Please welcome guest blogger Robert Hensley!
I asked Rob to explain to our readers the differences between writing a book and writing a play.
Leave any questions you have in the comment box and I will alert Rob.
As writers, storytellers, we know there are universal rules for telling a story, be it orally, in prose or even as a play. Telling a story requires solid arcs, fully realized characters, and an inherent sense of time and place. As with most rules, there is usually room for adjustments. While the basics remain the same, how these requirements are delivered may be hugely different from one project to the next.
Therein lies the main difference between writing a novel and writing a play: the format and approach of each work. In a work of prose, the audience is told the story, while in a play the audience is shown the story. A novelist finesses the fine points, reveling in details, while a playwright works in broader strokes, minimizing what details might come out in the dialogue and what can be shown to the audience by way of sets, lighting, costumes and sound design.
Both novels and plays, as stories, must have a beginning, middle and end. The movement through the storyline or arc is a precisely orchestrated rise and fall of smaller arcs, building to a climax and then ebbing toward a conclusion. The chapters in a novel are very similar to the acts and scenes in a play; each progresses with it’s own beginning, middle and end, propelling the action forward.
There is no set rule for the set up of a story in either format, although some may advise fledgling writers otherwise. If there were only one rule about writing to break, this would be a great a place to start busting things up. Setting up a story should not fall into a formula. That is not to say there are no limits. While novelists are not limited to a certain number or pages or chapters within which to wrap up their story, they must be careful not to lose their readers’ interest in the story by boring them with too many details. Likewise, playwrights must be aware of the limitations placed on their work by the audience’s ever-decreasing attention span.
Perhaps the greatest difference between these two literary forms is how characters are presented. A novelist may take multiple chapters to establish the backstory to a character, to give their readers a better idea of who this person was and is. They can give their readers as inside peek into a character’s mind, literally telling the audience what the character is thinking. In a play, aside from a brief character description at the beginning of the script, a character’s backstory and state of mind must be created in the dialogue, giving the actors an opportunity to embody and present their character on stage in front of a live audience. The only way to give a theatre audience an opportunity to know what a character may be thinking is for the playwright to give the character a soliloquy, in which they can speak their mind directly to the audience.
Within a work of prose, a writer can establish the setting through a detailed description: the color of the flowers outside the window, the fading warmth of a sunset over the gaining shadow of a mountain, or the cracked and peeling paint on the craftsman-style house. In a play, these descriptions become far less detailed. A playwright must draft brief notations to inform the director and production designer as to what dimensional representation of the setting should be created for the stage. What may beautifully fill two pages in a printed novel may be compressed to a single paragraph at the beginning of an act in a play.
Another difference between writing prose and a play is how the writer guides the audience’s attention. A novelist can direct the readers’ attention across vast distances and in multiple subplots, allowing for a far greater scope than is available to the playwright. Writing prose can take the reader on amazing adventures, while writing a play requires an acute sense of attention to dialogue; if an actor doesn’t say it, chances are the audience won’t know it. There is a necessary collaboration with other artists for a play to come off the page and the story to unfold upon the stage. The quality of play is sometimes solely judged on the work of the director, the designers and the talent of the actors than anything to do with the writer. A novel’s tale unfolds for the reader without any other collaborator than the reader.
One similarity between the two is the trust a writer places in the audience. When a novel is published, the reader must either take the novelist at their word or use their imagination to expand upon the written word to experience the story. A playwright must trust that a director, a team of designers and a cast of actors will come together to interpret the words and present an audience with the story as it was intended, as well as trusting the audience to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy their experience.
Regardless of the differences in format between plays and prose, any writer with a desire to tell a story can successfully complete either. Whether a short story, a novel, a short format play or a full-length work; it is imperative to meet the requirements of telling a story: a solid arc, believable characters and a well-established setting. Everything else is up to the writer’s own whims and imagination.
His first play, Dark Sisters, was produced in Los Angeles as part of the Grimm Festival. His next work,Turning Out, a full-length dark comedy, was also produced in Los Angeles by the Blank Theatre as part of their Living Room Series. His latest collection of short plays, Death, Life and a Crème-filled Center, was produced as a live broadcast reading for Universal Broadcasting Network’s UBN Playhouse. Robert also published the young adult novella Leo’s Love Story. His first produced screenplay,Texas Toast, was directed by Chane’t Johnson, with a cast including Nicole Travolta, Chris Mulkey, and Tucker Smallwood.