star light, star bright

I’ve been reading The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri recently. It’s one of those books that writers tend to lavish praise upon, so it’s been on my “to read” list for some time.

The first chapter on premise is particularly good, and pretty much echoes the conventional advice I’ve gleaned about how to start a project: make sure your premise (or concept) is solid. This is partly why the progress bar on the right has not advanced, because I’m worrying at my concept. I don’t want to advance further into the outline stage until I’m certain about my central concept. In the meantime I’ve written another piece of flash fiction. Just to keep my hand in.

Egri conveys that the writer should work on a concept about which he has conviction:

You, however, should not write anything you do not believe. The premise should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is a preposterous premise to me–it must not be so to you.

Although you should never mention your premise in the dialogue of your play, the audience must know what the message is. And whatever it is, you must prove it.

We have seen how an idea–the usual preliminary to a play–may come to you at any time. And we have seen why it must be turned into a premise. The process of changing an idea into a premise is not a difficult one. You can start to write your play any way–even haphazardly–if, at the end, all the necessary parts are in place.

It may be that the story is complete in your mind, but you still have no premise. Can you proceed to write your play? You had better not, however finished it seems to you.

It is very difficult to reign in your enthusiasm for a new piece of writing when you are seized by the throat by a good idea. Ideas are not stories, however. It is worth spending the time to examine the best way to express the idea before putting your fingers on the keyboard.

For a longer project, like a script or a novel, I tend to take this approach. Yet, I’ve had good success with writing short stories with absolutely no idea where they are going. All I had was an opening line, a central image, a genre, or a market to guide me. This works for me, I think, because a short project gives me the freedom to explore a story without censoring my imagination. I derive a lot of enjoyment from this kind of work, but if I applied this technique to a longer piece I might succumb to a sensation of feeling lost, and I might abandon the work.

There are people who write a script or a novel to discover what it is about, and then go back to re-write it with the premise strong in their minds. Ultimately, there are many ways to tackle a piece of writing.

Here’s a quote from Henrik Ibsen with which Egri opens his chapter on character.

When I am writing I must be alone; if I have eight characters of a drama to do with I have society enough; they keep me busy; I must learn to know them. And this process of making their acquaintance is slow and painful. I make, as a rule, three casts of my dramas, which differ considerably from each other. I mean in characteristics, not in the course of the treatment. When I first settle down to work out my material, I feel as if I have to get to know my characters on a railway journey; the first acquaintance is struck up, and we have chatted about this and that. When I write it down again, I already see everything much more clearly, and I know the people as if I had stayed with them for a month at a watering place. I have grasped the leading points of their characters and their little peculiarities.

This is a fascinating insight into Ibsen’s creative process. That was a playwright who knew character. What I find interesting is that Ibsen imagined three different casts of characters for his plays–an approach I never considered. It would allow the writer a freer hand in imagining the events of his work, without becoming resolved immediately upon one course of action.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned about writing is to be open to change. This is always easier in the beginning, before the emerging words and the scenes hem in your attitude towards the work. That’s why it’s beneficial to brainstorm as much as possible early in the process.

Egri suggests there are three main aspects to character: Physiology, Sociology and Psychology.

He breaks each down further into handy points, and it’s a great template to use to examine your characters:

1. Sex
2. Age
3. Height and weight
4. Colour of hair, eyes, skin
5. Posture
6 Appearance: good-looking, over- or under-weight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy. Shape of head, face, limbs.
7. Defects: deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks. Diseases.
8 Heredity

1. Class: lower, middle, upper.
2. Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, union or non-union, attitude towards organisation, suitability for work.
3. Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favourite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes.
4. Home Life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents separated or divorced, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices, neglect. Character’s marital status.
5. Religion
6. Race, nationality
7. Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports
8. Political affiliations
9. Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines he reads.

1. Sex life, moral standards
2. Personal premise, ambition
3. Frustrations, chief disappointment
4. Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic
5. Attitudes towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist
6. Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias
7. Extrovert, introvert, ambivert
8. Abilities: languages, talents.
9 Qualities: imagination, judgement, taste, poise
10. I.Q.

I think that if you have a strong sense of your concept, and a thorough understanding of your characters then you are more likely to write a coherent and interesting script/novel. You know your destination and you know the characters that will take that journey with you. You have a guiding star. Your troop is not lost in the wilderness. If at any point you do stray you can look upwards and take your bearings from that point in the sky.

Or as Egri says at the end of the chapter:

Anything that happens in your play must come directly from the characters you have chosen to prove your premise, and they must be characters strong enough to prove the premise without forcing

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