Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternate Plot Structures

Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternate Plot Structures

To Aristotle With Love: We’re Done

 

So many contemporary playwrights claim to have “broken up” with Aristotle.

 

As in, “Ari, we love you and all, but you’re so old school. We’re done.”

 

The energy of the “action plot,where a protagonist has a goal and takes action to obtain that goal, is the plot of Aristotelian tragedy, and the most common organizing principal used when plotting.

 

Whether structured as an episodic early point of attack plot or crafted as a climactic late point of attack plot, it’s still following an active protagonist through his idealized “want” to achieve (or not to achieve) his ultimate high stakes goal. We identify with the protagonist on some level as our “hero,” and experience his journey vicariously through that emotional identification.

 

This is the plot of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the most common plot structure taught in grad school, film school and found in myth and novel from contemporary times to the days of the Greeks.  But it’s far from the only way to construct a plot.

 

Alternative Plot Structures

 

Searching for other structures, I came across film theorist Charles Ramirez Berg’s article A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” 1

Berg noticed a trend of an increasing number of modern films that didn’t fall under the dominant energeic plot paradigm. He decided to classify films by these different plot types, and has come up with twelve categories, suggesting that this is just the beginning and not an all-inclusive list.

In theater we know that many types of plots exist, and though character goals can be a part of these plots, it’s not the only way in which to plot a story. But I found Berg’s attempts to categorize them fascinating, and great food for thought.

According to Charles Ramìrez Berg, films can thus be divided into 12 categories, arranged into three main groups based on the ways they deviate from the Hollywood paradigm:

  • plots based on the number of protagonists
  • plots with nonlinear temporality
  • plots that violate classical rules of subjectivity, foregrounded narration, and the narratives of goal-orientation, causality, and exposition.

 

PLOT BASED ON THE NUMBER OF PROTAGONISTS

1) The Polyphonic or Ensemble Plot – multiple protagonists, single location

2) The Parallel Plot – multiple protagonists in different times and/or spaces

3) The Multiple Personality (Branched) Plot

4) The Daisy Chain Plot – no central protagonist, one character or prop leads to the next

PLOT BASED ON RE-ORDERING OF TIME; NONLINEAR PLOTS

5) The Backwards Plot

6) The Repeated Action Plot – one character repeats action

7) The Repeated Event Plot – one action seen from multiple characters’ perspectives

8) The Hub and Spoke Plot – multiple characters’ story lines intersect decisively at one time and place

9) The Jumbled Plot – scrambled sequence of event motivated artistically, by filmmaker’s prerogative

PLOTS THAT DEVIATE FROM CLASSICAL RULES OF SUBJECTIVITY, CAUSALITY AND SELF-REFERENTIAL NARRATION

10) The Subjective Plot – a character’s internal (or “filtered”) perspective

11) The Existential Plot – minimal goal, causality, and exposition

12) The Metanarrative Plot – narration about the problem of movie narration

Different Plots, Same Dramatic Needs

 

Instead of a particular plot structure, let’s talk about serving the dramatic exigencies demanded by plot:

  • a dramatic arc that grounds the audience in a particular world (the beginning),
  • gradually builds in emotional intensity (the middle)
  • to a climax where certain “truths” are revealed and understood by an audience, and in that understanding, the dramatic action is resolved (the end).
  • It’s about the journey that you take the audience on, and how you make them feel on the way.

 

It’s how you make them feel.

 

I’ve seen circular plots revisit an action three times, each time ramping up the emotional intensity for the audience with new information; it works. I’ve read plays that were more character studies than plays, but the structure worked because the character was approached from different perspectives, each one more intense than the one before. It was very interesting. (Admittedly, this works better for plays than musicals, which need clearer plots and subplots to be successful.)

 

An audience goes to the theater to experience something different from their own life. As long as a play takes the audience on an interesting journey, holds their interest and engages their emotions or their intellect in an enjoyable (not confusing) way, plot structures can and should be as inventive and creative as possible. There’s more than one hero’s journey.

 

So – have I encouraged you yet to play around with structure? Take Berg’s 12 categories and start brainstorming.

 

What structures would YOU like to experiment with? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

1A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” Charles Ramírez Berg, Film Criticism, Fall 2006; 31, 1/2; ProQuest Direct Complete pg. 5

 

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Story vs. Plot

Story vs. Plot

Where in the Story Does Your Plot Start?

 

A discussion about the difference between plot vs. story is anything but an academic question. Instead, like most talks about structure, how a plot is designed defines how the audience experiences the story.

An early point of attack gives you the musical Les Mis, where you see the epic story in its totality play out in front of the audience. There is little or no need for exposition, since the audience sees every important moment play out in front of their eyes.

A late point of attack gives you Oedipus Rex or just about any contemporary drama or musical that you can think of.

 

Plotting Your Story

 

The “wright” in playwright means “maker.” It is useful to remember that plays are constructed; they have a shape that is chosen for a reason by the author.

A story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happens next.

A plot, by contrast, is carefully constructed by the writer to create meaning out of those sequence of events. A playwright sifts and sorts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to create a certain experience for a certain audience.

This is the craft of playwriting . There’s a reason that plot is #1 of Aristotle’s six elements. A writer uses his or her own unique perspective to create a meaning, a message, a takeaway for the audience. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist.

And a weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.

So let’s ask the question again: Where in the story does your plot start?

 

Early or Late Point of Attack?

 

It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play today you have to “get in late and get out early.”

In other words, start the plot or scene as late in the action as you can, show the action, and then get out of the plot or scene as quickly as possible. This is how most contemporary dramas are built, with a late point of attack. (Classical plays also have a late point of attack,fyi.)

This climactic structure with a late point of attack allows the plot to focus on building the “suspense,” or on engaging the audience’s attention in an entertaining way while playing out the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story. A late point of attack begins in the midst of the conflict, and we find out important details about the past on the way to a much greater conflict in the rising action.

Contrast this structure to the opposite, the early point of attack. In Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the action covers many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure like this unfolds scene by scene onstage, with little backstory. It too has a dramatic spine, but this plot takes us from the very beginning of a story and allows us to experience each moment leading up to the main climax for ourselves, with little to no exposition needed. Shakespeare also uses an early point of attack, as his average play length was three hours. (You can show quite a bit of history in three hours.)

Plots with early points of attack tend to emphasize the past, and understanding the causes of events that took place. Those with late points of attack seek to make us understand the dynamics that lead up to a conflict and the repercussions that followed.

One is not better than the other. It is simply two ways a playwright can attack a story.

 

A Writer’s Checklist: Plot

 

A plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and a blueprint for what you want your audience to experience at the end. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events.

Here’s a quick Writer’s Checklist for Plot:

  • Get in late, get out early
  • Stasis: start right before the inciting event. Identify the world of the play and start the action quickly.
  • Inciting event: generally happens within the first 10-15 minutes of a play or musical.
  • The inciting event immediately launches the rising action, the journey the hero undertakes to get what he wants.
  • Clarify wants of the main characters early in the play and their obstacles by the first 20 minutes.
  • Midpoint reversal
    • Surprise twist – end of Act 1 in musical, and halfway through a play
    • New goal or intensified goal accelerates the action
    • This could be a subtle event, even an internal (psychological) reversal
  • “11:00 Number” traditionally occurs right before the climax (in musicals) for fun or theatricality
  • Climax, with an anagnorisis (where the hero and others fully understand where the journey has brought them or taught them), and a peripeteia (a reversal of some sort), which brings about an emotional catharsis in the audience.
  • Resolution – plot points are resolved logically (no deus ex machina)
  • The Finale (in a musical) delivers the theme in a rousing tune that stays with the audience as they leave the theater.

 

Helpful?

 

Are you writing a play or musical? Would you like someone to look over your script, or to help overcome writer’s block?

I’d love to speak with you. Email me at cate@createtheater.com or post a comment below.

 

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Writing Active Dialogue

Writing Active Dialogue

Let’s Get Some Action Going

 

Have you ever been reading a script when the action suddenly felt clunky, heavy-handed or, even worse, stopped mid-scene?

Probably it was the result of poor dialogue.

Like everything else on stage, dialogue must push the story forward and reveal character, plot points and exposition on stage. When inexpertly done, the action drops dead on its feet. Poor dialogue makes the audience disconnect, makes the plot unbelievable and results in actors overreaching in their attempts to make their character come to life.

It’s the worst.

 

The Rehearsal Process in Development

 

Recently I was directing a new play by a young, inexperienced playwright who was clearly overwhelmed by the production process. In a particular scene the actors were presented with some very poetic, very flowery dialogue. It was beautiful prose, but it definitely wasn’t something that would come out of anyone’s mouth.

My actor was talented and experienced, and everyone in the scene tried really hard to make this dialogue work – but it was extremely difficult to justify these words on stage. Our many suggestions for a modification of these lines were all turned down, and so we were left struggling with a very clunky, heavy scene that stopped the action mid-play. Not great for a comedy.

What to do?

 

Active Dialogue is not Prose

 

Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that diction was the 4th most important element of dramatic action. Although Aristotle seems to infer that diction was more part of the production process than the writing process (more pertinent to the art of the actor than the art of the poet), he also defined diction as the metrical composition of the play, the way that spoken language is used to represent the characters themselves.

Diction is the actual composition of the lines spoken; if Aristotle’s “thought” deals with what is said, then diction deals with how it is said.

In other words, Aristotle’s diction we now call dialogue – not only what a character says but how he says it. If the words don’t sound believable coming from a character in this moment, it is not good dialogue. If it sounds good on the page but completely wrong when spoken out loud, it is not good dialogue.

Prose is not good dialogue, no matter how eloquent it appears on the page.

 

How to Write Good Dialogue

 

Dialogue isn’t an issue with writers who know their characters. If you live with your characters for any period of time, you can write dialogue that accurately reflects who they are and what they’re thinking.

In writing dialogue, use this as a checklist:

  • Dialogue must accurately represent the character in terms of background (geographic, socio-economic, era, age, time of day and state of being)
  • The structure, or meter, of the spoken dialogue must stay true to the overall structure inherent in the play (that is, whether the play is written in verse, is a sung-through musical, is sparsely written with minimal lines, composed of long monologues, etc.) and true to the rhythm, pacing and tone of the script
  • Great dialogue reflects the internal action, or psychological action, of the character in that moment. What does the character want right now in this scene, in this beat, in this moment in time? It gives insight to the character through both psychological and physical choices, and changes to reflect a different intention.
  • Active dialogue moves the story, or the plot points, forward in every moment.

 

Is This Really How People Talk?

 

Always give yourself a reality check: is this really how people in the world of my play talk? Are these lines moving my plot forward, revealing something about the character or giving important exposition that the audience needs to know? Is it structured in a pleasing way? Typically, long monologues tend to stop the action, as will flowery, detailed passages trying to pass as dialogue.

So what happened in the rehearsal room after that? As a director it is my job to justify the words of the playwright, no matter how expertly (or inexpertly) written they are. My choice was to tweak the action of the character to read word for word the flowery prose from her journal, to reveal the “hidden poetry within her soul.” Since this character wouldn’t speak like this, I had her write like this to reveal something hidden within.

The audience bought it, enjoyed the scene and gave accolades to the young playwright. A job well done.

Ah, the hidden art of the director.

 

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on the Creative Team

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on the Creative Team

What if I told you there was a way to jumpstart your NPD process at a fraction of the cost of a staged reading?

There is a way – a standard protocol that’s used by almost every serious producer and significant regional theater out there, including NYMF, Disney Theatrical Group, Davenport Theatrical Productions and many others.

So what is that “secret sauce”?

They all put a dramaturg on their creative team. 

And so should you.

 

What is a Dramaturg?

 

I am a dramaturg. I am typically that smart person on the creative team whom no one is sure exactly what I do because I seem to be everywhere and do everything. This is not unusual for a dramaturg. Maybe that’s why there’s so much confusion around the term.

A dramaturg is a senior member of the creative team who works with the writer on the script and then functions as a “resident expert” on the play. They sometimes remain on the production team to help maintain focus on the message of the text and to advocate for the intentions of the playwright during the production process.

 

How I Work as a Dramaturg

 

I work in NYC as a freelance dramaturg, director and producer with a focus on developing new plays and musicals. As the Literary Manager for a non-profit producers’ organization called Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU), as the Associate Artistic Director of the Rhymes Over Beats Hip Hop Theater Collective, as the Dramaturg for MusicalWriters.com and as an independent commercial producer for my own company, I work with writers to develop their work through writers’ groups, by leading workshops, and by working one on one with writers to create new work.

This is what I do all day, every day: engage with writers on their creative process, work with them over a period of time to help them structure their script, craft their message, make it relevant for today’s audiences and then guide them through the submission and production process.

Including a dramaturg on your creative team can save you time and money and allow you access to a dramaturg’s resources and networks. Best yet, it will give you an experienced and trusted theatre consultant as you head toward the production of your script.

So in my best David Letterman imitation, here are my top five reasons to put a dramaturg on your creative team!

 

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on Your Creative Team:

 

Reason #1: A Dramaturg is Objective

 

As every producer knows, a writer is often the last person to understand what his play is really saying to an audience. They’re simply too close to the work. Every script can benefit from a new set of experienced eyes.

So many writers I’ve worked with walk away from our first conversation with new “a-ha” moments: new insights, new understandings, new messages, and sometimes new plot structures to better communicate their ideas in their script.

A dramaturg should be considered as a “first audience” of a draft, and their feedback as an expert theatremaker is invaluable, especially in the beginning stages.

Just ask Disney – their dramaturg and literary manager Ken Cerniglia was the freelance dramaturg for Hadestown, and the first-ever dramaturg to receive a shout-out at the Tony Awards.

 

Reason #2: A Dramaturg Saves Money

 

Quick survey: would you rather hire a dramaturg for a script evaluation or produce a staged reading to make sure your play “works”?

Well, that was a trick question.

You’ll end up doing both, of course. After your first initial table read, or “pizza” read, many writers believe the next step is to spend between $5000 or more on a staged reading to see how an audience reacts to their work.

Hold on, there.

Hiring a dramaturg for a script evaluation costs much less than a staged reading, and by getting feedback from a trusted source you may get that all-important first audience reaction at a tremendous savings.

Talk with the dramaturg first before the staged reading.

 

Reason #3: A Dramaturg is a Resource

 

Most practicing dramaturgs have either a M.F.A. in dramaturgy, a vast amount of dramaturgical experience under their belt, or both. Utilizing them opens you to their knowledge of structure, theatre history and theatre-making experience, and may add fresh ideas to your own.

Even if you have a M.F.A. in playwriting, you can still profit from a set of objective eyes on your work (see reason #1). Theatre is the ultimate collaborative art, and being open to talking about your work privately with a dramaturg is a first step.

You never know what new exciting ideas may develop until you have these creative conversations about your work. Welcome them. Invite the dramaturg into your process.

Also, with the dramaturg as a senior member of your creative team, they will invite others in their network (usually other theater people) to your staged reading.

Win-win.

 

Reason #4: Using a Dramaturg Opens a New Network to Development

 

And that is another key reason to include a dramaturg: they’ll help you gain access to their network. You’ll meet a whole new set of experienced theatre people who will want to hear about your show.

You don’t have to sit around and wait for your local theater to “discover” you. Why not hire their dramaturg as a freelance consultant? You can get their ideas and maybe gain an “inside advocate” at your local theater at the same time.

I always advise playwrights to be proactive in their quest to get their work produced. Don’t be passive; get out there and find new ways to access the gate-keepers. It’ll do wonders for your self-esteem and your work.

 

Reason #5: A Dramaturg Can Become a Trusted Production Asset

 

In a regional theater, dramaturgs and literary managers forge a critical link between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities. Dramaturgs often work with various aspects of the production, such as crafting educational materials, creating marketing copy, facilitating conversations amongst the artistic team, and running a post-show discussion. If it needs to be done for a production, chances are a dramaturg can do it.

And they can do it for your production as well.

Often I’ll initially be hired as the dramaturg, but as my relationship with the writer grows I might then become a director, an executive producer, or a consultant on the team. I may help to create the show’s logo and website, to identify and develop an audience engagement plan, or sit in on some marketing conversations. I may even end up producing the show Off-Broadway.

I am always the advocate of the playwright and of the playwright’s intentions for the play, and will protect the show from any overly enthusiastic director, investor, or producer that may want to “rewrite” the work. (As Bob Ost, Director and Founder of Theater Resources Unlimited often says, there are three innate human needs: food, sex, and re-writing other people’s work.)

That’s the role of the dramaturg, and the basis of my relationship with the writer.

 

If you are thinking about contacting a dramaturg I have some open availability in the Fall. Contact me at cate@createtheater.com and we’ll get together to talk about your script.