Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Plot Structure: Key Terms

Most plays begin with an EVENT: a unique and significant moment in a character's life (or characters lives). In plays all scenes should be thought of as "events".

Events can be almost anything: an unusual incident, a special occasion, a sudden visit, or any kind of crisis.
An event that starts off the play is called the inciting incident: the point of attack, the turning point in the life of one or more of your characters. Some playwrights call this moment the "disturbance". Whatever term you choose, you want to start off your story with a strong reason for the events in the play to occur. As the play continues (particularly in plays with more than one scene) more events may occur in a story. The inciting incident is the first one.
A protagonist usually confronts the inciting incident from a position of weaker power or disadvantage. Starting with a protagonist who has all his stuff together, who can easily defeat or solve a problem, makes for a boring play.

The beginning of a play ends when the protagonist(s) make(s) a major decision. This major decision should set him or her or them on a collision course with forces that will oppose and perhaps destroy him/her (aka: antagonist). This should be a decision. A decision to act, a decision that causes the antagonist to confront the protagonist, etc. A major decision makes a protagonist active in the plot.

The inciting incident and the major decision help to create the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION: MDQ. The MDQ is, as stated earlier, the question that keeps an audience interested in the plot of your play. The MDQ is also attached to your overall theme. For example: MDQ: will action (and therefore revenge) be possible for Hamlet? Will Brick disclose his true feelings for Skipper & will Maggie find a man to truly love her? Will Willy Loman go mad or succeed in committing suicide? Will Blanche DuBois depend on the kindness of strangers? Will Romeo & Juliet be able to be together despite their families' feuding?

The middle of a play is fraught with a series of obstacles (rising action). During the middle, you need to pay attention to the 3 C's: conflict, crisis, and complication. These 3 C's will lead to the dark moment of your play (more on that later).

Conflict can be person vs. person (often true in plays), person vs. self (also common), person vs. society (common as well if done correctly), and person vs. nature (God, etc.) (not as great, but some plays do this one perfectly.) The more interesting the conflict the more interesting the play. Crises and complications cause the conflict to be more interesting. The crisis is a critical moment--a place in time for the protagonist to act, make a decision--that usually has consequences. Complications are problems (usually unforeseen) that arise to thwart or challenge the protagonist.

Writing: Today in the lab, please work on your plotting. Add scenes to your original draft, try to include an inciting incident, various events, a major decision for your protagonist, and consider your major dramatic question. Introduce conflict, crisis, and, of course, complications. No one likes to guess the ending at the beginning of a story.

If you rebooted your scene or 10-minute play (you are working on a new idea) keep writing, but also keep the same concepts in mind as you build your play. Please turn in your plot chart(s) or graphic organizer(s) as participation credit.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Play Scene/Project #2

Take a few minutes today to respond to The Nerd on the forum. Please answer the question there. Some of you have not yet completed your analysis of Talking With or Death of a Salesman. These assignments are past due and should be done asap for minimal credit. Don't forget to complete your forum homework! It's important that you analyze and work with concepts we cover in class.

While you are completing your write-up on The Nerd, I will be passing back your first scripts. These are not written up and workshopped yet. As we talk about the construction of a play, we need to consider the major elements of effective drama. They are:

Plot and Character.

While we have begun a variety of character exercises, we haven't really talked much about plot during this course. So: today let's talk a little about plot.

What to do?
1. Using your previous scripts, consider whether your story is completely told, or whether you can flesh out the story by adding scenes before or after the action you originally wrote.
2. Consider the placement of potential scenes.
3. Use one (or more) of the graphic organizers to plan a larger story than the one you originally wrote in draft one. Complete the graphic organizer with your play's plot in mind.
4. You may use additional character graphic organizers, if you wish for other characters.
5. Use your graphic organizers to continue your scene. If you decide to start from scratch again (you have a better idea or want to work on a different story), complete steps 2-5.

Use the remaining time in class to write. If you are continuing your story, change the draft # to draft #2, but keep a separate file for your draft one. If it's a new play, then it's draft one.

HOMEWORK: Please read the article and take notes on key concepts. You should note and identify: the event, the inciting incident, plot elements, the major decision, the major dramatic question, the point of attack, and the 3 C's: conflict, crisis, and complication.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Larry Shue: Part Two!

Today we will read quite a bit (if not all) of Shue's play: The Nerd. As you read, please consider Aristotle's basic elements of a play. Let's critique poor Larry Shue's play with ancient Aristotelian criticism! (Getting you ready for AP Lit).

Does Shue's play have:

1. An effective plot?
2. Interesting or compelling characters who are risking something?
3. A message or theme about the human condition (love, life, nature, death, etc.)?
4. Diction (dialogue) or effective language use?
5. Spectacle?
6. Music or melody?

Does it also adhere to the unity of:

Let's read and find out!

HOMEWORK: If we do not finish the play today in class, please complete reading for homework.

Play Structure

Ever wonder about the spelling of playwright? Why not playwrite? Well, it's because a "wright" is someone who builds. The idea is that a playWRIGHT carefully constructs and builds a play. We craft plays, not just write them.

Way back in antiquity, Aristotle (that famous Greek philosopher) wrote a book called The Poetics about how to write a play. He said that every play needs the following elements:
1. Plot
2. Character
3. Thought (by which he meant theme)
4. Spectacle (special effects, props, costumes, scenery, etc.)
5. Diction (effective dialogue)
6. Song (music)
Apart from #6, all plays usually include these things. Musicals, film, and opera incorporate all of the elements rather effectively. Most contemporary plays include non diegetic sound between scenes or before an act to set a tone. Dialogue can be beautifully written (and with enough imagery and detail) can come close to song.

Not that Aristotle said this directly, but somewhere along the line, particularly in the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, critics began to update Aristotle. They came up with the concept of the 3 Unities: 1). The Unity of Time, 2). The Unity of Place, and 3). The Unity of Action.

TIME: plays should only cover a small amount of time (usually within 24 hours)
PLACE: plays should be set in locations that could easily be reached within a short amount of time (no traveling halfway around the world!); usually one setting was preferred
ACTION: Thou shalt not mingle comedy with tragedy. Also, only one plot line. KISS (keep it simple, stupid!)

Add to this the concept of verisimilitude (the semblance or appearance of truth), and characters should act according to their economic station, i.e., a prince should act like a prince, not like a pauper.

Without structural unity, a play falls apart when performed for an audience.

We know that a play needs conflict because all plays involve human struggle. That's what they are written to examine. A playwright is like a philosopher in that all effective plays (even the funny ones) deal with human struggle and use human themes to communicate the human condition. Plays are an attempt to understand some truth about humans and our world. Make sure your play speaks to this tradition.

Today, make a mind-map or web of human struggles or themes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Larry Shue's The Nerd

Please turn in your homework notes: Structure: Part One: Story & Plot 

This morning, let's start with a little character design exercise.

Afterward, please read a little about the playwright Larry Shue. We will be going down to the library to pick up the play The Nerd.

Here is the first few pages of the Nerd in a high school performance. Note the staging and acting in the play as you read along with your scripts. What changes or what details does the producer/director/actors keep true to the script. What details do they change? Why do you think there is a change?

After viewing and discussing we will gather in small groups to continue reading the play.

HOMEWORK: Please complete your reading of The Nerd.

Monday, September 17, 2012

BOA Editions: Poetry Reading Opportunity!

We have been given 10-15 tickets to attend BOA's annual fundraiser Dine & Rhyme. Featured poets are Dorianne Laux and Nin Andrews. They will also be reading from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, a recent BOA publication.

The event takes place this Sunday (September 23) at 3:00 at the auditorium of the Memorial Art Gallery (right next door to us).

If you are interested in joining us, please let me or Ms. Gamzon know ASAP so we can reserve you a ticket. If you go, you will get extra credit.

Structure: Story & Plot (part one) & Aristotle

Please read the article handed out to you in class today: Structure: Part One: Story & Plot (part one) and answer the notes from your reading. Please read the article, don't just hunt and search for answers. You will need to know WHY these things are true and if you skip about, you will miss much of the reasoning (and thus will not learn what I need you to learn). There is no short cut for excellence!

But first: Let's get to know an old friend and his advice about playwriting.

Aristotle’s Poetics (circa 330 B.C.E.)

Aristotle Introduction

Here's a 20 point summary of the first established literary critic's masterpiece "The Poetics" by Aristotle.
1. People like to imitate and learn.
2. Arts (Epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, flute-playing, lyre playing) are all modes of imitation. Just as color and form are used by artists, the voice, language, and harmony are used singularly or in combination. IE. Theatrical arts are REPRESENTATIVE of reality, not reality in and of themselves.
3. Objects of imitation should be above our common ilk; characters in a play/subject matter should be of high quality (and scope).
4. Poetry soon broke into two parts: tragedy/comedy. Serious poets would write about serious subjects; Humorous poets would write about frivolous and happy subjects.
5. Tragedy originated out of the dithyramb (choral ode); Comedy out of phallic songs.
6. Aeschylus limited his chorus, introduced the “second” actor, and made the dialogue take the leading part of the play.
7. Sophocles introduced the third actor.
8. As tragedy deals with noble subjects, comedy imitates men worse than average.
9. Tragedy is different from epic (although both are serious) in length, in one kind of verse (narrative form); epic includes tragedy, but tragedy does not necessarily include epic.
10. Aristotle’s six parts of a play:
a. Plot
b. Character
c. Theme (Idea)
d. Spectacle
e. Melody
f. Language (diction)
11. Plays should have a beginning, middle, end
12. Plays should not include so much as to bore, or too little
13. It is better in a tragedy for a good person to come to ruin, rather than a bad person
14. It is better to create catharsis from language and plot, rather than spectacle
15. Characters should have a discovery (peripety) (plural peripeties)
16. The chorus should act together as a “character” and integral to the whole
17. Characters should act according to verisimilitude (semblance of reality).
18. Diction should be clear, correct, poetic, but not inessential.
19. Plot should be made up of probable events
20. The poet, being an imitator (like a painter) must represent things either as they are, or as they are said to be, or as they ought to be – which is accomplished by skillful use of language to create a catharsis in the viewer of a play.
HOMEWORK: Please read the article and answer the questions for next class. You will turn in your notes sheet for participation credit.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Play Assignment; The Premise, Draft One

In the lab today, please continue to develop and write the scene you started the last few classes. This is our first official play assignment for the course. Use your monologue exercise if possible somewhere in the script, if you can. Edit and revise your ideas to make any of the components you have started in your notebook or from exercises into your scene.

As stated last class, create a 10-minute play or scene (somewhere between 3-10 pages). Try to give your play a clear PREMISE. Work on your play in the lab. It is due at the end of class today. When complete, please print out and turn in as DRAFT ONE.

If you have Death of Salesman done (some of you did not post your homework, so tack that assignment on as late this morning, but finish your play draft first, as it is more important) I can return your books to the library for you.

HOMEWORK: Please read the post above this one concerning structure. For homework (or if you finish your play draft early) please read this article and answer the questions posed to you for next class.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Death of a Salesman: Part Two & the Premise

Writers usually start out with an idea: often from their own experience or knowledge. We can experience life either directly or indirectly. Directly from our own experiences. Indirectly from viewing life from someone else's eyes. We get ideas for plays from our own life, from reading or watching other plays, watching people in conflictual situations, talking to people about problems, listening to or reading the daily news, learning about conflict and issues that cause conflict in school, from books or articles we read, or conversations we have or overhear. In other words, writers get ideas from everywhere. It is helpful to pay attention to the world in order to get an idea for a scene or play.

An idea is not enough on its own though. It must serve a theme or a writer's deeply held belief. The starting point and core of DRAMA is what is called THE PREMISE: an organizing principle that defines everything in a play. It is the central idea of your story. The moral or punchline to its joke.

Some questions to ask to help you form a premise as you are writing:
  • What's the point of my play?
  • What am I trying to say about the human condition?
  • What am I trying to make the audience see or feel?
A premise should be a clear sentence or statement reflecting your belief(s) about life or the subject. It is effectively the WHAT of a story. Why are you telling this story? What are you trying to communicate?

LAB WORK: In the lab today, please continue to develop and write the scene you started last class as an exercise. If you can, or wish to, you may also find a place to insert your monologue. Edit and revise your idea to make any of the components you have started in your notebook or from exercises into your scene.

Write to create a 10-minute play or scene (somewhere between 3-10 pages). Try to give your play a clear PREMISE. Work on your play in the lab. It will likely be due next class unless the class is not working to complete the assignment or everyone has finished. When complete, please print out and turn in as DRAFT ONE.

Forum Post: Please post a response to the forum by Monday, September 17.

Death of a Salesman is often seen as an American Tragedy. Some of the characteristics of a tragedy include: a). a bad end for our protagonist, often brought upon by fate or a bad decision, b). the arousing of pity and fear (catharsis) in an audience, c). a protagonist who is virtuous or relatively good or well meaning, and d). a conflict that overwhelms the protagonist or tragic figure.

Please respond to the play. Choose a character in Death of a Salesman and explain how this character is involved in this tragedy (what the character's role or purpose is in causing the tragedy) or shows him/herself to be a tragic figure. Try to think critically. Willy Loman, for example, is usually considered the tragic hero in this play, but what of Linda or Biff or Happy? These characters suffer through the end of the play, whereas Willy is gone and dead. Make an argument using relevant textual support. Try to avoid repeating the same ideas of your classmates. I am looking for original and critical thought.

HOMEWORK: Please complete your reading (Death of a Salesman/Talking With), and respond to Death of a Salesman on our forum by next class.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Scene Exercise: Using Who, What, Where & Death of a Salesman

This morning, let's take a few minutes to complete a writing exercise. After the exercise, we will take a look at Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Read about Arthur Miller here. Along with playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Miller is an American treasure, well regarded for his creative voice. His influence is seen in many contemporary theatrical productions.

Take a moment to read the stage directions description, then look at these production stills of the set for Death of a Salesman.

Some guy's review of a recent production of Death of a Salesman by director Mike Nichols.

After viewing these things, we'll go next door and begin screening Death of a Saleman. While this was made for CBS in 1985, starring Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid, and Charles Durning, winning a Drama Desk Award for excellence, note how action seems a little more cramped than a film setting would be. Remember the stage set pictures you viewed earlier. It is safe to say that theater productions are a little more intimate than films or t.v. movies. There is something lost between the audience and actor when watching a film or movie. In a theater there is almost an imperceptible electricity between actor and audience.

As you watch ACT ONE of Death of a Salesman, take note of the characters you meet and the major issues or problems they are having (the WHO & the WHAT). Make a list of characters' names and goals in your notes as you watch.

HOMEWORK: Please READ Act Two for Thursday. It is important that you see the words on the page in the script. We will see a little more of this film production, but not all of Act Two. You will be required to write about this play on our forum, but not just yet.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Who, Where, What in Playwriting

The essential building blocks of a scene (even in fiction or poetry):
A. Who: the characters
B. Where: the setting
C. What: the dominant image you hold in your mind (like a theme or main idea)

Writing Activity:
1. Write 3 WHO's in your journal/notebook
2. Write 3 WHERE's in your journal/notebook
3. Write 3 WHAT's in your journal/notebook

FAQ: Do I have to turn this brainstorming in? No. Keep it in your journal. You will use it sometime somewhere in this course or future courses.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jane Martin & Talking With

Read about Jane Martin here.

Please view the following clips and refer to the script Talking With.

As you watch these scenes from Talking With, pay attention to how the playwright engages the audience and tells an interesting story that develops the single speaking character.

Clear Glass Marbles (monologue, page 19-22)

Audition. (monologue, page 25-27)
Notice how this one uses nice camera work, although cuts part of the monologue text.

Rodeo (monologue, page 31-34)

French Fries (monologue, page 61-63)

Marks (monologue, page 67-69).

After viewing and reading this play, please post a response to it on our Creative Writing Forum. Posts to our forum should be completed by the end of class.

Your response can include answers to any or all of these questions:
  • What did you think about the play as a whole? Did it surprise you or please you or frustrate you? Explain why you reacted to the play in this way.
  • What is the premise of "Talking With"? In a sentence or two, explain what you think is the premise or main idea/theme of the play. Is this premise interesting? Do you think people would pay to see this play?
  • The "audience" for each character changes as the play continues. How does the author help a viewer or reader understand who the character in question is "talking with..."? Overall, by the end of the play, who do you think the playwright Jane Martin is "Talking with...?" Support your opinion.
  • What challenges and stage requirements are necessary to produce this play? How has Jane Martin anticipated a low-budget, black box theater being able to produce her play? What did you learn about staging from the monologues you read and watched?
  • Why are the monologues in the order that Martin puts them? What is the reason to start and end the play with the monologues she does?
  • After reading about Jane Martin, what amuses or interests you in her as a writer? How might the idea of "Theatricality" (artificial life involving conflict) infuse the script and the whole experience of seeing this play on stage.
WRITING/HOMEWORK: Please choose a WHO from the lists and exercises we have been doing in class, and a WHERE, and a WHAT. Use your WHO WHAT and WHERE to create a monologue. The length of your monologue is completely up to you, but it should reveal the character, perhaps tell a story, or involve a plot or goal for that character. It should have a beginning, middle, and end just like a good short story written in 1st person should.

Begin your brainstorming and pre-writing first, then use the rest of the time in the lab to complete the assignment. Whatever you don't finish, please complete as homework. The monologue DRAFT is due Tuesday, September 11.

Character Brainstorming: Part 2

Plays are written for actors to perform. A playwright must always remember this important distinction. Try to make all your characters different and interesting in some way.

Look at the following actors. Create a character for each actor to play. Include a name, occupation, age-range, and short background for each character. Think about your actor. How will the actor enjoy playing this role? Is the character interesting or challenging enough? Will it be a juicy enough part to entice a well-known actor to play the role? Will the role be worth the time (and money) for the actor?

Please complete your four characters in your journal or notebook during class.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Character Brainstorm & Talking With

Looking at pictures and watching people can be a goldmine for character building. As a playwright, one of the most important tasks you will have to accomplish is creating interesting characters. Boring characters make for boring plays, so it's helpful to have a few ideas about character design before jumping into the pool of monologues, scenes, and plays.

Task #1: Brainstorming Characters:

IN YOUR JOURNAL, NOTEBOOK, or on PAPER, please complete the following exercise. DO NOT TURN THIS IN. Instead, you will use it for our first writing assignment.

Please take a look at the photos of people below. For each photo, give the person a name, age or age range, and 1-sentence physical description. Follow this up with a 1-sentence goal or urgent desire.

For example:

GEORGETTE MINSKY, female, age 25-30. Georgette always wears a baseball glove (even to church) and too much lipstick. She wants to witness a miracle first hand or at least win her minor-league softball team's championship trophy in memory of her dead grandma.

Create a character for any 3 of these pictures (you may do all of them, if you'd like):

Once you have completed this exercise, please begin reading Talking With by Jane Martin. As you read, pay close attention to how the playwright uses conflict, language, and a character's desire or goal(s) to move the action of the story forward. Choose one of these monologues (there are several in the play) and write out your answers to your observations. Hand this in as homework participation next class (as well as finish reading and thinking about the play).

You may read alone, or with 1-2 partners. Read until the end of the period please.

See post below for homework details.

Welcome, Class of 2014

Welcome back, class of 2014. I hope you all had a restful and enjoyable summer. But here we are again. This year is partly devoted to writing scripts (both theatrical and for the screen). What you learn here can help you improve your fiction "dialogue" skills, examine the use of conflict in your plots, play with language and poetry, as well as make you a better psychologist (dealing with people in crisis), all the while honing your writer's craft and developing your writer's voice.

Today, after reviewing the course criteria and updating your computer passwords, we will get started on a couple assignments to begin this course.


Check this blog each class period for agendas, deadlines, educational information, advice, and a whole lot of links to enhance your education. All you have to do is read and click. You are responsible for reading and interacting with the material I post on the blog.

If you're absent or missed something in class, please check the blog to get caught up. As indicated above, each new class period usually includes a new post. If you have a question about an assignment and are too embarrassed to speak to me in public (or you have a question that you think you will forget to ask), feel free to use the comment section.

On our link page you will also find some useful tools for this course. The foremost is a link to our Creative Writing Forum. You will be expected to use the forum to discuss the major reading and thematic topics in this course. Electronic forums save paper. You are keeping the world green by posting responses and reflections there.

The links also include a variety of things, but for now, you do not need to worry about them. During the course I will direct your attention to these tools for your use in this class and for use in Contemporary Writers.

Today, let's begin playwriting with a character building exercise. You will need a notebook, paper, or computer file to jot down some character notes. See post above this one for further details.

When you have completed your writing, please get together with a friend (or two) and begin reading our first play: Talking With by Jane Martin. More about this play will be detailed next class. Please complete your reading of the play script by Friday, September 7.

HOMEWORK: Read Talking With by Jane Martin and the article by Jean Claude Van Italie. Complete character brainstorm exercise in class.

The Murky Middle (Even More Advice)

Aristotle wrote that stories should have a beginning, middle, and end. Middles can be difficult. You might have a smashing opening to a stor...