The Art and Craft of Playwriting
Aristotle defines drama as an imitation of an action. People performing actions. One action causes another. People doing. Good drama has an ordered narrative, or plot. Plot must utilize cause and effect. Actions cause reactions. Plot is the arrangement of actions in a play.
Drama examines human beings in extremes. Under pressure. In trouble. Within conflict. Keep your hero in trouble.
Good drama allows for some random acts, but don’t depend too much on coincidence.
Successful Drama works as follows: Conflict is incited, and is developed via action and complications to a crisis, which results in a climax. Finally, we have the resolution.
The cornerstone of dramatic engagement is suspense.
To insure audience engagement-
1- All your characters must compel the audience’s attention.
2- All your dramatic questions must have high stakes. The unraveling of the mystery must matter to the audience.
3- Your characters must pursue their goals.
Conflicts and Obstacles are essential.
Hitchcock describes suspense as the addition of information. The audience must know about the ticking bomb under the table where the men are eating.
Theatre is the human arena for our understanding of the human condition. It reveals human truth by allowing it to be exposed under conflict.
The Six Elements of Aristotle
1- Character. Interest is engendered by what a character does. Create characters that interest you. Passive is never interesting. Create characters audience can root for, or boo. Characters who take control of their own lives.
- Identification between audience and character is key.
- Strong character must define him or herself early in play. The I want moment. Conflict is born when two characters come up against each other.
- Concrete goals for character are better than abstract.
- Positive goals are better than negative.
- Most memorable dramatic characters are likeable. (Not the same as nice)
- Action is character, as character is action. We are what we do.
Character is displayed onstage by what a character says about him or herself, what other characters say about him or her, and most importantly what the character does.
Protagonist- Carrier of the action. Character must have strong goals, difficult obstacles, and also talents and opportunities.
Antagonist- Opposer of the action. Anyone or anything that tries to stop the protagonist. Might be another character, fate, oneself, a loved one, society, weather, a whale, etc.
2- Action. Plot is an arrangement of actions. Simplest way to describe your plot is to list every action in the play. An action must cause a reaction, or it is just an activity.
Unity of action- A good play has one central plot. The central plot line must bring all the other lines of action together.
Choices define character. Choices, or actions, propel further action, and lead to conflict and resolution. Actions must be believable.
3- Ideas, or Theme. The nugget. The idea of value we take home from the play
The best ideas come from ideas that are personal concerns of the playwright, or personal concerns of the audience. They are also best shown through dramatic action.
The author can either have his characters state the idea or theme overtly, or allow actions in the play to make the audience think of the idea. Allowing actions to speak for themselves is always preferable.
4- Language. What is spoken onstage by the actors.
Aristotle wrote about language as “tone, imagery, and sound.” Its power lies in its many incarnations onstage; as verse, metaphor, strophe, antistrophe, jest, rhyme, and epigram.
Good dialogue is action oriented. It must-
1- Deliver exposition. (What has happened)
2- Depict action. (What is happening)
3- Promise future action. (What may happen)
It is necessary that each character have a specific voice, or language. Dialogue helps define character, so each voice must be unique.
Use active verbs in your dialogue, as opposed to descriptive passages emphasizing nouns and adjectives.
5- Music. Music was an integral part of Greek Theatre. Not so much now, so we will stretch its definition to include sound. Think in terms of vitality, mood, melody, and how music can define a character even if no actual music is present. Silence, a la Pinter, can also be a form of music. Use your imagination in the way you incorporate music into your play.
6- Spectacle. What is seen onstage. What looks cool onstage. Spectacle makes audience say wow. Spectacle is firmly connected to the concept of the theatre as a place for seeing.
Great plays employ all six of Aristotle’s elements.
A play idea that suggests conflict is better than one that doesn’t.
A play idea that suggests a journey of change on the part of its characters is better than one that doesn’t.
A play idea that suggests theatricality is better than one that doesn’t.
Play ideas should have situation, conflict, journey, and theatricality.
Example- Two daughters battle over an estate at their mother’s funeral, resulting in one of them deciding to leave her loveless marriage when the ghost of the mother speaks to them from her coffin.
Idea sources are legion. History, contemporary news stories, your work and surroundings, your thoughts about politics and society, your life, family, and friends. An idea could also come from a premise, a moral, an anecdote, an overheard conversation, or an obsession.
Each action provokes a reaction. A good play will have a hundred or more actions. These actions will be linked from the beginning, to the end of the play.
Point of attack- Launching pad for play. The first action that changes everything. The ghost’s instructions to Hamlet.
Inciting incident- The action that creates a point of attack. Usually takes place before the action of the play. The murder of Hamlet’s father. You can delay the reporting of the inciting incident until the end of the play. Oedipus Rex would be an example of this.
Climax- Late in play. The action, or sequence of actions that resolve the conflict. Major combatants come to blows. Central dramatic question is answered. Hamlet kills Claudius.
Within the first few minutes of a well-constructed play the audience must learn-
1- Who the central characters are.
2- The core of the central dramatic action. (what’s the plot, what do the characters want, what stands in their way) This does not have to be spelled out, merely foreshadowed)
3- Tone. Serious? Comic?
4- Style. (Naturalism, realism, farcical, restoration, etc)
5- Design. (Abstract, bare, realistic, etc)
In general, plays should either begin bang in the middle, or give us a slow immersion into the action.
The middle of your play should be filled with two primary ingredients-
1- Forward moving action on the part of the main character(s). (Any direct or indirect action undertaken to achieve major goal)
2- Complications. (Diversions, roadblocks, opportunities, challenges, secrets, pursuits, revelations, reversals etc)
In general, the crisis comes at the end of the middle.
Ascension and grace. It is good to leave the audience with these two things. We like to believe in redemption and goodness asserting itself over evil. Don’t leave your bodies lying still, let them get up, dust themselves off, and walk off arm in arm. Metaphorically speaking of course.
Endings must- 1- Answer central dramatic question.
2- Answer any minor dramatic questions.
3- Provide a major action for the central character to perform.
4- Resolve the conflict.
5- Underline ideas of the play. (Theme)