One Don’t and Two Dos for the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition

Excerpts from 24-Hour Playwriting Competition judge Tan Tarn How’s part of the talk at Bedok Library (June 29, 2009).

DON’T write a movie script

As a judge I found that the most common problem in the entries was that people were writing movie scripts rather than play scripts. From a third to half of the scripts have this problem. I think this is because many of us watch a lot of movies and television, and seldom watch or read plays. So my advice is this: Write a play, not a movie. This is not the 24-Hour Screenplay Writing Competition.

Differences between a play and a movie (I include television shows in the latter):

A play is experienced with “static” eyes through an invisible wall. The visual point of view of the audience within a scene does not change, the stage or the backdrop does not move. The entire scene happens in one small place: a room in a house; a spot under a tree; or a bench at a bus-stop; a carriage on the Singapore Flyer  (the carriage moves relative to the ground, but not to the audience!); a sampan off East Coast (it drifts, but not relative to the stage or audience). A movie is seen through a camera, which can move from one place to another and can zoom in and out. 

In a play, it is hard to stage a chase, say, through a park or up a flight of steps. In a play, it is hard to show to the audience (which can be quite far away from the stage) small things like someone blinking their eye or trembling hands. These things are easy in a movie. It takes time to do scene changes so plays have far fewer scenes than movies – some have only one. In a play, it is hard to move from one place to another or from one time (past or present or future) to another. 

If you want to contrast quickly what is happening at different times and places, you can get round this by having characters from these different times or place on stage at the same time without changing the scene; or if they are same characters, then they just go from speaking in one time or place to the another without any obvious queues to the audience about the change in place and time – hopefully the audience can figure out which is which. 

Because of the camera in a movie, things happen as much through images as dialogue. In fact you can have a movie where there is almost no dialogue. This is almost impossible in a play (and then it becomes more a dance or performance than a play). Things “happen” in plays through dialogue – the words that the characters speak. Almost all the stage descriptions and direction (that is the part of the script which is not dialogue) you find in a play are not necessary in the sense that you can still have the play with just the dialogue and nothing else. In fact – trade secret here – directors often ignore the stage directions they find a play script! 

So the difference between a play and a movie is that you know what is happening in the first by dialogue (that is spoken words) and the latter via pictures. Example : In a play, characters describe by dialogue what is hard to see, unlike movies which use close-ups. So in a play if you want to draw attention to, say, a (small) tattoo, you cannot zoom in (because there is no camera in a play), but you have a character saying: “I didn’t know you have a tattoo!” or something like that.

DO have contrast

Contrast sustains interest because it is no fun sitting through the same thing for too long.

  1. Contrast between characters: what they want, what they care about, how they speak, how they look. Note that these need not be black and white contrasts – think of it as contrast in different colours rather than in monochrome.
  2. Contrast in emotions and tone (dark or light in atmosphere) and pace of action.
  3. Contrast between what people say and what they mean – this is one of the most interesting things about plays. It keeps the audience guessing – what is happening, what is he or she really saying? – and hence interested. If a character means to say “I love you”, “ I hate you”, “I am disappointed in you” or “I want to know what you did last night” without saying those exact words, then the contrast between what is said on the surface and what is really meant underneath is a very powerful effect.

DO have intensity

There is a difference between what is real versus what is realistic. Dialogue for instance must be real (believable, true to human nature, etc) but don’t write realistic dialogue (because in fact we normal day to day dialogue is rambling and all over the place). Also, slice of life is not very interesting: most of life is boring, isn’t it?

You want main characters who are intense (They care about what is happening very much) and you want what is happening to be intense (in the sense that the time that the play is about is important, not everyday – Why are you showing it now, what is the special moment, the crisis or impending crisis?)

Tan Tarn How


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