a woman making love to a man in Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Although no dialogue has been spoken, the story has already begun.
• Screenplays generally DO have a gargantuan number of scenes. This is not the same as a cut—which refers to the splitting of one image to another. Sometimes in a screenplay, you will have three different scenes on a single page. That would not conventionally happen in a play. In fact, that one page would most likely be used to describe the setting.
• A single page in a screenplay is denoted to about one minute of film.
• The action of a screenplay resides within the "action" lines. Obviously they are called action lines because they describe the action taking place during the scene. Here is an example from a screenplay that I am currently working on:


The Bell RINGS.

Kate is the first one to leave the classroom. On her shirt is the phrase, "If you want to WIN, TRUST. NO ONE." As she walks down the hallway, she accidentally walks into BRUCE (19) making him drop all his textbooks.

Watch where you're going. Chink.

Kate stops in her tracks. Another asshole with a big mouth.

She turns and walks toward him until she is inches away from his face.

Why don't you call me that one more time and see what happens.

You heard what I said, Chink-

She palms him in the solar plexus. Bruce staggers back--face white, only to have Kate's jab follow afterwards.

She walks away as a crowd starts to form around the knocked-out Bruce. Kate takes out her car keys, then SMIRKS.

She won.

• It is within these action lines that a director can infer what kind of character the person is, whereas in a play those inferences are usually made from the dialogue. If you notice, you might get an idea of what Kate's character is like through the actions that she takes.

Thank you for reading this article! Share, like and comment at the bottom—I would love to know your opinion on the differences! Check back later for more information on theater and film!


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