What a Novelist Can Learn from a Scriptwriter

As I mentioned last week, this semester I am teaching a class entitled Drama Writing, which involves entry-level script writing for both stage and screen. Since it has been years since I’ve written a script, I have told students that “we will learn together.” And this isn’t the first time they have heard those words from me.

One of the most immediate things I am learning in this process is what each of the three media–novels, screenplays and stageplays–do well. Novels excel in giving readers a view into internal conflict, the struggle that lights up an individual’s soul. Stageplays are excellent in portraying interpersonal conflict–the strife between two people–on a very intimate level. And screenplays take all of that to another level, focusing on larger conflict, and as part of that, spectacle.

If you are a novelist, as I am, you’re always looking for ways to learn more about the craft. And I find that each of those areas–internal conflict, interpersonal conflict, and extrapersonal conflict and spectacle–are places where I can learn more, grow more, and have it improve my writing. There is a place for spectacle in a novel. In this sense, spectacle is that process of taking the reader somewhere they have never been before to see things that are surprising, alarming, and shocking. Novels–including mine–could benefit from more of that.

Right now, we are in the beginning stages of both going through our textbook on stageplay writing, and writing our own. I have been playing with–and introducing to my class–a free software scripting program entitled Celtx. I have been told that it is excellent, but I am still in the learning curve of using it. I have a student that swears by it, and I plan on finding time this week to learn from him.

As part of learning Celtx, I have taken one of my short stories and tried to adapt it to the stage. Two things immediately jump out at me, which of course, I already knew.

First, writing for the stage makes character development even more critical. When you have no prose to hide behind, the cardboard characters are a lot more obvious.

Second, the same goes for dialog. I thought I wrote dialog pretty well until I saw it on the stage and realized how full of cliches and empty phrases it was. It kind of like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Until your words–and your characters–are up their on the stage, you don’t realize how truly naked they are.

In any case, as I tell my students, if you are serious about writing, you never stop being a student. And this professor/writer has never stopped being a student, nor will he anytime soon.