General Messages, Playwriting, Promotional

Shameless Self-Promotion Corner

Hello gentle readers,

You may not know that my play THE BASEMENT COMPANY was recently published in a collection of 21 One-Act Plays by those wonderful Canadians at OAPD, whom I’ve worked with for the last 15 or so years.

I urge you to go over to Amazon.com and order this book on your Kindle or in paperback, read it, and delight in its contents. OAPD has been publishing some of the weirdest, wildest, and woolliest plays out there for the last few decades and they are simply the best kind of people to support.

Full disclosure, I personally do not make any money when this volume is sold, only when royalties are purchased. So you are not being roped into a ponzi scheme or anything. Just some good clean theater shilling here.

While you’re at it, check out their website at oneactplays.net, where you will find some early works from yours truly that rarely get produced (hint, hint), as well as some great plays from my contemporaries, mentors, and peers.

 

Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting

Playwriting and the Scientific Method

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

— Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein claimed that his famous theory of relativity came to him intuitively, and that music was his driving force. His parents started him on violin lessons at the age of six, and he credits his “musical perception” for helping him solve it, along with several other grand mysteries of the universe.

He was always an advocate of the arts, insisting that what artists do is not too different at all from what he and his colleagues did. In fact, many of his contemporaries had similar artistic hobbies:

  • Max Born (1882-1970), the German physicist who won the Nobel for his work on quantum mechanics, was also an avid musician. You might know his granddaughter, the multi-talented Olivia Newton-John.
  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988), an American physicist and Nobel winner who pioneered our understanding of thermodynamics, was a painter in his spare time, showing and selling his work under the pseudonym “Ofey”.
  • Max Planck (1858-1947), another German Nobel winner named Max, made groundbreaking discoveries about the behavior of energy. He was also an accomplished pianist and played with Einstein frequently.

And the list goes on. Our culture tends to separate science and art, but there is a reason the two are typically found within the same department at universities. As Einstein says in the top quote, they are different in name, but nearly identical in aesthetics, plasticity, and form.

Scientists use their imagination to create theories about the temporal world. Artists are the other side of that coin, using the same creative process to produce theories of the spiritual variety. The scientist hopes to understand what makes the universe tick, where the artist hopes to understand what makes the human heart tick. The physicist does not think only in equations, just as the writer does not think only in words. They are both in the business of creating ideas.

So now that we know this, how can it be applied practically? This is where the scientific method, the standard method for all scientific thought, comes in. Hopefully we all remember it from high school. It goes something like this:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test with an experiment
  5. Analyze data and draw conclusions
  6. Communicate results

It’s not just for folks in white lab coats. Any kind of art, no matter how abstract, requires a fundamental method to see it through to completion, and thankfully science has given us a solid foundation. To better illustrate what I mean, let’s adapt the scientific method to the craft of playwriting:

  1. Ask a question about the human condition
  2. Do background research and character studies
  3. Construct a first draft
  4. Test with an audience
  5. Analyze feedback and draw conclusions
  6. Rewrite and share results

The play development process is freakishly similar to the development of a scientific theory! As well it should be. It was designed to ensure strict objectivity, which is exactly what the playwright needs to avoid sanitizing the truth or injecting personal prejudices. A play is just as much a representation of truth as an equation, albeit in a far more entertaining format.

Just as a E=mc^2 can be universally understood and proven true over and over again regardless of time, so must a play aspire to be. So the next time you’re blocked or discouraged from writing, remember to put on your scientist cap and think like one. When you do it becomes easier to accept that finishing a play will take lots of experimentation, deliberate rigor, and many, many failures. It’s a feature, not a bug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playwriting

Using the “Rule of Threes” in Dialogue

Three is an important number to dramatists:

  • It denotes rudimentary story structure (beginning, middle, and end)
  • It denotes the magic act (pledge, turn, and prestige)
  • It is the simplest expression of imbalance and tension (being the smallest odd prime number)

We call it the “Rule of Threes” — Anything presented in groups of three will generally be more pleasing to an audience than any other number. But how does it actually work in practice? Let’s look at a great example, a simple joke in the opening of Woody Allen’s one-act play, God. Two ancient Greeks, an actor and a writer, are having a spat over how to write an ending for a play:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a starving, out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play in an effort to assist your comeback.

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a drunkard.

This joke is satisfying (to me at least) because it uses the rule of threes simply and to great effect. In fact we have three groups of three in cascading order. First, the writer levels three criticisms at the actor:

WRITER: May I remind you, you’re a (1) starving, (2) out-of-work actor whom I’ve generously consented to let appear in my play (3) in an effort to assist your comeback.

Next, he unpacks the joke with three affirmative statements in the following line:

ACTOR: Starving, (1) yes . . . Out of work, (2) perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, (3) maybe – but a drunkard?

The “yes – perhaps – maybe” is a motivated sequence that creates tension. We are filled with the suspense of threes and primed for the setup: the actor adds something that the writer didn’t say. Lastly, observe how he uses the Rule of Threes again to deliver the punchline, by repeating the adjective “drunkard”:

ACTOR: Starving, yes . . . Out of work, perhaps . . . Hoping for a comeback, maybe – but a (1) drunkard?

WRITER: I never said you were a (2) drunkard.

ACTOR: Yes, but I’m also a (3) drunkard. 

If you found this joke funny, think for a moment how it would play if it lacked this delicate balance of threes. I don’t think it would play well, or even at all.

Every line, better yet every word in a play is a choice that can either add to the drama of the moment or detract from it. This why the Rule of Threes is so critical to the craft. Audiences pick up on patterns of threes subconsciously, making them very effective agents of misdirection and surprise, the bread and butter of dramatic writing. Why do we all agree on the number three so much? Who really knows. But it works.

 

Playwriting

Secrets of the Storytelling Cycle

Everything in our natural world runs on a cycle — day to night, life to death, clouds to rain, etc. In thermodynamics we observe that the universe doesn’t really create anything new; it merely recycles the energy that it has over and over again through a complex feedback system. The entirety of life is a cycle that is repeated over and over again, eon after eon, extinction after extinction.

Cycles are important shapes for describing our world, so it stands to reason they should be important for telling stories about that world. In this blog I’m going to show you how to visualize your story as a cycle from beginning to end. Please direct your attention to this crudely drawn diagram I made in MS Paint:

Cycle Diagram

  1. The hero begins her journey like any other day. In the first quarter of the day, the sun is dawning. She trusts what she sees, everything is illuminated in sunlight, and everything is as it should be. Another normal day.
  2. At midday, when the sun is shining highest and brightest, the hero will be challenged to make a seismic change in her life. A “call to adventure” shakes off apathy and forces her to start looking at the world differently. Suddenly the sun’s light is a lie, and always has been. Appearances give way to the truth.
  3. As we reach the threshold of the night, things start to get a little scary. The hero must leave everything she knows behind to find the change she needs, and she is reluctant. This is the “point of no return”, the last few minutes of daylight where things still make sense. Whether she wants to or not, the will of the fates push her into the night.
  4. The hero begins her journey in earnest. Plunging fully into the night, she becomes lost in the nighttime realm of dreams, mystery, and magic. Nothing makes sense. Darkness slowly but surely envelops her. Strange creatures and monsters that only come out at night feed on her deepest fears and insecurities. It seems she has made a terrible miscalculation and is even more confused than before. She makes new friends along the way who help in increments, but it’s a hellish trip.
  5. Here we reach the nadir of the nighttime. It is the point where the darkness is darkest; hope does not exist. The hero begs the Gods/Fates for an answer but finds only herself. The monsters from earlier were just illusions — the real danger is the hero losing herself to the darkness. She must adapt or die.
  6. Once the ego trips and illusions of the daytime are fully crushed and there is nowhere left to turn, the hero stops looking outward for change and starts looking inward. In doing so she summons her inner “demon” that is preventing change. This is when the sun starts to rise again, and slowly but surely the light trickles in. The path to change becomes clearer and clearer as she climbs out of the darkness and pursues her inner demon.

Just before the dawn breaks and we return to position 1, the hero vanquishes her demon with some well-timed help from her new friends. The cycle is now complete and starts over. Except this time it’s much different — the hero has slain her inner demons and knows how to deliver change. Nothing will be the same, and when the sun fully rises, it brings a brand new “enlightenment” along with it.

Diagramming a story as a cycle is a simple way to help you get a better picture of your story structure. When you do so, you can bisect the circle as many times as you want to identify individual beats, creating a sort of drama color wheel. With it you can at least establish your 6 major story beats and gain some clues to how the character arcs should flow.

For a more in-depth look at cycles and how you can apply them to your own stories, I highly recommend Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 104 crash course at Channel 101 Wiki.