I think you can turn any idea into a play, and any idea into a piece of prose. However, there are some ideas that just suit one form or the other better, and since I enjoy writing both, I never try to make an idea that’s best for a short story into a play, or visa versa. I can’t really say what makes an idea excellent material for prose, because there’s so much flexibility in style and scope with prose fiction—however, plays are much more limited. So it really is special when I have an idea for a story, or find inspiration in some piece of news, and think, Man, that’d make a great play. So, when I’m considering how to develop an idea, these are the biggest characteristics that make me think it’d be a good candidate for a work of theatre.
This is probably the most obvious one. Because theaters have limited budgets, and limited stage space, most plays take place in one or a few locations. Of course there are exceptions, like every Shakespeare play, but most plays feature just one or two settings. This is something that sets prose and plays apart. There is a clear limitation on the story which is communicated to the audience. The characters can’t get around one another—they can’t solve their problems somewhere else. Everything is going to have to go down on stage, and that creates tension. Even if a prose story is all set in one place, there’s no feeling of suspense over the knowledge that it’s going to be finished in that space—because it isn’t necessarily going to be finished in that space. There are no inherent limits to the form, so the characters can go anywhere they want to, and it takes more work for the author to establish restrictions. With plays, the restrictions are instantly clear.
12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose was originally written for television, but it works excellently as a play because it’s all set in one meeting room. The tension is heightened by the fact that everyone’s stuck together in this stifling hot room, and can’t get out until they come to a unanimous decision. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None also made the transition to stage quite well, because the characters are stuck on an island. Just zoom in a bit to focus on the mansion on the island, and you get a very suspenseful play.
This limitation in setting is also useful for an idea in which the location is a character in itself. If an audience is stuck staring at the same set for thirty or sixty or a hundred and twenty minutes, they’re going to get to know it quite well. If it’s unique, they’re going to remember it as part of the play. The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill is a great example of this, a play set in a Raines-Law hotel in New York—essentially a bar that was able to get around prohibition laws by a loophole that allowed inns to sell liquor. It’s a sad, messy place which reflects the overall tone of the play, and the futility of the characters’ attempts to change their fortunes.
So—any idea involving people being stuck in one location, or where the location is charged with mood or character, is excellent play fodder. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a play, and none of these characteristics mean a story will only work best as a play. It’s usually when I see multiple characteristics in one idea that I think I can get a lot more mileage out of it if I make it a play. Speaking of, going hand in hand with restricted setting, the next characteristic is:
I took a playwriting course this semester, and my teacher put this concept really well. She called it “the passover question”—”Why is this night different from all other nights?” Just as the stage restricts the spacial expanse of your story, the attention span of the audience restricts the chronological expanse of your play. Again Shakespeare, but again, any idea can be a play. I don’t dispute this, I just find that theatre has a home-field advantage with time-restricted stories.
12 Angry Men takes place in realtime. Why are those hours different from all others? Because those are the hours in which the jurors must decide their verdict on the murder case. There’s a real weight and immediacy to the action because of this restriction. Long Day’s Journey into Night, another O’Neill play, takes place over the course of a day. When the action of a play takes place in realtime, or when each act takes place in realtime, it’s very immersive. It’s like a long take in a movie, for thirty or sixty or a hundred and twenty minutes.
So any idea with a ticking clock, any idea involving a night that is different from all other nights, can be very immersive if developed into a play.
Focus on Characters
This one is a bit more complicated. Depending on the characters, an idea focused on a character or characters may work better as a story. So what’s the difference?
In plays, the agents of action are usually people. In prose this is mostly true as well, though an author can get away with bigger, more abstract forces, like society or nature, being an agent of action. It’s easier to develop these kind of abstract entities in prose. In plays, it’s difficult. An enormous amount of attention is placed on characters, because that’s what we have. That’s the only action that the audience is seeing—people moving around and talking. So problems need to be solved, or attempted, by people. While many plays involve people struggling against some force much bigger than them, those plays work best when there is a human representation of the force.
In Fiddler on the Roof, the threat of the oppressive Russian government is mentioned abstractly, but it’s also represented concretely with certain characters, and with a scene of Russian soldiers violently disrupting a wedding.
So if an idea revolves around a problem that is people-based, and that must be solved by people, it’d probably make a good play. Any kind of political maneuvering is perfect play material. For this reason I think a lot of Isaac Asimov’s writing, particularly Foundation, could make an excellent play.
If an idea revolves around a specific character, and some deep problems within them or their past, it may work better as prose. It’s easier to reveal character backstory in prose. In a play, I find that you really have to put a character through the ringer to get the deepest parts of their psyche to emerge. So, if your story focuses on a character, and part of the tension of the story is understanding more and more of who they are—and the story involves that character being put in a situation where these deep flaws and traits would be exposed—it can still work well as a great play. The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill (I really like Eugene O’Neill, can you tell?) follows the ruler of an island in the west indies as he flees from his revolting subjects. As he makes his way through the jungle, he begins to hallucinate, and see phantoms from his past. Which actually leads into the next characteristic quite nicely.
Certain things resonate stronger on stage than they would in writing. Certain things are impractical for theater, and are easier to believe and be awed by in writing. Which is which? That’s kind of hard. I’ll use an example from my own writing to illustrate this.
Last summer I had an idea for a story about beach building (I posted my research notes for that story on this site.) The spectacle in that story is the spectacle of engineering vs. the forces of nature—a group of people trying to build a beach despite a rising sea level and increased hurricane activity. I executed that spectacle by spreading nice, chunky descriptions of the beach and the violent weather throughout the story, describing it from an omniscient point of view. I really wouldn’t be able to do that in a play.
But…I kind of did. This winter I was brainstorming an idea for a ten-minute play, and I returned to the ever-interesting idea of my sinking home state. And I wondered how I might stage that, and communicate a receding shoreline, and came up with the idea of having three scenes: In the first scene the actors would have full range of the stage. Far upstage would represent beach dunes, and the downstage edge of the stage would be the shoreline. The second scene would be a year or more later, with a curtain dividing the stage in half. Again, the edge of the stage would be ocean, and the curtain would be the dunes. The final scene a curtain would fall downstage, allowing the actors a very little space between dunes and ocean.
Of course, this is a very different kind of spectacle—it’s just incrementally restricting the amount of space on stage. But it still communicates loss, and change occurring rapidly, before the characters really comprehend what they’re losing. It’s a very different spectacle to the epic, cathartic clash I depicted in my beach builder story.
So with this characteristic, you have to ask a few questions. If your idea centers around something spectacular, ask, how would I communicate this in writing, and how would I communicate it on stage? I’m sure you could stage almost anything, so it’s not really a question of whether or not you can do it, just how. So the next question is, what tone would that create—what effect would the spectacle have on the audience if it were a play, or the reader if it were prose? Finally, which interests me more? For me, both methods of adapting the spectacle of beach building were interesting—in writing, and on stage.
So, as I come to a close here, I’ll add that caveat. If an idea can make a great play, but it can also make a great story, there’s no reason not to write both. I don’t often find that an idea is that versatile, but when it is, developing it, and seeing it inhabit both forms is very satisfying. Theatre is a limited medium when compared to prose, but what it does well, it does incredibly well. It’s terrific to see how it can enhance and sharpen certain ideas, and I’m always a little more excited when I realize that an idea I’ve had could make a great play.