As a director and resident playwright at my local children’s theater, I came into novel writing from a script writer’s background. There are drawbacks of coming from the stage to the page. But there are benefits, too. I think the lessons I’ve learned and am still learning apply to writers from all backgrounds, and I look forward to reading how you deal with these areas when writing.
Seeing the Scene: “Could we have a little more description of this location?” My editor wrote this several *cough* times in my first novel manuscript. I call it the plague of the playwright: I “see” all my scenes as if they’re on stage or in a movie, often forgetting the reader can’t see them as well. I’ve had to make conscience decisions to describe “the set” of each scene, realizing that setting is what grounds the reader in the character’s world. This usually happens during the second draft.
Disoriented: “Orientation.” That’s another comment that occasionally still pops up in edits. Related to the first pitfall, in a script, I’d put the character’s position and movement on the set in parenthetical stage notes. I see it in my head when I write, but have to remember to help the reader see it by describing it for them.
Lost in Transition: As a director, I’m used to beginning and ending scenes via light cues and curtains. But that won’t work in fiction. It doesn’t always take much, just showing the passage of time or giving a character some internal dialogue (another thing it’s easy for this playwright to forget to include), but it’s the difference between a confused reader and one who can suspend disbelief.
What’s That You Say? Dialogue is probably the playwright’s number one vehicle, and most of my first drafts consist of the characters talking. If I’m writing a script, I will often hand a copy to my husband so I can hear how a scene sounds aloud in comparison to how it sounded in my head. A strong internal ear is valuable for a novelist, but when in doubt, read it out!
Hands Free: I recently saw a contest for a short story written entirely in dialogue-no tags allowed. If I weren’t working on other projects, I’d probably enter for the fun of it. Body and dialogue tags aren’t a bad thing, and I use them often, but they can clunk up an otherwise snappy conversation. Playwrights have to rely solely on words in a script and let the actors fill in the rest. I think a stretch of dialogue without any tags gives the reader a chance to connect with the characters in a deeper way, utilizing the imagination to fill in the blanks. Jane Austen was a master of this. A conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice:
“Of what are you talking?”
“Of Mr. Collins and Lizzy. Lizzy declares she will not have Mr. Collins, and Mr. Collins begins to say he will not have Lizzy.”
“And what am I to do on the occasion? It seems a hopeless business.”
“Speak to Lizzy about it yourself. Tell her you insist upon her marrying him.”
“Let her be called down. She shall hear my opinion.”
Now, I would have been tempted to at least used one physical description of Mrs. Bennet flailing about or pulling at her cap, but Jane trusts that she’s painted the characters well enough for us to see it all in the theater of our minds. Also noteworthy is that she doesn’t use a single exclamation point.
I’m Hearing Voices: Nobody wants to see a play with characters who sound like echoes of each other, and the same holds true in fiction. I like to give characters varying sentence construction and one or two key words or phrases that they say without thinking, especially in conversations.
It’s All About the Timing: There’s no time for lags in action or dialogue in theater. If you’ve ever been to a play with a seemingly eternal scene change or worse, where an actor forgets lines, you know how it pulls you out of the show. Pacing is priority in fiction, too. Varying sentence structure, giving readers time to “breathe” after intense scenes, and knowing how to end a chapter with a page turner will all keep your audience fully invested in your characters’ journeys.
I’d love to hear from other script writers on how you make the transition from script or screenplay to story, and from anyone else who has insight on how to improve a novel’s setting, orientation, and transitions.
In addition to writing, directing, and occasionally acting in plays and musicals, Louise Galveston is the author of BY THE GRACE OF TODD and IN TODD WE TRUST (Penguin/Razorbill). She resides in Kansas with her large family and a noisy parrot, who supply plenty of comedy and drama.