Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Playwriting exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but unapologetically the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. Scripts, both stage and film, are not assortments of characters and setting and dialogue steeped in a genre bath. Scripts are structure. The same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking and writing.

Playwriting

Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft. His Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempt to understand why plays make us laugh and cry, why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away understanding why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven and not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat, as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event). Beats drive fiction too.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to each other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: Each act built of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their characters forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie buff.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on film script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which easily features the best cast ever assembled for the play. (Trust me, I’ve seen a few productions.)

Consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it. Good screenwriters have a knack for naturalistic dialogue. Great screenwriters know how to build taut scenes with no dialogue at all—study No Country for Old Men for good examples.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look to television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and situations with explosive conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as the funniest show ever, and for good reasons. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character popping to life the moment they utter their first lines.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The paradigm

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

As mentioned in my first post of this series, Syd Field calls his structure “the paradigm”:

The paradigm is a dramatic structure. It is a tool, a guide, a map through the screenwriting process. As defined in Screenplay, a paradigm is a “model, an example, a conceptual scheme.” … A screenplay is an open system.

That last bit is important. A screenplay—and a novel, and a short story—is an open system. Compare this to an observation made by Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ programming language:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end.

(Emphasis mine.) Although Stroustrup is describing how software is written, I believe his observation applies to writing fiction too, and most creative endeavors.

Think of a story you’re working on right now. Do you really know where your inspiration for it started? Can you enumerate every influence leading up to it? Now think of your last completed story. Are you really finished with it? I’ve discovered recurring themes in my own work that make me wonder if I’m still “writing” older work.

Writing is an iterative and incremental process of inspiration, evaluation, and revision. Each iteration shapes and smooths and revises. Nothing in a story is sacred. Everything in it deserves questioning and challenging.

Proportions

Field’s paradigm asks you to think of a story as three interconnected acts. Each act is unit of drama. It may be a scene or a series of scenes, but in fiction, those scenes are not necessarily “in the moment” of the narration. (For example, Heart of Darkness is entirely narrated by Marlow in England, but the acts of the story are the events along the river in Africa.)

The three acts are not vacuum-sealed. Events in Act One have ramifications that carry into Act Two and even Act Three. Questions posed on the first page may not be answered until the last.

At its simplest, the three-act structure goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is a whole and complete in itself…a thing is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In some ways, that’s all the three acts are: the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

Each act is not the same length. Remember, in movies and theater, time is everything. (In both genres, one manuscript page is considered to be approximately one minute of stage or projection time.) Most films are 90 to 120 minutes long. Theater tends to run closer to three hours, but there’s been a recent trend for ten-minute plays.

As far as page count, fiction is all over the map. What’s more, fiction writers don’t tend to obsess over how long it takes for a reader to read the story. For my interpretation of Field’s paradigm and applying it to fiction, I don’t worry about the length of each act in terms of page count. What’s important is their proportions:

  • Act 1: 25%
  • Act 2: 50%
  • Act 2: 25%

So the middle section of the story is roughly twice as long as the opening and concluding acts—roughly.

If you think about it, that’s not terribly revolutionary news to a fiction writer. We’re taught to watch out for long openings. Exposition, introduction, summary, prologue, and/or excess scene-setting merely serve to delay the start of the narrative. Likewise, we’re told to watch out for ending exposition, long-winded conclusions, and so forth. We’re supposed to be eagle-eyed for when the story “really” starts (in medias res is the phrase usually mentioned here) and when the story “really” ends (think of Gordon Lish cutting the final pages of a Raymond Carver story).

In a nutshell, that’s what Syd Field encapsulates with his observation about act lengths. Trim the opening down, wrap up the ending as concisely as possible, and save the meat of the story for the middle. I would push harder on those numbers—20% / 60% / 20%—but there’s more to Act One and Act Three than the introduction and conclusion of a story. (More on that later.)

Three—no, four—acts

One problem with Field’s original three-act structure in Screenplay was the long haul from the end of Act One to the start of Act Three. Act Two is fifty percent of the story, 60 pages of screenplay manuscript. Since Field’s paradigm was intended to act as a guide or a map, how could he advise how to write a screenplay when half of his map was blank white nothing?

In his later Screenwriter’s Workbook, Field explains a discovery he made after Screenplay‘s publication. In many movies he found there’s a midpoint event that cleaves the second act into two smaller units of drama. This gives the screenwriter a target to shoot for when starting Act Two:

Knowing the midpoint is a tool; with it you have a way of focusing your story line into a specific line of action. You have a direction, a line of development.

(Playwriting defines “action” as a character’s desires and motivations, not shooting guns and car chases. Although Field doesn’t define the word, I believe he uses “action” to mean the results of a character attempting to fulfill those wants—in other words, we see the character trying to get what they want and experiencing the consequences. Aristotle said story “is not an imitation of men but of actions and life.” His use of the term could apply to both definitions.)

Between reading Field’s description of the midpoint, thinking of some examples in film and fiction, and my own experience, I see the midpoint as a Janus point in the story, a moment of looking backward and forward. Even if the storyline has wandered a bit (due to character development or a digression—any reason, really), the midpoint is a stitch connecting the beginning to the end.

With his discovery of the midpoint, Field’s three-act structure looks more like a four-act structure, but the basics are the same. I’ve labeled them with Field’s names, adding my own label for 2A:

  • Act 1: Setup (25%)
  • Act 2A: Complication (25%)
  • Act 2B: Confrontation (25%)
  • Act 3: Resolution (25%)

The labels are to offer the thrust of each act’s purpose. There’s no requirement that every sentence in Setup be setting up your story, or that every scene in Confrontation be confrontational. It’s just a general idea of the direction of that act.

The percentages may look daunting or restrictive, but understand that they’re to indicate rough proportions and not page counts. If your novel’s Act One is only ten percent of the pages, that may be just fine, or even great. But if your Act One is fifty percent of the pages, Field’s paradigm suggests you need to rethink your Setup. I suspect your readers would too.

Part three: the treatment