[Worldcon] Page and Stage (Writing SF/F Scripts)

Sunday (September 2) at 1500: Page and Stage: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy Scripts and Why You Should
Panelists listed in program: Laura E. Goodin, David Brin, Grant Carrington, James Patrick Kelly, Edward Willett

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation.

“Plays are easier to write than anything else because there’s so much white space!”

The charm of script writing is that it’s a collaborative art. Often actors will bring something to characters that you’d never imagined. It becomes something greater than what you created.

The “as you know Bob” is BAD. As in “As you know Bob, we’re in Chicago…” It’s a bad, bad way to sneak in information. In fiction it’s VERY bad. But you have to find a subtle way to do it in theater, because there is no narration. (James doesn’t like narration in theater because he feels it breaks the magic.)

David Brin: Novella length is the true “tribal length” keeping people entertained for three hours. Writing for a play or a radio show trains you for other skills, like writing a novel. This is a good way to practice.

Everything is grist for the writer’s mill.

You have to learn to leave out your vision to a certain extent. You don’t get to indicate sarcasm, etc. You don’t get to dictate the sets or costume. Your job is mostly dialog and the most bare bones of action and setting.

Stage direction should mostly be “joe enters. joe leaves.” May be okay to indicate sarcasm occasionally if it’s not clear from the dialog and important.

You have to trust the collaborators (the actors and directors) to get where you’re going. If you have to tell someone it’s sarcasm, it’s obviously not sarcastic enough! You are more in charge for audio plays for what sound is present. (e.g. footsteps, space station ambient sounds, etc.)

DB: Have two different type faces, one for minimal stage directions that have to be there, and another for little gentle suggestions you have. At his website there’s an advice for new writers section that’s mostly for narrative fiction, but some aspects may be useful for plays.

How do you get these plays produced?

Contest, such as the 24 hour play writing contest, are a great way to get a play produced! If you’re an actor or involved in community theater, talk to those people. They might be excited to do something with a local writer. There are always people around who want to put on plays. You might not get money, but you get experience.

Your chance of getting a screenplay produced is pretty much nil. Your chances of getting a play produced is much better if you get involved in community theater and start local. Actors will often help out by just reading scripts cold for fun and then helping you improve them by doing that.

Search for “Official Playwrights of Facebook” if you join the group there are 50-60 play submission opportunities that he digs up each month.

If you do the play with yourself and your group of friends now, you can put it online, David Brin points out.

Most people who see plays are older any more – the graying of the audience. Particularly in some community theaters this does not appeal to a younger audience. You can try pitching your plays to community theater by saying it’s fresh and new since young people are more interested in speculative plays. There is some prejudice about this still in some places.

People come into theater primed to have a world created for them. Suggestion is the way to go; it’s cheap.

On stage the special effects happen in the head of the audience.

(Moderation-wise, David Brin says this is one of the best panels of the con. I’m inclined to agree.)

The play dictates how long it has to be. You have to be within the limits the theater is willing to accept. You have to be willing to cut or add to make it the right length for the theater and the number of acts you’re doing.

Single person or two actor plays have been growing in popularity due to financial pressures. If you are writing a player, the fewer actors, the less set, easier costumes, etc, the more likely you are to get produced. 4-5 people is the real maximum number of actors you want for community theater, because it starts getting very hard to get that many actors together to rehearse. And you can have one actor play multiple roles.

More women act than men. Middle-aged male roles are actually the hardest to fill for community theater.

You need to have a good relationship with the director and then sometimes stand up for yourself if you disagree. And then you face having to find someone else. You do have to fight for your vision – the important parts.

There is a prejudice that spec plays have to be funny because they are seen as ridiculous. If the director doesn’t get it (or the producers don’t) then they tend to assume it should be funny or silly.

Plays generally do not make money in print. They need to be produced. Once you’ve had the play produced, you may make some money by printing it. It’s very difficult to have a non-produced play published.

Do not fear being your own producer. All it requires is you love your director and you love your actors and you want to make a safe space for them to work. If you do everything they need to make sure they can walk in and rehearse and perform, you are a producer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not hard work. It’s not mysterious or rocket science. You just have to be diligent and love your actors and love your work.

Think about an audio play. You just need audacity and a place to post the podcast. Then you don’t need a theater or anything else. A theater play won’t probably look good on video. An audio play always “looks good” to everyone.

Producing plays at conventions is done often.

Write – produce – win! 


This was definitely one of the best panels I attended all Worldcon. I left it feeling incredibly energized and excited about trying out some new projects.

Too bad they have to wait until I finish writing my damn thesis.

I’ve actually always been interested in audioplays, and I’ve written a few bits and bobs with the vague idea that “it would be cool if.” The point was well made that nowadays, producing an audiplay is incredibly easy, as distributing it. That’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind once my thesis stops eating my life!

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