Monday, August 28, 2006

Stakes and Playwriting

I'm going to start out by quoting a far better playwright than I:
The "work" you do "on the script" will make no difference. That work has already been done by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author. The lines written for you should be said clearly so that the audience can hear and understand them. Any meaning past that supplied by the author will come from your intention toward the person to whom they are said.
-- David Mamet, True and False
(If you haven't read True and False you really owe it to yourself to do so immediately. It was published the year I graduated college, and I wish it had been published four years earlier. It would've saved me a heap of grief and student loans to boot. There's a link for the book on Amazon to the right under the heading "Required Reading.")

The playwright is god, literally and figuratively. The universe created on the printed page exists within the boundries set by the author, and contains only those things he or she puts into it. Directors can add things on and take things off, Actors can "tweak" things and alter lines. Well, guess what: The play lives on to be taken up again by other directors, other actors.

Quick: Who wrote Hamlet? Okay, who originated the role of Hamlet on stage?

Exactly.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: as Spiderman learned, with great power comes great responsibilty. Nine times out of ten, if the play is really good the performers will absolutely vibrate and glow and the audience will have an enjoyable time. If the play sucks, it will take heroic efforts on the part of actors and audience alike to make it through the damn thing. "The play's the thing" to quote the Bard out of context (just like everyone else who quotes that line).

So how do you write a really good play? I'm still working on the answer to that. There is a formula of sorts that I use that I believe shows the way to a really good play. Here it is:
Act I, get your guy up a tree; Act II, throw rocks at him; Act III, get your guy out of a tree.
-- Julius J. Epstein, playwright and screenwriter
Or as my dear, former acting teacher Lynette McNeill would paraphrase "run the lovers up a tree and throw rocks at them." The idea is to never give your characters a moments rest. Just when they think their luck is turning for the better, beat 'em around some more. In other words, UP THE STAKES.

We have this lovely thing called a "classical paradigm" first elucidated by Aristotle some twenty-three hundred years ago. Basically you have an introduction, inciting incident, building action, climax and denoument. From this we derive our "three-act structure" which any fifty cent paperback book on writing can tell you all about. Any two-bit hack with a laptop loaded up with Final Draft can follow the paradigm and tell a decent story. But we don't want to write a decent play, we want to write a really good play.

"Throw rocks at him."

Let's take a decent plot-line: An American cyclist defeats all odds to win the Tour de France. Yay. Let's throw some rocks: A promising, young triathelete and amateur cyclist is diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. It's spread to his lungs and brain and his chances for survival are slim at best. He undergoes surgery and chemotherapy and miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. The cyclist resumes training, in spite of being abandoned by his sponsor, and goes on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.

Okay, it doesn't have to be a dramatic, underdog tale of Lance Armstrong proportions. It could be as simple as a psychological/semantic word game that escalates to violence (Ophelia) or a tale of two brothers who get under each others skin to wild and unpredictable extremes (True West). How about a couple of nutty Broadway producers who keep digging themselves deeper and deeper (The Producers) ?

Heaping on the troubles makes life easier for the actors. They don't have to "work" so hard, they simply have to commit every ounce of their being to the journey the playwright has mapped out. That's fun; that's playing.

"Throwing rocks" makes life easier for an audience, as well. Look, we don't go to the theatre to witness the mundane and everyday. We can get that at home for free. We go to the theatre for drama. We go to be moved, to be shook-up, to laugh, to cry, to be appalled, to be delighted . . . we go to experience a life we can't (or don't want to) experience in the real world.

"Throwing rocks" aligns with something I wrote in an earlier post about commitment. It's about raising the stakes. Do it, and we'll all vibrate and glow.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I submitted my play for the contest yesterday. Huzzah! I already got the receipt confirmation from them. They said that the contest is for performance in early 2007. Here's hoping they don't extend the deadline again so it doesn't become 2008.

I was going to start on my second play yesterday but we only have one computer at home. Andrew's employment hunt is a little more pressing than my second play for a contest that ends in December. If we bump into each other at the home computer again, I'll grab the notecards and work out my plot.

Here's a teaser: There's a zombie attack. They chase the blood-covered survivors to a cabin. The only person they don't try to attack is the naked guy. You see where this is headed?

Zombies + naked people = w00+

Friday, August 04, 2006

I'm still waiting for Andrew to format my play so I can submit it to the contest. He's been busy the past two days writing a short film. Maybe this short film can get him some PAID writer work. I'd hate for him to sell this idea, though. It would be a lot of fun to shoot ourselves.

Maybe I'll write another play over the weekend for the contest so he can format that one as well. Might as well pile him up with work. I think this one will be about zombies and naked people - a winning combination.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How to Pretend You're an Expert

"Write about what you know," they say. Yeah, right. If every person brave enough to lift pen to paper took that advice, we would be living in a world without The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The truth is, it is often necessary to write about stuff you know very little about. I've developed certain tricks in this direction (honed through four years of a liberal arts education) and I'd like to share them here.

"Everyone is an expert at something" some smart bald guy once said. I believe that specifics are at the core of effective characterization, and you can't get much more specific than one's personal pet hobby or interest. I also believe that people are most easily definable by their actions, and expertese in a certain field infers a wealth of action that the audience can fill in.

If a character on stage describes in detail the feeling of an AK-47 recoiling, and how it differs from the recoil of an M16 -- and that character happens to be a buttoned-down stay-at-home-mom -- I believe you have a compelling characterization on your hands. Okay, that's an extreme example, but maybe you get the idea?

Here's the bulleted list:


  • KNOW HOW TO RESEARCH
What tangents should you follow? For me, it's like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. Take some piece of data that jumps out at you and follow it down. I use Google and Wikipedia as my primary tools of reasearch. Hey, you don't really need to know how to perform brain surgery, you just have to make the audience believe that you do!

There's a great line in the Lost pilot where Jack describes a botched spinal surgery. He accidentally sliced open a sack of nerves and the nerves "spilled out like angel hair pasta". Is there any doubt that the man knows what he's talking about?

My #1 research tools are Google and Wikipedia. Thank you Al Gore for the internets!

  • KNOW THE LINGO

This actually applies to the above, but it is important enough to warrant its own place on this list. Every specialized activity, be it motocross racing or cross-stitching, has it's own vocabulary. You don't have to learn the whole language, just the most important, most frequently used terms. (How many times have you heard a doc on ER say the words "intibate" or "crash cart"?)

It is helpful to actually know what these words mean, if you're going to use them. I find that carefully study of a dictionary for these unfamiliar terms sometimes yields further tangents for research. Online, I prefer Dictionary.com and Wikipedia.

  • RELATE WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW TO WHAT YOU DO KNOW

A well used metaphor goes a long way. It covers up the fact you don't really know what you're talking about, and it can make the foreign field of study more real to the audience. "The problem with the car was the throw-out bearing. It made shifting gears feel like pulling teeth."

  • HAVE AN IGNORANT CHARACTER

This is really simple and basic. It's done all the time, and only occasionally is it done well. By having to dumb everything down for a character who doesn't understand what's being said, you can get away with presenting less actual technical jargon. The idea is to give a bit of highly technical data, and follow it up with completely pedestrian explanations.

Take Ian Malcolm describing chaos math in Jurassic Park: "It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. Its only principle is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine." Ellie makes lead paint faces. Malcolm breaks it down with a pretty steamy bit of hand holding and suggestive word play. Well, he does the best job of hitting on Ellie that anyone can expect of a mathematician. A nice subtle shift from technical mumbo-jumbo to a simple, sort of sexy, Bill Nye the Science Guy-type explanation.

  • KEEP IN MIND MOST FOLKS DON'T KNOW AS MUCH AS YOU'D THINK

Egotism prevents most folks from admitting they don't understand something. They'll go along with you (to a certain extent) on the off chance doing otherwise would make them appear foolish. You see this a lot with people in a position of power who just aren't up on the day-to-day operations of the folks lower on the totem pole. This is a basic human urge you can exploit. There's a great corollary to this:

  • FILLING IN LOGICAL BLANKS IS A NATURAL HUMAN ABILITY
But it depends entirely upon the suspension of disbelief. If you can accomplish the latter, the former takes care of itself. Plot holes? What plot holes? The only real trick is to give enough "space" around the plot hole for the audience to cover it with their own "logical" explanations.

When an audience becomes so engaged in something that they're actively using their own imaginations and faculties for logic, you wind up with an even more engaged audience. Yep, plot holes can be a good thing. This helps explain how some of the most god-awful books, movies, and t.v. shows wind up well-beloved classics. Take soap operas. I rest my case.
  • THE REST IS JUST ARTFUL DODGING AND WINDOW DRESSING
It's a fan dance. The audience knows that the character is an expert because they keep seeing flashes of it. Just like you know the girl is completely naked because those fast-moving fans keep giving you glimpses of the goodies. The thing is, the fan girl never drops the fans. Be coy. Tease the audience.

For further illustration, here's an excerpt from my play Torrid Affaire:

JONAH
You’re married? I had sex out of wedlock with a married woman? I’m an adulterer. You made me into an adulterer!

CHARLENE
It just happened so fast . . . I was caught up in the moment . . . My husband . . . You don’t understand.

JONAH
I’m not as dumb as you think. You lied to me! You led me into temptation! You cuckolded your husband, you . . . you . . . Jezebel!

CHARLENE
I am NOT a Jezebel!

JONAH
Jezebel!

CHARLENE
No! If anything, I’m a Salome. I danced for you.

JONAH
Who’d you behead? Huh? Me . . . or your husband?

CHARLENE
Wait, no . . . I meant to say I was a Bathsheeba. I always confuse the two. You know that.

JONAH
Not much better! Ha! And I suppose I killed Urias when I made love to you?!?

CHARLENE
You may be my King David, but Doobers is no Urias.

JONAH
Doobers? Doobers? Doobers is Urias. I made love to his wife. I killed Urias! I’m going to Hell, because I had carnal knowledge of you!

CHARLENE
No you’re not! It’s not your fault!

JONAH
It’s just my mortal sin!!!

I am no Bible scholar. I happen to be a preacher's kid, but he's not that good a preacher and I'm not a kid (insert rimshot). This scene brought down the house, and so perfectly defined the two characters - in particular Jonah, the seminary student. It's not a very subtle application of my advice, but I think this scene gives a pretty good idea how all those points above can be applied.

I'm doing a similar thing with Sonny, only it's not the Bible or sex toys I'm writing about, it's animation. So far so good. The animator I invited to the reading a few weeks back gave me a pass on the believability of the character who's an animator. He faulted my knowledge of lemurs, however, which just goes to show (one last point):
  • IF YOU DON'T KNOW SOMETHING FOR SURE, LOOK IT UP
No blind guesses. All it takes is one factual slip up, and you've knocked down the house of cards you've labored so long and hard to build. So be a careful researcher and don't fall into the ego trap of "I know all about this."
Well, I hope this has been somewhat enlightening. Now go and WRITE SOMETHING!