Playwriting vs. Screenwriting: What's the Difference?
To many people, a play and a movie are strikingly similar in how they tell stories. In fact, many plays are adapted into movies almost seamlessly, it’s a wonder the two aren’t interchangeable.
However, if you are someone looking to write a play or a movie and you’re not sure which to pick, just randomly selecting to write a play because you think it will be easily adapted into a movie is not only a poor idea, but will limit your creativity as a storyteller.
It may be easy to confuse the two storytelling mediums. After all, their formats are strikingly similar, as are many other features.
But if you know me, you’ll know I’m the first one to say that if you are going to write a play, you need to focus on what makes playwriting unique, just as if you are writing a screenplay, you need to focus on what makes screenwriting unique. In this way, you can use those strengths to your advantage to tell a story unlike any other.
But if the two mediums seem so similar at first glance, how can you possibly know which to write?
What Makes These Two Mediums Similar
In order to appreciate what makes playwriting and screenwriting so different, you first must understand what makes them so similar, especially in comparison to books and video games, which look less similar.
One of the most engaging parts of a movie, television series, and a play is the experience of watching a story unfold with other people.
With novels, the story is told to you in a personal matter, and with video games, though you may watch it as a group, only one person experiences the story first hand.
By contrast, both screenwriting and playwriting offer the unique experiences of getting to watch a story next to someone else, laughing and crying together all the while you enjoy the same story.
For some, that may seem like an annoying experience, but given that watching a movie or a play with someone else enables you to discuss the story afterward, it gives you other people with which to relate, understand, and interpret the story you watched in new ways. In this way, you may come to understand and learn new things about the story you watched that you might not have discovered had you experienced the story alone.
Another prominent feature – defined by the group experience – is the time constraint allotted to both mediums.
Though you may perceive this as a negative trait of both screenwriting and playwriting, given the short attention span of a large group of people, this time constraint forces storytellers to be concise and impactful with their narrative in both mediums.
That doesn’t mean that the story is fast-paced and driven by action in plays and films, but more so that because of this time constraint, every part of the story must be necessary and relevant to the themes and ideas the storyteller is expressing.
In video games and novels, writers can get lost in their own rambling. While this can still be entertaining and interesting, for film and playwriting they must cater to a wide group of people, yet still tell a story that – more or less – entertains everyone in the audience.
This constraint then serves as a strength, forcing storytellers who write plays and screenplays to create an impact with as little time as possible, telling an original tale in a short period of time that can satisfy several people at once.
Actors Bringing a Story to Life
Finally, another commonality between screenwriting and playwriting is the actors who bring those stories to life.
Though video games also have actors, only in screenwriting and playwriting do those actors give us a real life presence to connect to. As a result, humans watching these stories can more easily connect to emotions, experiences, and other human traits that may seem more distant in a novel or video game.
After all, there is no denying how delightful it is to see your favorite character in a novel brought to life in a film or in a play – if done well – because we, as people, love to see ourselves in our stories, and playwriting and screenwriting offer that directly.
What Makes Playwriting and Screenwriting Different
At a glance, the traits that make screenwriting and playwriting similar seem like enormous similarities. However, with more analysis can you better perceive what makes these two mediums different. And the more clearly you can see this, the easier it will be for you to decide which of the two mediums to tell your story in.
Because playwriting is the older of the two mediums, we’ll begin focusing on its strengths first.
Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing traits about playwriting is the live performance. While a film may have actors bringing a story to life, only in a play can the audience actually see that in person, connecting with someone in real life versus through a screen.
This, in turn, makes the entire play feel more personal. This feeling is especially true when you consider that nearly every play will have a different audience, have slightly different performances, and therefore have different reactions between the two at all times.
If one audience is loving the performance, the actors will sense that and perform slightly different, even if it is only subconsciously. But if the crowd is sparse, they may not give as much to their performance as normal.
Though this might seem flawed, it’s that human flaw that people connect to so dearly in theater. It is powerful to see someone in real life cry or scream or laugh, far more powerful than in a film.
Another striking difference that playwriting offers to storytellers is the stage itself. This stage, in many ways, is quite limiting. It constrains the space of the story, how quickly settings can change, and how many actors can be in a scene.
But like every other feature of playwriting, that is hardly a bad thing. In fact, this very limitation leads to a lot of creativity and focus amongst playwrights.
RELATED: Using the Stage to Tell a Story
The stage, in many ways, works as a prop in the story, something actors can interact with differently. But beyond that, the stage highlights the performative nature of theater, harboring no illusions about the fact that this play is being put on by a group of people who are not the characters they are pretending to be.
As a result, there is a lot more imagination required of the audience and actors, and often the most simple stories are delightful as a result when taken to the stage.
Finally, one poignant feature about playwriting is the ephemeral experience. A play can only be experienced in the same form once, making it all the more special.
Even if you were to see the same play over and over again, it would still be slightly – or drastically – different every experience, and you would even then still be limited to when the play was available.
As a result, plays can only be re-experienced through our memories, meaning that over time certain elements stay with us, but others fade away. Though this is in many ways tragic, it is undoubtedly why seeing a play is still such a popular thing to do. You can rewatch a movie anytime, but a play is only available every so often, and even when it is, often actors or directors have changed with it, making the story highly flexible yet constantly the same as well.
Now that you understand what makes playwriting unique, you likely have a few ideas about what makes screenwriting different. However, to really understand and appreciate the differences, you'll want to see them outlined for yourself so you can better decide w.
The camera is the primary feature of screenwriting that makes it so different.
Unlike with playwriting, the camera allows your screenplay to have a narrator. By this, I mean, you can choose what your audience does and does not see, and how they see it. They can see images up close, far away, or somewhere in between. They can go between two different locations in a few seconds, or ensure the audience doesn’t miss a reaction from another character.
This leads to some really creative ways to tell a story, something many new screenwriters don’t realize yet. Within the camera, your story telling tools include the editing, the shot composition, the style, the colors – even things like the sound if you’re thinking about the camera as an abstract thing that encompasses the entire story.
All of these tools together provide enough variety from playwriting that I could easily only list those features of screenwriting and call it quits. But because all of these features boil down to the unique biases a camera can create and the way it showcases the narrative differently than in theater, it is easier to understand the difference when thinking about the story a camera can tell.
After all, they say a picture is worth one thousand words!
Special effects are the reason why people call movies “magic.” Special effects can make almost anything look real, and look real in our world. This allows for almost no limitations in terms of storytelling.
For the sake of simplicity, we will understand special effects to also include things like production design, which can take us to any time period we wish, as well as the more obvious features of special effects, like CGI and makeup.
If an actor needs to look twenty in one scene and eighty in another, special effects allow this to be possible. If there needs to be dragons, time travel, and any other storytelling adventure deemed impossible in real life, a film can make that possible.
In this way, the sky's the limit when you write, and such a possibility is quite exciting because suddenly every feature of your story can become real.
Television writing is one of the most exciting features of screenwriting simply because no other storytelling medium seems to have mastered it.
While there are many other unique and wonderful traits about screenwriting, you cannot gloss over the fact that with screenwriting there has emerged an entirely different way to tell stories.
Though many would argue television’s structure is much like a book’s, that has actually become a more modern trend as of late. In reality, many television shows must be pitched and structured to sustain themselves for forever. It is this type of storytelling you only see work in screenwriting.
But beyond the self-sustaining series, what also makes screenwriting unique is the possibility to break up your story into chapters and sections, whereas a play cannot do this simply because of the live performance limitations.
As a result, screenwriting showcase a structural phenomenon you cannot find anywhere else when writing a television series.
How Do You Decide Which to Write?
Now that you understand what key features make screenwriting and playwriting different, how do you decide which would be best for your story?
In many cases, it may simply be a case of realizing as you write your story as a screenplay that it was meant to be a play, and vice versa. Though that may seem frustrating and like a waste of time, it was still time spent getting the basic story down on paper, which is always useful.
In fact, my most recent screenplay recently has become a play from this very approach. Though I had intended the screenplay to be a movie, it wasn’t until assessing the strengths of theater that I realized the story belonged on stage.
Of course, not everyone wants to go through the process of writing their entire story in the wrong medium only to have to adapt it to a new one later on. So for that reason, when deciding which medium your story should be in, you’ll want to focus on the different traits of each medium as much as possible before you begin writing, so that you understand which strengths best benefit your story.
Additionally, think about the people engaging with your story and how you want them to connect and interact with your story, or which type of connection might be best for the narrative. Again, going back to my former feature film – I had to sit down and understand that the story was only about people and relationships, and in realizing this understood that the best way to connect with people is in person, with live actors bringing this story to life. For that reason, playwriting was better for my story.
While it may seem like a lot of work to focus on these features of your story before you’ve written it, in learning these particular strengths you’ll be better able to decide which medium is right for you, which will, in turn, bring you a better story.