Art of Dramatic Writing, Part 1

Dramatic Writing 1

People ask me how I developed my ideas and theories about writing for theater and the screen.  They often ask where they can go to get more information and develop their own deeper understanding of the craft of screenwriting.

Three Basic Rules

I start by telling them my three essential rules:

  1. Put your butt in a chair and write. Every day.
  2. Read professionally written and sold scrips. At least one a week.
  3. Read “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri.

The Best Book Ever (In my humble opinion)

There are a lot of great books by many “Story Gurus.”  There are some great websites by world famous screenwriters, as well.   They are informative, educational, entertaining and excellent resources for writers at all levels.  But for my money, “The Art of Dramatic Writing” is the single best book on how to write dramatic material in any media.

About the Author, Lajos Egris

Lajos Egri came to the US from Hungary in 1906 and worked in a New York garment factory as a tailor and presser.  In 1927, Rapid Transit, Egri’s expressionist play, was translated from Hungarian and produced in New York. The New York Times described the play as “chaotic at times, but sporadically interesting.” Egri also wrote the satirical comedy Believe Me or Not (1933), Tornado (1938), This is Love (1945) and The Cactus Club (1957). His one-act Hungarian plays include Satan is DeadSpidersBetween Two GodsThere Will be No Performance, and Devils.

Egri taught courses in playwriting, first in New York and Los Angeles. Over the course of his life, Egri worked with other hundreds of playwrights and screenwriters, including Woody Allen.  “I still think his The Art of Dramatic Writing is the most stimulating and best book on the subject ever written, and I have them all,” Allen told biographer Eric Lax.

The Art of Dramatic Writing

Originally publishes in 1942 under a different title and republished in 1942, TADW lays out the essential core elements that every well-crafted script needs to include.  For the modern reader, the book includes a lot of examples from theater that now feels antiquated.  If you find them hard to get through, skip them and stick to the text.  The lessons are invaluable.  Every one of his principles stands, today.

Sharing It With You

In honor of Egri, I’m going to dedicate this month to sharing with you the ideas and theories found among the pages of TADW, what I consider to be one of my most treasured resources.

For those of you who don’t have time to read the whole book, here’s a quick synopsis of the key points.  Apply this to you work, and you’ll see changes in your writing almost immediately.

Premise

All humans crave attention.  Everyone one of us.  Even if we don’t know it.  This urge to be outstanding is necessity in our lives.  Even for the shy and the introvert.  This is what compels us as human beings to take action.

But for every action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite action pushing back on that action.  In this resistance is complications are created and tension generated.

Another aspect of the human experience is that we cannot act unless we have a thought in our head.  Everything we do or say starts with an idea or impulse in our brain before it becomes realized as an action.

In other words, everything has a purpose or a premise.

It is the goal of the writer to find the root idea that begins the process

It Defines Your Characters.

This premise is what determines who the characters should be in your script.

Characters in a play do things for reasons of their own.  Defining your premise clearly enables you to choose characters who the have the rights needs and reasons for pursing their goals.

The reasons behind the events are what interest us.

In the end, what holds the reader’s attention and empathy is why a character acts not about how.

Every play, screenplay or teleplay must have a well-formulated premise.

A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play.  Once you have a clear-cut premise, you elaborate on it, providing the details.  Your goal as the writer is to prove it.

The premise stated should suggest character, conflict and change.

Whenever you present a dramatic story: a story in which a Protagonist is in conflict with an Antagonist, you are dramatizing an argument.  Your protagonist’s journey embodies the world as you, the writer, wish it could be; and the antagonist’ journey embodies the world as you perceive it to be.  Thesis; antithesis.  And like an argument, with the climax comes a synthesis of those ideas — the change at the end of a story.

The premise you choose for your script should be a conviction that you believe.  You must take a stand and make a statement.  It can be subtle or overt, but without the writer having a clear point of view, your the reader will not know what to focus on as events occur.

In other words without a clearly defined premise it is impossible to know your characters.

The premise is the conception, the beginning of the play.  The premise should not stand out, turning the characters into puppets and conflicts into obvious, mechanical set-ups.

In a well-constructed play, it is impossible to recognize where the premise ends and the characters begin.  It is your job as the writer to create characters who are well-rounded.  But they must also be characters who dramatize the premise of the play.

Creating the Premise

When thinking about the premise for your script, you want to structure it in such a fashion that it defines your two main characters — your protagonist and antagonist.

It should also imply the conflict and resolution.

For example, Romeo and Juliet.  People often define the premise of the play as “Love conquers all.”  In the dramatized world of the play that is true.  But from that premise, there is no way to determine what the dramatic structure of that play might be.

Romeo is the protagonist.  Clearly, he represents love.  But who is the antagonist…?  In this case, it’s society as embodies by the parents of the two families.  What do they represent?  You can define it many ways: bigotry, tradition, narrow-mindedness, etc.  For this exercise, let’s go with bigotry.

Looking at Romeo and Juliet through the Egri’s lens, you would conclude that the premise is: “Love conquers bigotry.”

And what happens in they play.  Romeo and Juliet die as star-crossed lovers, and the families learn a lesson about the error of their ways.  Going forward, they bigotry has been defeated.

Try to figure out what the premise is of your script.  After that try to figure out the premise of some of your favorite movies.

Next week, we’ll look at what Egri has to say about characters in “The Art of Dramatic Writing.”

 

 


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