LPB Event: How to take your story from stage to screen

Editor Jennifer Richards is recapping our practical workshop with  Freddie Machin at London Writers’ Week! Want to learn how to write for two different media? Read on…

“Nobody knows anything.”

Okay, so your workshop leader saying this is probably not how you want an event at London Writer’s Week to start, but it makes a lot more sense when it’s stage-writer turned screen-writer Freddie Machin quoting two-time Academy Award winner William Goldman.

Because even the people at the top of their field feel like they’re blagging it sometimes.  It’s about not letting ‘the fear’ stop you from trying something new, such as turning your stage play into a film.

And that’s exactly what the topic was of this London Writer’s Week event run by London Playwright’s Blog. And though Freddie may have said he doesn’t feel like the expert, I left the workshop excited to try a new form of writing I wasn’t used to, and knowing I had learnt some brilliant tips and tricks on how to put my best (screen-writer shaped) foot forward….

Wait! Hold up! I’m having major writer’s block!

Does turning your stage play into a film seem like jumping five, or five million, steps ahead? Let’s take a pause and go back to the initial ideas process. If you’re feeling stuck, it’s best to remember it’s all fun and games – quite literally!

At the workshop, Freddie got us to spark our imaginations by playing the ‘Anyone Who’ game. One person stands up in the middle and has to complete the ‘anyone who…’ sentence with something they’ve done, and whoever else in the room has also done it then has to stand up and they all have to swap seats – then it’s the turn of the last person standing and so on! For example, I might say anyone who writes blog posts while in their pyjamas (though *cough* I’m definitely not doing that right now *cough*)

After the game, everyone created a scenario from one of the ‘anyone who…’ sentences that were said, and this then became a scene with a set-up, complication and outcome. Suddenly, the room was buzzing with ideas!

And a lot of the participants found that the idea that came to them was something they never would have thought of if they’d just been staring at a blank page for hours.

Though you probably don’t have a whole room of people to play with when you’re writing, you can still do writing games on your own. Using images, free-writing, or even just picking up objects in your house and creating a scenario from that is a great way to spark that initial idea. Even if you think the idea isn’t that great, just write it down and see where it goes!

As Freddie told us: “You don’t have to have an idea for a story when you begin writing something. You can start from anywhere. And first ideas are always a bit raw and rough around the edges.”

And don’t let that pesky fear we were talking about earlier stop you. Freddie pointed out that: “The most important thing anyone should take away from a workshop is that you can write.”

So, considering that’s the most important thing, I could probably leave the piece here, but I think we should get onto tip number two…

But I don’t know what makes a great film great?

Pick your favourite film. Right now. Got it in your head? Now tell me what makes it a good story.

When Freddie did this with us, we realised how important relatability was – we always connect to the characters or the story in a really brilliant film. But maybe you come up with something different, though it most likely still links in with the idea of dramatic action.

Dramatic action means having conflict in your story; your character has to face obstacles and we get a sense of the character from how they respond to the conflict they face – as well as getting a gripping story!

That’s not too different from playwriting then, is it?

Storytelling is in everything really. Yes, plays and films, but also everyday things. We want to see dramatic action and the three act structure even when we watch a football game. No one wants their team to breeze to victory, we want to be on the edge of our seats, biting our nails as we watch them struggle against a brilliant team (and then we win, of course!)

You can even get dramatic action in the shortest of stories. Freddie got us all to watch the 2017 Waitrose Christmas advert. What initially seemed like your standard advert, once we started analysing it, then became a story full of tension, conflict, a climax, sub plot and character development – all in 90 sections!!

So the principles of storytelling may be similar in plays and films (and everything else), but Freddie noted that there was one distinct difference between writing in these two different media: the importance of structure.

Why does structure have to matter so much?

This is partly practical, as when you go into meetings about making a television series or a film, the big wigs will want to know structure and plot points down to a T, so these have to watertight, whereas you can be a bit more liberal when it comes to playwriting.

Here’s the typical film structure Freddie outlined:

ACT ONE

  • Routine; you see the character go about daily life as normal
  • Inciting incident; something happens that causes the paradigm to shift and the world will never be the same
  • Refuse the call to action; the protagonist refuses to do anything about the inciting incident
  • Point of no return; given circumstance forces the character to do something
  • Hero emerges; we find out which character will save us, usually meaning the protagonist has stepped up to the plate
  • ACT TWO; This act contains the sub-plots that lead to conflict in Act Three. Act Two doesn’t have a standardised structure, but the events in it have to happen for the crisis to take place later in the film

ACT THREE

  • Peak; everything is looking up and we think we’ve won
  • Crisis; the victory is snatched away from the protagonist
  • Climax; showdown, tension
  • Resolution; the payoff. However, some workshop participants pointed out that sometimes we don’t get the resolution, and the payoff comes in a slightly different form, such as the change in character relationships in the film Three Billboards. And Freddie added: “We are programmed to understand this structure of films, which gives us license to experiment with it sometimes, but this structure is the typical one.”

So I’ve written my stage play. But how do I change it into a screenplay?

Unfortunately it’s not a matter of just shifting around some of the dialogue. Freddie explained, “You need to work out what is at the heart of your story, what are you trying to say.” To do this, he gave the practical exercise of describing your play in eight words, then five and then one. A play needs to be broken down before we can build it back up into a film, which leads us onto the next tip…

What’s the biggest difference between playwriting and screenwriting?

It requires a change in thinking. Freddie noted: “If you’re writing for film, it’s predominately about images. Start thinking in pictures and not text.” Not concentrating on the words on the page may sound like an alienating thing for a writer (and it certainly did for me!), but Freddie’s explanation helped clarify it.

He described how the placement of scenes in a film is really the placement of images, which is why filmmaking is visual storytelling. If you look at the idea of the montage, you’re taking a neutral image and placing it next to another neutral image, and it’s only then that it creates meaning.

The example Hitchcock has talked about before is if you see the image of an old man smiling, it doesn’t mean anything; but if you then place it after an image of a girl in a bikini, the old man now becomes sleazy – we’ve learnt something important about our character without any words.

And adapting a play to screen is really about stripping away this dialogue. It’s a real shift in the brain to think in imagery and not verbally.

It was Freddie’s play Chicken that then got made into a film, with him also writing the screen play. And of his experience, he said: “My plays are very wordy and the film has hardly any words, you have to strip all the words away and tell the story visually; that’s the art of film making. Really, in beautiful storytelling, there needn’t be any words.”

This is where his points on structure and writing visually come together. He shared the advice his uncle, who is also a screenwriter, gave to him when he started adapting Chicken: “You have to write it so they can’t make it any other way.” This means your screenplay should be written in such a way that directors and producers can’t chop it up and move scenes around, as you’ve made it so the story needs certain images to be next to each other in to tell the story authentically.

So is it time to start writing my film?

Definitely! At it this workshop, it was fascinating to learn that these two different styles of writing require two very different parts of the brain. For plays, perfecting interesting dialogue is your most important role as a writer, and though structure is a part of the play-writing process, you can definitely take more risks with it.

But for films, you’re working in the world of images and need to look at how they slot and fit together, with the structure being vital – both to your audience, but also in terms of how you pitch it to those big wigs.

Looking back at the two scripts you’ve written, you should feel that your play would only work on stage, and your film needs to be shown at a cinema and in no other form. Use what’s different about the two mediums to your advantage.

Who knows, maybe you’ll soon find yourself blagging your way through the film industry as a two-time Academy Award winner who understands that nobody really does know anything.

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