How to Adapt a Screenplay into a Stage Play: Characters in Conflict

by Ty Budde - updated on June 13, 2022

In the first part of this four-part article on how to adapt a screenplay into a stage play, I discussed the major dramatic question—the soul of the story—and how a cinematic MDQ differs from a theatrical one. The second part turns from an observation about narrative to one about character.

Have a stage play that needs to be produced? Enter the ScreenCraft Stage Play Contest here.

Note #2: Characters in Conflict

There are five to seven kinds of conflict in storytelling (depending on who you ask):

Man vs. Self
Man vs. Man
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Machine
Man vs. Fate
Man vs. Supernatural

Both the screenplay and the stage play are most commonly based on characters in conflict—man vs. man. After all, it is the easiest conflict to see (that’s right, theatre is a visual art too!) and the cheapest to produce. But, like with the MDQ, how each medium approaches that conflict tends to differ.

In theatre, a writer often begins by developing each character’s super-objective (what they want in the larger context of their life) and objective (what they want in the story) and the internal and external conflicts they must overcome to achieve them. Characters with opposing objectives are then placed in scenes together creating drama.

Plays spend particular time on internal conflict that is revealed through dialogue and often symbolized by aspects of the set. Stephen Karam’s recent Tony-winning play The Humans exemplified this beautifully, with a two-level set that allowed the characters to retreat away from the action to struggle against their own demons.

Credit: Timeout


In a movie, a writer will develop characters much the same way, based on want and need, but the screenplay’s focus on the hero’s journey often leads to a more varied realization of external conflict.

Take Die Hard: John McClane’s super-objective is to win back his wife Holly and his objective is to defeat Hans Gruber (man vs. man). However, in most scenes of the movie, McClane is not in direct conflict with Hans, but instead with everything from broken glass to burly henchman. These are the escalating external conflicts that exist in so many movies, serving as stepping stones on the way to the ultimate protagonist vs. antagonist showdown.

Credit: Nerdist


 If Die Hard was a stage play, McClane might have spent much more of it verbally sparring with Hans over walkie-talkie, as Hans attempts to unravel McClane by delving into his separation from Holly and McClane’s own shortcomings as a man. (I think it’s safe to say that Die Hard and its characters are best suited for the screen…)

In order for a stage play to succeed, it requires complex characters with rich internal monologues, which makes theatre (at a minimum for a screenwriter) an excellent exercise in exploring and learning about the characters in your screenplay.

  • What are the super-objectives and objectives of your protagonist and antagonist, and are they in direct opposition of each other?
  • How can you adapt your screenplay’s external conflicts in each scene, embodying them in character instead?
  • In your stage play, how can you vary the conflict by placing your protagonist in scenes that reveal their own internal obstacles?  

Keep working on your stage play to for submission in ScreenCraft’s Stage Play Contest!

More from this series: How to Adapt a Screenplay into a Stage Play: The Major Dramatic Question, How to Adapt a Screenplay into a Stage Play: Rising Tension,  and How to Adapt a Screenplay into a Stage Play: About the Audience

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