The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Off the cuff thoughts on script writing

A dear friend of mine is steeling herself to attempt her first ever stage play. In response to this news I dashed off the following advice, which may or may not be worth preserving. You tell me:

-DO NOT fall victim to the temptation to begin the plot after we've "gotten to know" the characters. Whatever dark fates are aligning, whatever tensions are building, whatever motivations are about to clash and conflagrate into that blossoming thing we know as a story, that stuff is already going on by the time the lights come up. The King is already dead, and something is rotten in the State of Denmark. It is likely the characters simply aren't aware of it yet.

-Characters are the sum of their actions, their inactions, and how the other characters' desires shape their perception of that person. Leave the full-plotting of the inner life to the actors - if they are good they will provide a rich, rounded psyche which doesn't resemble what you had in mind anyway, but it's better. This is that "collaboration" thing you're going to suddenly discover you have a hard time with. Focus on what the character does and, perhaps even more importantly, what they choose not to do. Those are your building blocks.

-Almost all of the interesting characters I've ever seen have one thing in common - they are utterly and completely WRONG about their own deepest motivations and desires. Henry Higgins sings "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face", but we all know that's not why he's grumpy. Characters who stand around describing their own and each others' emotions ACCURATELY belong on "Dawson's Creek" - they are shallow and dull. Let them be mysterious, and contradictory, and blind to their own flaws.

-Drama doesn't happen when a character wants something; it's when he wants two things and can't have both. An audience will pay attention to find out how he settles this.

-Dialogue is the icing on the cake - literally the last 8 percent of the experience that sits on top. It can be sweet, and fun, and can beguile us into thinking it's the reason we're having such a pleasurable experience, but without the foundation it is shapeless, and will give you a tummyache. Dialogue is, fundamentally, a TACTIC for a character to achieve an end. Think of it that way, and you might start seeing all the other, NON-VERBAL tactics they also have available. Non-Verbal, in theatre, means "saves you having to think up something clever to say".

-At some point, you will try and make a character do or say something necessary to the plot and they will resist you. Cherish that moment, because you're on your way to figuring out what this story's ACTUALLY all about. Plus - you've gone crazy. This is essential.

-It is never bourgeois to ask yourself how long an audience would seriously sit still for this.


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