The Differences Between Screenplays, Novels, and Stage Plays

Screenplays are a visual medium. Novels let you peek inside the thoughts of others while stage plays tell a story through dialogue. Knowing the strength of each medium can help you craft your story for the right medium.

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book. After hearing all the hype surrounding Harry Potter, I thought about reading the first book, but then the movie based on that book came out and I thought I might as well just watch the movie instead.

Not having read the book or knowing anything about Harry Potter, I watched the movie and couldn’t help but have a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. The more I watched the movie, the more I felt something was wrong. Finally, I realized what the problem was.

The first Harry Potter movie seemed like it followed the book too closely. Not having read the book, I have no idea whether my observation is true or not, but instead of watching a story designed as a movie, I got the feeling I was watching a story designed as a novel, but translated too literally into a movie.

That’s the problem with adapting movies from books. A screenplay tells a story in pictures. A novel tells a story with the thoughts of one or more characters. A stage play tells a story through the words of the characters.

On the most extreme level, a screenplay should tell a story using as few words as possible. If you can show it, then you don’t need to say it.

In one scene in “Slumdog Millionaire,” the hero is in the restroom with the host of the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” In the original screenplay, the host tells the hero the wrong answer in hopes of getting the hero booted off the show. The director wisely decided to play to the screenplay’s strength and stick to pictures, so instead of the host telling the hero the wrong answer, he writes the wrong answer on the fogged up mirror.

As a general rule, show something instead of saying it. Go through your screenplay and ruthlessly cut away anything that can be shown instead of said.

One reason why movies adapted from books tend to be so bad is that novels focus on telling you a character’s thoughts, but those thoughts aren’t easily translated to visuals in a screenplay. One of the best novelists for writing stories that are easily adaptable to movies is Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain.”

Pick up any Michael Crichton novel, flip open to any page, and you’ll almost always see dialogue. Pick up any novel written by another author, randomly flip open to any page, and most likely, you’ll see pages filled with descriptive text.

For an exercise, watch any movie based on a novel, and then read the novel. This will let you see how the screenwriter took the novel’s descriptive text and converted it to the visual format of the screenplay. Often times, movie adaptations of novels either slavishly follow the book too well (“1984” was so accurate to George Orwell’s novel, but it made for a boring movie), or they capture the spirit of the novel while changing the story to make it more visual. Rent “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a movie based on Kurt Vonnegut’s best-selling novel and you’ll see how the screenwriter captured the spirit of the novel while discarding the details.

In the book “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the hero is trapped in an intergalactic zoo, surrounded by aliens who look like plungers used by plumbers. In the movie, the screenwriter wisely made the aliens invisible. This movie adaption isn’t accurate to the words of the novel, but it is accurate to the spirit of the novel.

Watch a movie based on a play such as “Deathtrap.” Since plays tend to occur in a limited number of sets, movie adaptations often have to open up this story by transplanting the characters into different scenes or just showing a scene from different angles to create the illusion of a different visual appearance. Stage plays can’t afford to change scenes often, but movies can and must change scenes often.

If you watch older movies like “The Hospital,” written by noted playwright Paddy Chayefsky, you’ll notice that it’s very “talky” like a play. Most early movies were considered nothing more than filmed stage plays.

Watch any of the original “Twilight Zone” episodes and you’ll see that as a TV show, they couldn’t afford exotic sets or special effects, so they relied on story telling like a stage play. In fact, Rod Serling was a playwright, so most of his stories are more like plays than movies.When writing a screenplay, always focus on the visual aspects of your story. Show first. Try to tell your story without a single line of dialogue. Then insert dialogue only when necessary. By doing this, you may find your screenplay becoming more visual and more satisfying as a result.

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