From Screen to Stage to Page
I’ve been a screenwriter for over twenty years, but since I now have a novel out and a play that I wrote being developed for a possible run in New York, I’ve been thinking about the different modes of writing—what they have in common and how they differ.
The famous screenwriter, William Goldman, once said, “Screenplays are structure.” And there is no question that this is fundamentally true. Almost every screenwriting class will teach writers about the three-act structure and if you go to any mainstream movie you can pretty much guarantee that around 28 minutes into the film, the first big plot twist—known as the first act break—will occur. The second act break—when the hero is at his lowest point in the story, when all seems lost—will occur between 88 and 92 minutes into the film (between pages 88 and 92 of the screenplay). These constructs aren’t there so that every movie feels the same—although one could argue that almost everything that comes out of Hollywood these days does—but because there is something innate in the way our brains experience and process stories that require that kind of structure. Shakespeare had it in his plays, too, though you probably can’t quite set your watch to it.
When it came to writing my book, I thought about the structure of the story in much the same way and many of the things I learned as a screenwriter came into play. Start your story with a bang; establish character and theme early; keep the story moving; make the plot twist, but also make the twists come organically from character; push your hero to the brink before offering him salvation; build to your climax in a way that seems both surprising and inevitable. But writing a novel is a far more liberating experience than writing a screenplay. First of all, you know that your words are not going to be interpreted (or changed!) by actors or a director. A screenplay, unlike a novel, is in fact a blueprint for another medium. That’s not to belittle what it is. There are beautiful, poignant, daring scripts—but there is so much craftsmanship in a script that it’s that much more difficult to find the artistry. When it’s done—see Quentin Tarantino—we marvel. A commercial book—like the thriller that I just finished—has some of the same trappings that a screenplay has, but there is so much more room for character introspection and nuance. In a film, a few well-heeled lines of dialogue and the right casting have to do the work to fill out a character. In a book, there is so much space that there’s a different onus on the writer. To create a character a reader wants to follow for 350 pages (read over a week or two) is a much different task than asking someone to watch Tom Cruise or Mark Wahlberg for 113 minutes while eating a nine-dollar carton of popcorn.
A play is even more stripped down. Plays, conventional thinking says, are almost entirely about character. And great ones are about ideas. When I was writing my play, I would finish a scene and check how many pages it was. What a thrill it was to look and wonder—is that scene long enough? In a screenplay, one is always nipping and tucking to make sure every word advances a story point. If a dialogue scene between two people exceeds a couple of pages, you’re sure you’re wasting valuable real estate. But that’s not to say that a writer should be allowed to meander in a stage play, and I’ve found all too often when seeing theater that even the most shrewdly written characters cannot carry the play if the playwright is not propelling the story forward and finding a way to surprise the audience.
In all three forms of writing, the key is suspense. Suspense is created by surprise and revelation—which should almost always come through conflict. How do you know when you’ve created something surprising? When you’re surprised yourself at what you just wrote. Because at the end of the day, all writing is about exploration. And taking risks. Kind of like life.
Hank Steinberg is the creator and executive producer of the award-winning TV series, Without a Trace, as well as the upcoming Michael Bay TNT series, The Last Ship, starring Eric Dane. Steinberg’s debut novel, Out of Range (William Morrow), was published in June and the author is currently at work on the screenplay for Paramount Pictures.