Friday, May 25, 2012

Mining Drama for Writing Gold

Many of you have heard me mention my experience with (as an actress for 20 years), and use of, dramatic literature as a tool in my own fiction writing. In my dialogue portion of a past workshop, I stressed how valuable I felt this experience was in learning to craft effective dialogue in fiction. As plays do not have narrative, the full weight of the storytelling lies with the dialogue. In my workshop on “voice”, I used the example of Shakespeare’s use of word choices in helping to define his characters including sibilant “s”s in Richard III’s dialogue, which lend a reptilian quality to his speech. And I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare’s deft hand with description – in the often used form of the prologues - as in this segment of the Act IV “Henry V” Prologue, in which we’re swept into the scene with just a few lines:

From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear, and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.

or a Chorus, as used in “Romeo and Juliet” to convey “fair Verona, where we lay our scene”.
In studying dramatic works, you can uncover helpful clues and guidance for every aspect of narrative fiction, from plot to characterization, to description, theme, conflict – in addition to dialogue. Plays are the short, sweet, easily dissected lessons to study that might aid you in your own writing.

My favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, provides a cornucopia of material for study. His plays represent storytelling of every stripe, including romances, comedies, tragedies, histories, and even paranormal tales. They’re rife with great ideas and examples for writers.
Look at plot. How many of you have been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”. Folks are asking you, of course, how you come up with your plots. I’m not talking copying, of course, or “stealing” the plots in their detailed entirety. But you CAN be inspired by elements found there.

You’ve heard the lament, “She stole my idea!”. But the fact that another author’s story has a similar skeletal structure – i.e. plot – should not concern you. After all, there are a finite number of plots and it isn’t the plot, but the full expression of your story adorning that plot – the story flesh on the plot bones – that make the difference between stories with similar plots. And if you pare down a plot to a one-line description? “Guy meets girl, they fall head in heels in love, but their families don’t get along. Can they overcome the objections to have a happy ending?” That can be the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” – or a contemporary romantic comedy set in 21st Century Manhattan. Though the number of plots are finite, I’m guessing the number of permutations manifest in those plots is not.

If you come up with some “blurbs”, it is easy to see the universality of plots:
“The eldest daughter of a wealthy nobleman is considered unmarriageable. He connives to get her married to a rich man from out of town. Will it be oil and water? Or will the two find love?” [Could be “The Taming of the Shrew” . . . or any number of Regency romances.]
“A murder victim’s son seeks revenge while the woman who loves him tries to hold onto his tormented heart. Will his obsession blind him to her devotion?” [“Hamlet” – or a romantic suspense thriller?]

“A sinister, powerful man is willing to murder to capture an innocent woman for his own. Will she survive his attentions?” [“Richard III”, or a Gothic romance, dramatic historical romance OR paranormal romance?]

“A lusty holiday celebration is the backdrop for mismatched lovers, jealousy, and woodland trysts. Will true lovers be united?” [“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or a Nina Bangs paranormal romantic comedy?]

When you boil down the most basic description of a plot it is easy to see just how interchangeable those basic elements can be with any genre, including romance!

In fact, there has long been debate as to how many basic plots there are. From a single, universal plot – as explained by Joseph Campbell, the “monomyth”, also referred to as the Hero’s Journey, to 3 plots (The Basic Patterns of Plot (Foster-Harris), 7 (The Seven Basic Plots: Stories and Why We Tell Them, Cristopher Booker) , 9 (James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure), 20 (Ronald B. Tobias’ 20 Master Plots), 36 (The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Ploti) and 69 (Rudyard Kipling’s though they were not apparently delineated).

“Romeo and Juliet” utilizes the time honored trope of the star crossed lovers as the crux of the plot. R&J is the classic, but the plot of lovers kept apart by some inexorable force, in this case feuding families, is absolutely paramount in every romance novel. There must be that almost insurmountable conflict that keeps the lovers apart, which keeps readers fretting that the love will not survive. (We know they will, but the best stories are the ones where we actually think they MIGHT not get their HEA!). Scottish historicals, for example would be lost without the use of the warring clans to which the hero and heroine belong.

I’m not advising copying from Shakespeare, but instead read through the canon in search of time-honored elements that you can adapt for your own purposes. The loyal best friend (Mercutio), the confidant or mentor (the Nurse), the sets of parents attempting to reinforce the conflict. Or a different sort of use. I recently finished reading a romantic thriller, in which the hero and heroine are separated - star crossed - by two segments of the enemy. The hero believes the heroine has been killed but a double-agent slyly lets him know the truth by referencing Romeo & Juliet – a clue that informs the hero while it appears his love is dead, she is not, so he fights on to rescue his woman.
If Shakespeare’s not your cup of mead, there are dozens of other playwrights whose work can serve this same educational purpose. Try Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”. Maggie and Brick are star-crossed lovers of a quintessentially American breed. Or for even more bite, Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with its “before” and “after” view of the dark sides of marriage. Or George Bernard Shaw’s Brits, Anton Chekhov’s earthy mortals, Sam Sheppard’s incestuous couple in “Fool For Love”, or Lanford Wilson’s tormented eccentrics, Wendy Wasserstein’s urbanites or Neil Simon’s comedic canon.

Trust me, there’s a play for every plot, and every taste. Each one a master class in storytelling.