Genre-Bending Transformation: Your Story Into a Play (Part 1 of 2)
Genre-Bending Transformation: Your Story Into a Play (Part 2 of 2)
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Have you ever considered transforming your short story or novel into a play?
Even if you have no desire to become an active playwright, now is a good time to expand your creative boundaries and acquire another valuable skill.
Where do you start? Well, you already have. You have a genre, plot, characters, setting, and time period. You know the beginning, middle, and end, and can identify your target audience. Your readers trust you will deliver an entertaining story, as your audience trusts you will deliver an entertaining play.
How long is your play? Generally, plays take a minute-per-page to read.
It can be a flash short play, up to five minutes; a short story, 10-15 minutes; a one-act up to 50 minutes; or a full-length piece of 90-120 minutes. The theatre will have clear guidelines to help you decide the best format, and there are many play festivals that feature/include eight 10-minute plays.
I started my career writing short fiction and then envisioned how my short stories would look on a stage, being interpreted by a director and actors. My first play, “The Gatekeeper,” about the cemetery of buried emotions, won every category in the Fringe of Marin in 2012. The excitement of seeing what I visualized on stage, as well as others applauding my work, enticed me to write my next play, and then the next.
I want to share some of the important rules I learned before having my plays chosen from different theatres for productions.
Okay, you have a tightly knitted story ready and are now ready to apply these four major winning components of a good play: style, theme, characters, and dialogue.
Style sets the whole mood and spirit of the play. You, as the playwright and author of fiction, create the direction of the piece by manipulating its details: movement of the actors, gestures, tone of speech, pace. You prepare the general expectation and demeanor of the audience for either comedy or drama, or both. Through style, the pattern of the play will travel a set path and resonate through the audience; they cannot fully participate if the paths keep changing.
Theme: What is this story really about? How is it relevant to today?
We might ask these two questions before picking up a mystery novel or short story. As mystery writers, we sew up a short story or novel neatly, leaving no anxiety swirling around the heart and mind of the reader. In plays, for the most part, even when the story ends, the theme lives on through discussion. Environmental, social, political, and historical issues are the most popular universal themes. Plays often unite themes.
An example of theme is my short story, “The Downeaster,” turned into a play. The story surrounds a woman on a train who is heading north to meet her brother and sister for a holiday shopping day together. Her new boyfriend, calling several times a day, is disappointed she did not invite him to meet her family. As she complains to her sister by phone about him not giving her space, he shows up at one of the train’s stops and sits next to her. He has no intention of leaving. In the meantime, a killer, a stalker, is on the loose. Nurses are being murdered, and of course, Janet is a nurse. The mystery focuses on three personalities until it is solved.
So, what is the theme? What is the relevance to today?
How eerie, threatening, and creepy are stalkers? They are for sure, but no. The invasion of privacy/space takes many forms: personal relationships, stolen identity from a credit card theft, stolen property, internet information used against a character—all creepy and all invasive. It could grow into a theme of revenge—a very popular one—or morality, if the play were to expand into a full-length piece.
Successful plays that have explored universal themes, such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” can be produced over and over again, and resonate with new generations.
Characters: This is where the novel and play begin to take different paths. In a short story or novel, the author can have as many characters as desired. Plays are different: the theatre and/or festival will determine the number of characters and length of a play they will produce. (Check the guidelines before submitting!) Small stages usually mean a small number of actors, hence often a small number of characters—although one actor can fill more than one role.
The animate character, the actor on stage breathing life into your play, will communicate thoughts and feelings to the audience that inspired you to write the script. It is the actor’s duty to interpret the meaning of the author’s words so that the play relates to the human experience in some way and engages the audience. Abstract concepts, such as the character Death, can be very powerful. Death often imitates human behavior. The closer the experience to our own, the greater the effect on the audience.
The character, through the actor, achieves effectiveness through dialogue. You are writing for an audience and, unlike the reader, your audience is interwoven into the play as a vicarious observer. You cannot put down the play and finish it later. You are pulled into the play through the setting (discussed further in Part Two), the style, the storyline, the theme, the conflict of the characters, and the dialogue. The audience is a participant to every moment and reacts, often as one, to your words.
There is no greater thrill for a playwright than to see their work brought to life on stage. To know that everyone in the theatre views the same set design, built from your vision, is nothing short of wondrous. Unlike reading a book, where perception often dictates what the mind sees, the play unfolds in exactly the same way to each individual. It can be very exciting.
In Part Two, I will take you through writing a short play from your short story—the format, the dos and don’ts, different types of plays, and where you can submit your play after you fall in love with it.
In my first article, Genre Bending Transformation: Your Story into a Play, Part 1, I narrowed downs four winning components of a good play: style, theme, character and dialogue.
Style sets the whole mood and spirit of the play. You, as the playwright and author of fiction, create the direction of the piece by manipulating its details: setting, movement of the actors, gestures, tone of speech, pace. Comedy or Drama, you guide your audience down a planned path.
Theme asks: What is this story really about? How is it relevant to today?
Characters interpret the meaning of your words to engage the audience.
Dialogue are the words that make or break your play. Dialogue is the play. Everything else sets the play up visually. What touches you and manipulates you, as well as involves you? The words. Pick dialogue from your story that enhances your theme. What words best portrays the realness of the situations and characters you have created. Remember to keep the dialogue simple, without abstract terms we have to decipher.
Touching base on “Setting.” The setting, should be described as briefly as possible It will be the most important visual cue as to what will occur in the play. In my play, The Gatekeeper, the setting is: “A plaque on a post that reads: ‘Cemetery of Buried Emotions. No stepping on feelings! Keep out!’ There are three cardboard tombstones, anger, envy, and fear. Two chairs and one small table.”
This is very different than novels where a leisurely amount of time and space and beautifully-lyrical word can lure us into a white-washed fog.
So, you pulled all the components together into a play. You powered up your plot and characters, cut out all the description and unnecessary sentences like “It’s a nice day, isn’t it? Remember “show, don’t tell.” Too much exposition kills a play—stop explaining and excessive dialogue, keep the character conflict coming, and the words crisp—think Noir. The audience is a participant to every moment and reacts, often as one, to your words and actions.
Formatting your play: cover page, character page, and first page set up.
The Cover Page is simply the name of your play in the center of the page, followed by the word “by,” on the next line centered. In the middle of the next line is your name. Your name, phone, email rests on the bottom left of the page.
The Character Page: playwrights often add a short sentence about the character next to the character, or a few adjectives to describe their general behavior. In this case it is obvious on the first page. Most of my characters can be any race, religion, and sometimes sex. I always have gender parity, though, equal men and women.
THE GATEKEEPER (of BURIED EMOTIONS) Male, 25ish
CAMILLE F, lawyer, 40+
The title of your play should be placed in the header at 10 point, so it shows on each page. The page number should show at center bottom.
For short plays, one only needs to place the Scene number—all in Capitals. Many plays do not have the AT RISE section—although I like the set up clear and concise.
SETTING: A plaque on a post reads: “Cemetery of Buried Emotions. No stepping on feelings! Keep out!” There are three cardboard tombstones, anger, envy, and fear. Two chairs and one small table.
AT RISE: CAMILLE, dressed in all black, sneaks up to the cemetery of buried emotions in the Astral Plane holding a shovel. Red and white lights flash, a siren also sounds. The Gatekeeper, dressed in a long robe, catches her.
GATEKEEPER Characters always capitalized-center
What are you doing? You can’t go in there. That’s a crime! – Dialogue under Character
(drops the shovel)-parentheses-short character action or feeling-skip one line after Character name
I’m so sorry, but I’m desperate! I couldn’t think of any other way to get my old feeling back. You’re the Gatekeeper, right? But, how did you know I was here? I’m sleeping, aren’t I? Dreaming?
You are asleep. We’re meeting on the astral plane. Your spirit has separated from your body. And obviously, your evil spirit wanted to steal from us.
Hey, you’re the spirit of Camille Berger, right? The lawyer. I buried a feeling of yours six month ago. You should know better!
Sit. Let’s talk.
They sit, and the GATEKEEPER places his computer and manual on the table. Action or setting outside of character, usually some movement around stage. Sometime not italicized, sometimes in parentheses.
Yes. That’s me. It’s hard to get used to this out-of-my-body-into-my-spirit-stuff while I’m sleeping. Anyway, we have a problem. You buried the wrong feeling and I want it back.
I couldn’t possibly have buried the wrong emotion. And I most certainly can’t give it back.
Are you still the Gatekeeper here?
For more possible formats by the Dramatist Guild go to: https://www.dramatistsguild.com/script-formats
I use the Final Draft program that does all the formatting for me.
Now that you are done, where do you send it? How do you get the word about your piece? My first recommendation is to join a playwriting group. Playwrights Center of San Francisco is the perfect place to start. As Sisters in Crime has helped many of us with beginner’s questions, support, and places to send our work, PCSF has replicated SinC’s goals for playwrights. They also have opportunities for submissions.
I hope this helps anyone who would like to convert a short story into a play. I have found it easier than converting a play into a short story. Please feel free to email me with any questions you may have.