March 24, 2014 by Sam Graber
I’ve made the decision. It’s a rather bold decision. It’s time to tell you about it.
In addition to supporting a ban on baseball games over three hours, no rights on red, and on novels with sensational titles and alluring jackets which have nothing to do with the content inside, I’ve decided that the federal government needs to pass a law banning use of the word ‘plot.’
Not a ban on the word ‘plot’ itself because I never want to retire words, horrid as they may be. I mean a ban on the use of the word ‘plot’. I mean playwrights would be better off if this word was never allowed by law to be spoken again in professional context. I mean I put the work-related mention of ‘plot’ right up there with speaking aloud the name of certain Scottish plays.
So again, if you’re just joining us, and still a little murky on what’s going on, playwrights around the world (read: me) are endorsing a government-enforced ban on use of the word ‘plot’.
PLOT = WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Let’s say you’re working on a script. You’ve got a rocking Act I and a strong start to Act II but all of a sudden, WHOA!, the mental brakes hit hard. You’re faced with a stoppage. Fret sets in. You start ‘thinkering’ (a word I just came up with that also should immediately be banned) (possibly the subject of a future blog entitled ‘Portmanteaus Are Evil’). The long stoppage evolves into a major roadblock. The roadblock grows into unbreachable walls. Your fret has become full-time panic. You’re entering delirium trying to figure out what happens next in your play.
Brother, I hear ya’. Sister, I feel your pain. You’re stalled asking the big question: what happens next?
Plot is the technical behemoth commonly known as what happens next. I’ve heard from many writers who tell me I’m not alone succumbing to the catastrophe of doubt when embarking on a new play. There’s a paralysis that comes with ‘Act I, Scene I’ staring us in the face, regardless of whether a full outline or beat sheet preexists. The plot monster rears its head.
What happens next?
Today it is so easy to feel overwhelmed by plot. We’ve all seen the tightly-woven drama that is cleverly structured. We’ve all been cowed by the play that gives surprise with almost every other line. I admit I get intimidated by this. How do I give similar thrills to an audience? How do I impress with deft marvels of plot?
The problem I’ve run into of late has been, what I like to call, chasing plot. I tend to cling to incident-based theater, or beat-based theater. My style of playwrighting puts characters amidst some functional situation where an external or driving force causes them to make decisions. The force mandates characters to reveal themselves through decision response. In a sense, my style of writing is this-then-that theater.
I’ve found it to provide a serviceable modicum of captivation. However, I’ve also found that audiences of live theater are ultimately looking to go past plot. Plot can only get you so far. A play driven by plot instead of character is a play that inevitably loses the audience, especially by that halting lurch in the middle of Act II referenced above.
So while my personal craft of playwrighting leans towards this-then-that incidence, the theatrical impulse originates from the voices inside my head. I tend to trust—
WAIT…did Sam…just write…that he hears voices? Ummm, that’s weird.
Hold on, it’s not like a symptom of a mental illness here, I mean that the way I write is I feel the characters speaking in my head. I tend to trust these voices are fully formed characters trying to speak to the world, and not simply haywire filaments of deluded imagination. They happen to be channeling my consciousness to get the story out on their behalf. Maybe that does seem weird. But any creative I’ve ever worked with says the same thing, that the impulse just appears in their mind.
The professional dilemma I face is how to posit a powerful and emotionally-compelling way to transmit these characters to live audience. When I strap myself into the ride, I acknowledge there are thousands of ways to do this. And given how much noise and storytelling is already out there, and how much pressure I put on myself to succeed against the fray, I fall into the trap of trying to up my game with plot. I fall into the trap of chasing plot.
THE LOUD GUY AT THE DINNER PARTY
I was recently at a dinner party when someone I didn’t know that well impressed upon me his knockout idea for the next great play. SAM, he said to me in that loud way that lets you know he’s talking to you but speaking to everyone, I’VE GOT A GREAT IDEA FOR A PLAY. (Let me pause here to assure you this was a real person and not a voice inside my head, thank you very much.) So the guy screams to me that his job is running those free-sample stations at the grocery store, and boy does he have a fresh vanload of astounding stories that could be woven into a great play. THINK ABOUT IT, SAM.
Totally. I’m on it. Going off-Broadway next year, trust me.
You can take all your hilarious setups and funky settings, you can have all the stage dress and spectacle money can buy, but to me you cannot masquerade character. Production values can be fascinating, of course, but the kernel of theater which truly pops is the kernel of character. Who are the characters we’ll be watching? Do we care about them? What is their struggle?
The golden rule I try to follow is that character rules. Otherwise I have plot driving character instead of character driving plot. Character desires and flaws should spark my action. When I already have premise and setup, when I already have conflict and driving question, I just need to mine story from my characters themselves. Otherwise, I get stuck relying entirely on this-then-that theater. It’s theater which is built upon the clever twist, and while that kind of device is entertaining, I’ve found it isn’t sustainable.
Here’s a little tool I’ve come up with to beat story out of characters. My Character Cross (file that trademark, baby!) is for building what happens next.
Let’s say the loud guy from the party has a point. Just to show I have an open mind if not a deaf ear, let’s pursue his idea. Hey, I feel sorry for those people handing out free samples at Costco. They can only work as fast as the microwave but there’s Needy Ned with his Cart-O-Bigness in Aisle 4 bitching about the next batch of fried skunk tenders not being ready for two more minutes at least. If you can imagine. I’ve seen people cobble an entire lunch from free samples and it is not pretty.
Step One: build basic characters. Let’s say three characters. One is the boss, shaky, mercurial, scared of customer food poisoning, continuously sampling the samples for possible contamination (leverage for laughs). Second character is a grandmother who recently lost her husband, the love of her life, and now she’s trying to avoid the trappings of loneliness, she talks too much to the customers. Third character is an immigrant, optimistic, chatty, a stitch scatterbrained, dreams of becoming a direct diamond importer, the first big account will be Costco.
Step Two: deepen characters. Brainstorm adjectives describing each of the three characters. Get them going forward and backward. See how the characters tie into the overarching premise. How do the characters stand for a broader message?
Step Three: create the Character Cross.
Each box represents struggle. As I wrote above, where is the struggle? Yes, our characters cross against themselves because all characters struggle against themselves. Go creative and cultivate where the problems arise in each of their struggles. The biggest clash, the biggest problem, is where theater can ripen and turn golden.
This is how I’ve been trying of late to come up with ‘plot’. Because to me ‘plot’ is not plot. Character is plot. Character is story. Character is action. The sooner I stop saying the word ‘plot’ the sooner I focus on character.
Overall, I’m not stating this is how theater should or must be written. This is simply how I approach theater. This is the kind of theater that engages me. It’s not for everyone and I recognize that.
We’re all trying to push forward our art. The big idea is a powerful calling. But what do we potentially sacrifice along the way?
Because when one strained plot follows another it turns into something worthy of a different kind of plot – a hole in the ground where dead things get buried.