Here’s one of those Friday Questions that ended up being an entire post. It’s from Sitcom Room alum, Wendy Grossman:
You've talked separately about the various things you've written - screenplay, stage play, TV scripts. What, to you, are the most significant differences in how the scripts for those three different media need to be structured?
Each has its own challenges.
The length is a big determining factor.
TV scripts need to be carefully outlined because you only have 22 minutes to tell a story. You have to work within the existing format (2 acts or 3), service every cast member, plot out a story, and find the humor. If it’s a pilot you also have to set up the premise, introduce the characters, and give an indication of where the series will be going in subsequent weeks.
In plotting out the story for an existing show you have to consider what has gone before and what is to come. Example: if there is sexual tension between two characters, just where in the relationship are they? If there are season long story arcs, how does this episode service them?
Is there more than one story in your script? Is there an A story and a B story? If so, do they connect and how?
In a screenplay you have more of a self-contained story. Your character needs to have some growth, unlike in TV where. for the most part, sitcom characters stay the same.
The real tough part is the middle. And that’s 60% of your movie. How do you keep the action going, the story going, the characters moving forward, and the jokes coming without running out of steam? Trust me, most rewriting takes place in the middle.
You also need to bring your screenplay in at about 110 pages. That takes planning and outlining. When you’ve determined all the steps of your story, how much time can you allot to say...the two leads falling in love? Let’s say it’s only ten pages. You might come up with completely different sequences if you have twenty pages instead of ten. So you have to find the best device to service the amount of time you have.
For things to pay off you need to set them up along the way. Where exactly do you do that? And how many times? And how do you do it in such a way that’s it’s not obvious you’re setting something up?
I don’t actually start writing the screenplay until I have a solid outline and that can take weeks or even months.
For a play, there really are no length requirements although you need to keep it in the ballpark of a couple of hours.
Plays are more dialogue driven. I tend to work off a very loose outline for a play. I know the premise, know the ending I’m heading towards, and know the theme. That’s generally enough for me to start writing.
And finally, musicals are tough because to write the libretto of a musical you’re really providing connective material between songs.
Musicals are very stylized. An argument you’d devote ten pages to in a play must be done in seven lines. So every line, every word is crucial. And if you change a single line, it usually sets off a chain reaction. The arranger has to adjust, the choreographer has to adjust, the cast has to adjust, the lighting people have to adjust, cues could change as a result. And once you’re in production you have a very limited amount of time you’re allowed to rehearse. So you have to be very judicious with your rewrites. I personally found this to be the hardest pill to swallow. Coming from television, if I wanted to change something I just did. If that meant new lines, even a new scene, we would write them and the actors would do them the next performance. God love those actors because at times those rewrites could get hairy, and they had to memorize massive amounts of new material. Try that on an Equity production musical and they come after you with bayonets.
So each one is different and comes with its own brand of frustration, but each is also incredibly rewarding and well worth the aggravation. Even musicals , Okay, some musicals, but the others for sure.