Category Archives: Structure

Does the audience mind about repeats?

I recently asked an author to revise a script before we would publish it.  The reviewer had liked the play, but felt that the same plot device had been used too many times.  In feeding this back to the author, we took the view that the audience would notice the repetition and think worse of the play for it: too much coincidence and not enough invention.

A couple of days ago, via an excellent production at the Plaza Theatre, Romsey, I reacquainted myself with Much Ado About Nothing, and discovered that Shakespeare had used a plot device five times – and it was the same one that we had complained about.  The plot of Much Ado runs like this:-

  • Willian ShakespeareClaudio fancies Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but is too shy to approach her directly.
  • Claudio’s liege lord, Don Pedro, offers to do the wooing on Claudio’s behalf.
  • This plan is overheard by a servant of Antonio, Leonato’s brother.  Antonio reports the scheme to Leonato who approves.
  • The plan is also overheard by Borachio, who reports it to his lord, the wicked Don John.  Don John is Don Pedro’s brother and wishes to make trouble in his brother’s camp.  He does this by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself.  This plot is foiled and Hero is betrothed to Claudio.
  • Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato decide to turn the war of words between Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s knights, and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, into a romance.  The three discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick where they know that Benedick will overhear them.  Hero and her friend Ursula discuss Benedick’s love for Beatrice where she will overhear them.  This goes well.
  • Borachio and Don John hatch another plot through which Don Pedro and Claudio come to believe that Hero is unfaithful.  After this has been successfully executed, a group of (otherwise idiotic) night watchmen overhear Borachio boasting about the plot and arrest him.  Thus eventually the scheme is undone and Claudio is reconciled with Hero.  (Beatrice and Benedick also plight their troth for as long as they can agree not to bandy words.)

(If you want a longer summary of Much Ado About Nothing, you can find Bill Tordoff’s thirty-minute abridgement of the play here.)

Did you spot it? The whole of the story hinges on things being overheard – two deliberately (to unite Beatrice and Benedick), three accidentally.  (There is arguably a sixth instance because Claudio believes he is hearing things from Don John that were not destined for his ears.)

Does this matter?  Well, yes it does if it makes the audience think that a play is dull or contrived.  Much Ado, as the title tells us, is a light piece – a romantic comedy if ever there was.  Nevertheless, it still needs a plot.  We enjoy the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, the melodramatic villainy of Don John and the silliness of the Watch, so Shakespeare gets away with it.  For modern writers, audiences will be less forgiving.

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In Character

At the start of every play there is (or at least, there should be, even for a monologue), a list of roles.  The main point of this list is to tell the reader who’s in the play.  The reader might be a producer, director or actor, it might also be the publicist for a show.  I have some strong views about what should be in this list – and what should not.  These are opinions, of course, but they are based on some degree of rationality…

They’re Characters

I take the view that ‘cast‘ means the actors who play the characters.  The list should therefore be headed ‘Characters’.  (You could also say Dramatis Personae, but only if you want to sound pompous.)

Name Names

I know it sounds obvious, but the character list should list every character, preferably by name, but certainly with a clear tie to the way lines are assigned in the body of the script.  Thus if the lines are assigned to “Man”, the Character list should include “Man” (rather than Mr Smith), though it would be better to give him a name in both places.  (When I wrote that in another post, Andrew Allen took to Twitter (@my_grayne) with the excellent response “I always name characters if for no other reason than: ‘Helen’ looks better on an actor’s CV than ‘Woman 4’”)

There really is nothing like a dame!Elementary Sexism

If a character’s gender is essential to the plot and not obvious from the name, then it needs to be stated in the character list (because you really don’t want to make a fool of the casting director).
Sam could be male or female, and if this matters, it is better to say which.  Mrs Bonaventure is obviously female, so you don’t need to comment on gender unless your character is a drag artiste.

Relationship Status

The relationship between characters can be useful, usually as a pointer to relative age.  For example describing Gemma as ‘Steve’s daughter’ puts some useful constraints on casting.  (But how old is Gemma?  If it’s germane to the plot, then ‘Steve’s teenage daughter’ or ‘Steve’s adult daughter’ is appropriate but more constraining.)
It isn’t Complicated
Describing Liz as ‘Steve’s third wife, previously married to Anton and having an affair with Carl’ is mainly information that the reader should discover in the text.  (And if it isn’t part of the plot, then it’s irrelevant.)  Usually ‘Steve’s wife’ will be enough.

A wicked squireRole in the play

Squire Blackheart – the Villain.
If the characters are not related to one another, it may be useful to say the role that they play in the drama.  This may, in the above melodramatic example, be a generic type (useful in things like pantomime – Principal Boy, Principal Girl, Dame – because it tells the reader what to expect from the role.)  It may also be a job, because it helps the reader to distinguish between ‘Sister Louise – a nun’ and ‘Sister Sara – a nurse’.

Age

If a character’s age is essential to the plot, then it should be stated in the character list, either as a very specific age, or as a range.  (The broader the range, the less essential it would seem to be – and ‘relationship’ would be the more likely determinant of casting.
I am rather cautious about putting in ages, and I have a general feeling that this should be the last item in most descriptions.  The reason for this is that one of the potential uses of the character list is for the publicist to copy and paste into the programme for the show.  In that case, age may be a distraction – it may have been useful to the director in casting the roles, but once they’re cast, they are what they are.

Lose the Plot

The character list should not reveal the plot.  Get rid of anything that hasn’t happened yet that will happen in the story.  Get rid of any secrets that will be revealed by the script: ‘Paul the gardener, Ingrid’s long-lost son’ is plot.  Imagine that cut and pasted into the programme for the show.  This is not the place to give it away.

Eschew Adjectives

The character list is not the place for a pen-portrait of your character.  If you find yourself writing ‘she is timid, but anxious to please and to be liked’ then delete it.  That part of the character’s behaviour should be evident in the script, and the actor should be encouraged to find it there.  You should not use the character list to tell the reader something they can’t find in the text.  If there’s an essential back story and it isn’t in the text, how is the actor supposed to communicate it to the audience?  (Even if you put it in the show programme, not everyone buys one and not everyone absorbs every word before the curtain rises.)
A show of hands for AbanazaThere is a case to be made for giving a character portrait for cases where a casting call might occur before the actors have seen the script, but if you wish to do that, it belongs in production notes at the end of the text, not in the character list.  Likewise costume descriptions belong in production notes, not in the character list.
The one thing that might be legitimate in the character list is some physical characteristic that is essential to the plot (so, for example, if Gary must be taller than Jeff, that’s important to casting).

The Final Test

Does the description fit on a single line?  If not, it’s far too long.  This encompasses all of the above points, but is also an aesthetic choice – if each description fits on one line, it just looks better.

The Age of the Greengrocer

I keep coming across writers – writers: people who delight in the manipulation of words – who render someone’s age as “40’s”.

Why?  What is that apostrophe doing?

An apostrophe stands in the place of some text commonly acknowledged to be missing.  (I live on the outskirts of So’ton, where the apostrophe is commonly acknowledged to cover for the missing “uthamp”.)  In the case of the age, we are looking at a plural – indicating any one of the years of a decade.  In this respect, forty is treated like pony.  The plural ends in ies: ponies.  What’s missing?  If we wrote it pony’s, it would be a possessive: the pony’s saddle.  The text commonly acknowledged to be missing in a possessive is “his”, but it’s so long since anybody used “the pony his saddle” in full that the long form is in total disuse.  The only place I can recall ever coming across it is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where the account book of the pirate Bill Bones refers to his share of the loot as “Bones his pile”, but Stevenson was using a deliberate archaism to make the character sound piratical.

Back to the case in point, is 40s a possessive?  No, of course it isn’t.  Forty does not claim ownership of anything.  The age is the thing possessed, in this case by a person in the character list of a play.  You can see that if you write out the character description in full, where we can see the age being conveyed by “his”: George, an engineer in his 40s.

The objection here is that writing the ess next to the zero looks odd.  Fair enough, but if you can’t bear to write a letter next to a numeral, then write out the word forties.

An acute case of greengrocer's apostrophe
Greengrocer’s apostrophe: an acute case.

Why Ian didn’t know Jack

I’m returning to the subject of character names in plays.  What?  Me?  Obsessive?  Oh, all right then…  My particular obsession is that names tie a person to an era, so naturally I am going to start with a few words about where that observation does not apply.

There is, of course, a melodramatic tradition of allegorical names, where the characters are labelled by their virtue or vice.  Think back to the 17th Century and The Pilgrim’s Progress, with characters like Faithful and Piety.  (Mind you, such names leaked into reality at the time – think of the Barebone’s Parliament, named after one of its members, the short version of whose name was Praise-God Barebone.)  There is also a habit in some farces of giving characters ridiculous names (diving into the first one on my list, The Affairs at Meddler’s Top by Richard Coleman, we find Trellis Trelawney and Bouffant Eclair). In farce, it’s a matter of the writer having fun with the names (and possibly also avoiding any possibility of libelling real people).

No, my real concern here is for fictional names that are supposed to sound real.  I gave an outline of the issue in an earlier post.  Since then I’ve been casting around for some statistical backing for my intuition, and eventually found it via the Office for National Statistics (bless their cotton socks).  From here on, all the statistics come from England and Wales using the first given name only.

The children born in any particular year are given a huge range of names.  Take 1996: there were 296 000 girls who each had one of 4957 names.  The spread of boys names is smaller – 319 000 boys with 3713 names.Cumulative Frequency of the Lads of 1996

What you see from the graph is that there’s an enormous tail – lots of names with very few people attached to them.  That tail includes 851 names (from Albion to Ziggy) each given to only three people that year.  The tail also covers a lot of ethnic minority names (from a lot of ethnic minorities) and the names bestowed by the sort of eccentric parents who believe that their child’s life will be so much better if they spell Alec as Alick.

Looking at the other end of the graph, The most common name (Jack) accounted for over 10 000 souls – that’s 3.4% of all boys named in 1996.  The top 30 names accounted for 50% of all boys.  Extending that to 100 names, you cover 76% of all boys from that year.

From the point of view of naming characters in a play or a novel, if you pick a name from the top 100, it rightly feels at home in the year.  Pick one from outside the top 100 and, whilst it is entirely possible (you have the remaining 3613 to choose from), any individual name is very unlikely.  For example, it would be possible to name a boy Tarquin in 1996 – indeed three families did – but the chances of finding one in the general population of that year would be less than 0.001%.

Whilst the pattern of the long tail remains fairly constant from year to year, the names in the top 100 can shift dramatically.  However, girls’ names are much more changeable than boys’ in this respect.  The following graphs show position in the top 100 (with number 1 at the top).  Take a look at John.John in the Top 100 names

John spent four decades at the very top of the popularity charts before a slow decline. (When I was a student, in a population of 48 men sharing a hall of residence, five were called John.  They were commonly known in the Welsh manner by a secondary characteristic: John the Miner, John the Post Graduate, John the Milkman, John the Engine Driver and Little John.)

Arthur in the Top 100 namesArthur has declined so far that he has fallen out of the top 100…

Ryan  in the Top 100 namesWhereas Ryan has risen.

Ian  in the Top 100 namesIan rose and then fell…

Jack in the Top 100 names… whereas Jack declined and was resurrected.
(Which is why, around the 1960s, Ian didn’t know Jack.)

As I said, it is entirely possible to find outliers.  Uncommon names are still valid names.  However, it becomes less likely to find a set of uncommon names together.  Imagine that you are writing a story about five friends.  If they were born in 2004, the most popular names were Jack, Joshua, Thomas, James and Daniel.  Together those names account for 15% of the 2004 cohort.  For simplicity, assume it’s 3% each.
The probability of finding any one of those five in a group of five is 3% times the number of tries – so 3% * 5 = 15%.

If we’ve found one of them, what’s the probability of finding another?
Well, we have four goes, so 3% * 4 = 12%

And so on through 9% for the third name, 6% for the fourth and 3% for the fifth.

The chances of finding them all together in a group of only five people is the product of the probabilities:-
15% * 12% * 9% * 6% * 3% = 0.0003%

That doesn’t sound very likely (and it’s not, in the sense that there are 3708 other names that could be in the same group) however, that is more likely than any other group of five names for that year!
Take for example the top five from 1964: David, Paul, Andrew, Mark and John.  They are all still in the top 100 for 2004, but their combined share of the name market in 2004 is down from 15% to 2.8% – an average of less than 0.6% each.
Applying the same logic as above, the probability of finding them together as an exclusive group is only 0.00000007%

Or, to put it another way, the probability of finding Jack and his group together amongst the 2004 cohort is more than 4000 times more likely than finding David and his group.

The more likely that the names belong together, the more credible your story.


Spreadsheets of the Top 100 Girls’ and Boys’ names (1904 to 2004) are available on the Lazy Bee Scripts publishing pages.

The Anatomy of Murder

Every time I think we must be covering all the possibilities, someone pops up with another way of creating a murder mystery.  I used to think that the spectrum went from fully improvised to fully scripted, but it seems to go beyond fully scripted into the area of written clues but no dialogue.

At the improvised end of the spectrum, Steve Clark and David Lovesy (of TLC Creative) are also part of Really Horrid Productions, a group that creates and performs murder mysteries.  The creation part is to create a scenario – a narrative arc for the event and a set of character back-stories.  The performance involves mingling with the audience and improvising dialogue – frequently very vigorous arguments – to move the plot along the pre-determined arc.  (Steve told me a tale of performing at a wedding breakfast at which only the bride and groom knew that they were taking part in a murder mystery.  Steve took the part of the toastmaster, a role which he played straight for the actual wedding speeches, but then veered off into some bizarre interactions with the members of the performing company.  David was, I think, playing the role of the technician managing the sound system, and was being so stroppy that one of the wedding guests offered to throw him out – an offer which Steve tactfully declined.)

At the written end, we have something that is, essentially, a play; scripted dialogue and (possibly) a formal stage set.  The audience interactivity can be restricted to just making a guess (possibly a stab) at whodunnit, however there are plenty of variations including written clues and the audience interrogating the suspects.  The latter takes us back into improvisation, since the cast will not know what the audience is going to ask (other than “Was it you what done it?”)

Once you get away from the formal sets, interactive murder mysteries become very cheap to stage (or to complete lack of stage.  What’s the appropriate verb here, when you’re putting on a show without a stage?  “Produce” or “mount”, I suppose.  Anyway, whatever you’re doing with it, the costs are relatively low.)  Consequently, whodunnits are often used as fundraisers.

The social committee of my local church wanted to use one as a fundraiser.  Whilst “let’s murder someone for Christian Aid” sounds a bit uncharitable, an event with entertainment is more likely to attract an audience than an invitation to a frugal supper.  However, the social committee had a stipulation: they wanted was a murder mystery in which they didn’t have to learn any lines.  Oh, fine, that’s improvisation.  No.  They didn’t want to improvise either.  So that would be a murder mystery for around six characters played by people who won’t learn lines and won’t interact with the audience through interrogation or other improvised formats?  Okay…

After a bit of thought, I came up with a new murder mystery format.  (New in the sense that it was one I hadn’t come across before.)  Instead of a script to learn, each participant was given a witness statement to read out.  These were written (loosely, within the constraints of a murder mystery format) as if they had been dictated in a police station, so they could be read out individually.  The statements were supplemented by a sketch map and three pieces of written evidence.  The result was Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman.  The ladies of the social committee took the roles of the six witnesses and told me that I could play the detective (who acts as master of ceremonies for the mystery).  It worked.  The audience were swept-along by the mystery, and, whilst many of them got taken-in by the red herrings, several got to, or close to, the right answer.  From a writing point of view, it was a very satisfactory outcome; as a small charity fundraiser, it netted a respectable £500.

Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman - a murder mystery by Stuart Ardern

Yakety Yak (Who Talks Back?)

There is nothing like a dame - a pantomime dameThe pantomime season is drawing to a close.  Time for a little bit of reflection…

One of the traditions of British panto is that characters break the fourth wall – that is to say they acknowledge the presence of the audience, talking directly to them and, in many cases, getting a response.  This can be good and bad.  The risks are that it breaks the audience’s suspension of disbelief, reminding that they are in a theatre, watching an ordinary mortal in a silly costume on the stage, and that it slows down the pace of the show.  Set against that the opportunity for the audience – particularly children – to do something other than sitting still and watching, and the chance to short-cut some of the plot.

On that last point, I am always nervous about the presence of a narrator in any show.  It’s telling, instead of showing.  However, the characters who talk to the audience in pantomime can be used to convey some information in a more direct fashion.  If it’s done well, then it comes over as a friendly chat whilst planting seeds of character and plot (“Have you met Cinderella yet?  No?  Oh, she is lovely…  But I mustn’t hang around gossiping with you, Cinderella’s stepmother will be along in a minute and she’ll have my guts for garters.  She works me and Cinderella to the bone…”)

At its best, audience involvement has a purpose.  (“If you believe in fairies, clap your hands…”)  On the other hand, if it’s being done for the sake of form, then it can get in the way.  I have seen pantomimes in which it seemed that every character was talking to the audience, and doing so in much the same formulaic way, starting with a personal introduction.  That was dreadful.  Far from building different characters, it made everyone sound the same.

So who should talk to the punters?  (See this post if you’re not familiar with the stock characters.)  In my view, this should depend on the needs of the plot.  Most commonly, it’s the dame and the clown; keeping the audience up-to-speed with what’s going on is a major purpose of the “comedy link man” role.  The good immortal (fairy) generally uses soliloquy rather than direct conversation with the audience.  The villains (immortal and mortal) usually have a non-conversational interaction – a combination of cackling, insults, hectoring and pantomime threats – anything to get the audience to boo and hiss.  Usually the romantic leads (hero and heroine) don’t interact directly with the audience, but sometimes that fits in well with the plot – think of Aladdin trapped in the cave, appealing to the audience “What should I do?”  (If they’ve been paying attention, then the answer will be “Rub the ring!”)

Ah, but there’s the rub: you don’t really know what the audience is going to say.  These days I try to persuade panto writers not to assign specific lines to the audience, because they don’t have a copy of the script and will improvise wildly (or sometimes not at all).  If you need a specific reaction from the audience, you need to prompt for it, often with a closed question (“Did he go this way?”)  The thing is, you never really know who’s going to be in the audience.  For a “home production”, the writer will have a fair idea.  I saw one show this season where there was a ritual “Hello boys and girls, mums and dads, grandmas and granddads…” and that was fine; that really was the mix of the audience.  However, for another show (with a script from a third party), the writer had written “hello boys and girls” and that’s what the dame said, despite the fact that I was one of the younger members of the audience, the average age being well past seventy.  Whose problem is that?  The writer probably had a specific audience in mind and wrote for what he knew.  As a publisher, I have no idea about individual audiences and don’t see it as my role to squash ideas that will work well in some circumstances.  No, I think this is a role for the director to anticipate the likely demographic and to coach the actors to be able to deal with different audiences.

Hamlet and Zaphod break the rules

There are rules.

Sometimes there are rules that are there just because there have to be rules.  The French know this.  It is important to have rules, so they have rules for everything.  On Paris Metro trains, there used to be a rule listing the order of priority of people to whom you should give-up your seat, because in France they know that there have to be rules.  However everyone ignores the rules because France is an egalitarian society, and nobody has the right to impose rules on anyone else.

Some rules are there for good reasons.  In dramatic writing, one of the most frequently quoted rules is “show, don’t tell”.  The whole point of dramatising something is to show the story; if you want to tell it, you use some medium other than the stage.  “Show, don’t tell” has been around a long time.  Shakespeare knew the rule – and he broke it:

To be, or not to be…

You can argue that the whole of a soliloquy is about telling: it’s just the character talking to the audience.  However Shakespeare’s soliloquies and the best monologues (which, by definition, do the same thing), use telling in order to show us something else: in this case, Hamlet’s state of mind.

Telling instead of showing is at its worst when characters give each other information that they already know.  If the audience can hear that an exchange is there purely to give them information, then it’s bad writing.  It’s bad because it’s distracting. It’s taking the audience away from their suspended disbelief and reminding them that they’re watching a play.  This is at its most obvious in writing for the radio – when a character says something purely to tell the listener what is going on.  I discussed this with Damian Trasler a while back and he gave the example: “The gun that I have in my hand is loaded.”  You can hear the dialogue go “clunk”.

Do not PanicOn the other hand, Douglas Adams deliberately bent that rule for comic effect – with more-or-less Damian’s example.  I can’t remember whether or not it occurs in the books, but it’s in the seventh episode of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series:

Zaphod:  Look, if it’ll help you to do what I tell you, baby, imagine that I’ve got a blaster-ray in my hand.
Captain:  You have got a blaster ray in your hand.
Zaphod:  So you shouldn’t have to tax your imagination too hard.

There are plenty of occasions when a writer needs to give information to the audience, but it needs to be done creatively, so that the audience hears the dialogue, not the plot.