Writing or analyzing a screenplay is very different form writing or analyzing a novel or stage play. For the most part a novel is driven by action which takes place inside the character’s head, and is often called the “mindscape of dramatic action.” The action of a play occurs on stage while the audience eavesdrops on the lives of the characters. Therefore, the driving force of a stage play is the “language of dramatic action.” A Screenplay, however, is largely a visual medium and is, therefore, driven by the “images of dramatic action.”
Note that in a screenplay it is possible to zoom in on one aspect of the setting, such as a ticking clock, a smoldering cigarette, or a character’s expression in order to highlight its significance to the overall plot. In order for the director/writer of a stage play to achieve the same effect (since the objects remain at a fixed distance from the audience) a character must mention the object to focus the audience’s attention – “Is that clock right? It can’t be eight already.” In a novel the audience cannot see the clock on the wall, and as such the clock, the time, its meaning must be filtered through a character’s or a narrator’s consciousness.
For example: Jack has stayed too late at work. He will be late for dinner.
In a Novel, our character might notice the time and through an inner monologue communicate to the audience what problems this may cause.
I can’t believe it’s eight o’clock already, Jack thought. He knew his wife Nancy would be furious. After all, she had reminded him three times that morning about the romantic dinner she was planning.
In a Stage Play, our character would have to directly and verbally address the audience or another character in order to express the same sentiment.
Assistant: You’re working late tonight.
Jack: No later than you.
Assistant: But didn’t you say yesterday that you were meeting your wife for dinner tonight?
Jack: Oh my God! Dinner, I completely forgot. What time is it? My wife is going to kill me.
In a Screenplay, the most efficient way to convey this information would be through images.
INT. OFFICE – NIGHT
Frank looks at the CLOCK, Grabs his briefcase and rushes out the door.
INT. FRANK”S DINNING ROOM – NIGHT
Nancy, furious, sits alone at a table set for two. Nancy looks at the CLOCK, and snuffs out the two half melted candles.
The following activities are a fun way to reinforce this concept and start you on the path to writing your own successful screenplay.
Here is Screenplay Activity 1.1: From Thought to Image
Find a section of a novel in which the character advances the plot using the “mindscape of dramatic action.” Try to rewrite the scene, conveying the same information, but only using visual images.
Here is: Screenplay Activity 1.2: From Dialog to Image
Find a brief conversation between two characters in a play, which prompts one character to action. Try to rewrite the scene explaining the character’s final action only through images.