I was sent a review copy by those nice people at Le Clown & l'Enfant ages ago when it seemed like everyone was talking about it being the best book available for playwrights and screenwriters. I was sceptical but, having read it, believe the hype.
“I am convinced that the ability to write drama is much more widespread than is generally believed. I believe that all of us, if our minds have been properly nourished in childhood, are geared to story-telling. A combination of blocks, habits of mind, lack of self-confidence and the circumstances of time and chance prevent many people from developing this potential. My goal in this book is to help them overcome these obstacles and flourish as tellers of stories. Cinema and theatre depend for their health on regular infusions of new blood and new ideas.” Writing Drama, p29
The book starts with a brilliant historical analysis of the role of the writer and a comprehensive exploration of how the auteur theory came about and a dismissing of it. Lavandier also shows how the exalted status of directors has damaging consequences. It’s inspiring and makes you proud to be a writer.
Lavandier explains how conflict is “the building block of drama” He touches on how conflict can mean actual conflict or the prospect of one (i.e. a danger, a risk, a threat, etc.). Conflicts are essential for plausibility and interest.
Sophie’s Choice is given as example of conflict that doesn’t work. I do see that choice as the ultimate terrible conflict but he points out it was only revealed at the end of the picture. The conflict has to work for the character involved but the audience needs to be aware of it as well. He goes on to say this applies in general in that characters have to react in a psychological true way to conflict and the audience need to see that to be involved.
Lavandier sums it up thusly:“A character seeks to achieve an objective but encounters obstacles which gives rise to conflict and leads to emotion, not just for the character but also for the spectator.”I reckon if you accept that alone then you are halfway to becoming a good writer.
This chapter gives a simple definition, cutting away the chaff of other theories to leave what is useful and practical. We can’t help seeing the protagonist as a single character for example but Lavandier has a section giving examples of collective protagonists.
While a guru may ignore something that works which contradicts their theory, Lavandier is happy to point out the exceptions to the general principles and explain why they worked. Rather than feeling forced into some rigid paradigm where things have to happen by a specific page number, Writing Drama gives the tools to be original and successful.
In real life we have several objectives, sometimes simultaneously but in writing drama, Lavandier believes the protagonist must concentrate on one single objective that is difficult to achieve. He explains the various different types of objectives and the four essential conditions for the objective’s effectiveness.
In this section Lavandier suggests that the quality of the work depends on the quality of the obstacle and although there can be one general objective there can be several obstacles to its achievement.
The section is amazingly comprehensive, like all of them, starting off with defining internal and external conflicts, creating an understandable definition of melodrama, discussing the MacGuffin in its historical context and defining it so it's useful now, explaining ‘what’s wrong with deus ex machina?’, dealing with the antagonist and the villain and ends by looking at suspense and dramatic questions raised in the audience’s mind.
Each chapter starts with a load of great quotes, the characterisation section includes one by Charlie Chaplin: “understanding people is the basis for all success.”
As well as the usual comprehensive look at creating characters, Lavandier has some useful tips on what to do when we’re bogged down by a character that rings false such as “making the character represent someone you know”.
He gives a long list of outstanding characters in past drama and then explains what they have in common.
The section on structure follows the basics as he believes “the mechanisms of structure derive logically from the basic mechanism of drama”.
Lavandier then discusses the three-act structure and is perhaps at his most controversial here because he’s strictly going by what has worked historically and what makes logical sense but that conflicts with Sid Field in particular.
It is traditional that the third act is what happens when the objective has been achieved or abandoned – an epilogue. Sid Field’s paradigm has the third act made up of the resolution and the epilogue but Lavandier says Field never explains why that resolution has to be separate to the traditional second act.
Lavandier gives the example of Field’s analysis of Rocky which is impossible to argue with as it doesn’t make sense and so is difficult to use as a guide for your own screenplay. The way Writing Drama explains it does make sense.
Lavandier points out that the different gurus use the same films as evidence for their own particular completely different paradigms. He leaves the reader to decide what works best for them. He explains other theories and gives various variations on structure, pointing out what’s useful about them and warning about what might not be so useful.
The rest of the chapter deals with plot points, the midpoint, the climax, inciting incidents, the different types of twist and endings – with a structural analysis of several films and plays.
As usual he gives exceptions to the norm or in his own words: “rules and when to break them”.
The next chapter covers the three unities: unity of time, unity of place and unity of action. While there is no need for a short time span for your drama or for a single setting, Lavandier points out the advantages of doing so. It’s actually only the unity of action that he considers essential. He believes every scene should be devoted to the protagonist’s objective and this is related to the single general objective thing.
Preparation, language and creativity
The next section deals with justification (or foreshadowing) where you ensure that the end doesn’t come out of nowhere. Equally if you set something up then it has to pay off as the audience is expecting it.
All that and we’re only half way through the book.
As with most things in this book I had a basic and limited understanding of dramatic irony. I used to think of it mainly in comedic terms but Lavandier’s first example is of a child carrying a parcel, but the parcel is a bomb. The child doesn’t know this but the audience does. A character lacking important information creates conflict or possible conflict.
Lavandier gives loads of examples for film and stage and explains how it works and the different applications of it – which lead him naturally into a detailed analysis of the mystery, suspense and thriller genres.
Interestingly he quotes someone saying tragedy is about the human aspiration to higher things and that comedy is about mocking the human limitations. As usual the philosophical and historical context at the beginning of each chapter is fascinating but it does move practically on to “how comedy works” and what doesn’t work and why.
Lavandier acknowledges that theories aren’t going to produce good jokes but believes there’s value in understanding how it works and I agree. You may be lucky in scripting a laugh a minute screenplay right off the bat but if you’re not then knowing how to make your script funnier is always going to help.
Lavandier explains how each scene is a mini-narrative and how the three-act structure is used on a scene by scene basis as well. I agree that thinking in this way ensures your scenes aren’t flabby and pointless.
This is a “spoken account of events as compared with a visual representation”. He believes because it is literary rather than dramatic that exposition should rarely be used as the audience doesn’t like it. He then goes on to show how you can make exposition acceptable if you have to use it. This section includes an analysis of flashbacks and which types work and which ones don’t.
By this Lavandier means “any action, gesture or set of gestures”. Considering how the vast majority of our communication with each other is visual, it's surprising how this area is often neglected.
He also explains why, when a scene can have more than one meaning, it is important to state what the correct meaning is. He gives an example of a scene in Cyrano de Bergerac where a character could be having a laugh or be deadly serious.
While placing importance on activity he also gives examples of where it is over-used. Classic ways of conveying meaning can sometimes become clichés. He then gives a few pages of good examples including the duel in Romeo and Juliet and Rose dancing in Titantic. He ends by discussing symbolism.
I’ll just quote the first paragraph:
“In terms of volume, dialogue takes up a large part of the written text of a work of drama. It is clearly the visible part of the iceberg. One imagines this is why so many writers devote so much of their time to it. It is true that writing dialogue is the easiest way to fill up 100 pages. It does not require an inordinate amount of skill – the minimum is an ability to speak. But what do 100 pages of dialogue add up to if, underpinning them, no work (or very little) had been done on characterisation, structure, preparation and activity?”
Oui! He believes that, in terms of quality, the other tools in the drama toolbox are more powerful. Lavandier goes on to explore the purpose of dialogue and all the various techniques including creating word pictures.
In this section he looks at visual effects, not CGI but like when Macduff and Macbeth are fighting as they go offstage and then Macduff comes back holding a severed head. Or at the end of Citizen Kane, the significance of the burning sledge.
He also includes the use of sound in this section and gives many examples including the sound flashback in Suddenly Last Summer and the classic movie The King of Comedy where Pupkin’s mom shouts off-stage to him as he “records” his show.
The book ends with in-depth analysis of the School for Wives and North by Northwest. There are other sections on writing for children ( “children deserve quality too”), short films, documentaries, reading a play or script (essential for script readers).
There is also a chapter of workshop exercises to reinforce what you have learnt, as it’s only by applying the knowledge that it’s going to sink in.
This is where he has his final say beginning “the techniques I have described in this book may not suit everyone but they should enable most writers of drama to tell a story effectively.”
Lavandier is right in that it won’t suit anyone, it’s nearly 600 pages which is scary if you’re not a regular reader - which I'm not. I had to pay attention but it was actually time well spent. What made it an easy read was that it's simple and logical and put everything into context.
I particularly like the extensive use of references not only from films and plays but from other sources.
Although I read it from cover to cover I expect it will also be useful for just dipping into when re-writing or trying to avoid the common pitfalls in a genre he covers.
Writing Drama is academic but accessible, it is philosophical but practical, it is educational but entertaining. It is now my favourite book about writing and so is very highly recommended.