EXCERPTS

Table of Contents | Preface | Pages from the book

EXCERPT FROM THE INTRODUCTION
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 2: PROTAGONIST-OBJECTIVE
FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 4: CHARACTERISATION
SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 4: CHARACTERISATION
FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5: STRUCTURE
SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5: STRUCTURE
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 7: PREPARATION
FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 8: DRAMATIC IRONY
SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 8: DRAMATIC IRONY
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 9: COMEDY
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 13: DIALOGUE
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 17: COMPOSITION
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 23: READ A PLAY OR A SCRIPT
EXCERPT FROM THE GLOSSARY

 


EXCERPT FROM THE INTRODUCTION

"Tell me a story"

During World War II, in the concentration camp of Stutthof, a woman called Flora ran a "bread theatre" using part of her meagre ration of bread to form little figurines. Every evening, hidden in the latrines, she and a few other women would put on a show using these figurines to entertain their doomed fellow-prisoners. They kept this up to the bitter end. A Holocaust survivor, Irena Lusky, passed on this story to the dramatist Joshua Sobol while he was carrying out research into the ghetto theatre in Vilnius for his play Ghetto. Here we see how in even the most extreme circumstances people experience the need for stories.

This need is not something superfluous. We can live without practising a sport, without seeing other countries, without having children. We cannot live without stories. A narrative, one that we tell ourselves or that we pass on to others, one that is taken from real life or wholly invented, whether it is in literary or dramatic form, realistic or symbolic (as in Biblical parables or fairy tales) is as essential to our psyche as oxygen is to our organism. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim [20] shows how such tales are useful to children. Not just because they entertain and nourish the imagination, but also, and in particular, because they help the child to resolve his conflicts, they give him hope for the future and enable him to mature without becoming psychotic. In short, they help him to live.

A fascinating story form

As we grow older, our need for stories remains as intense as ever. Firstly, of course, they serve to distract, in the etymological sense of "drawing away," permitting us to escape from the daily grind. But they do a lot more than that. After all, a firework display, a stiff drink, a football match, a television game show or a visit to the Niagara Falls can distract us just as well. What they cannot do however is enable to enter another person's mind and, above all, his heart. This is no small matter. We each of us know our thoughts and desires and what transactional analysts call racket feelings, but less so the image we project to others. For the people around us, the opposite is true: we know what image they project, we can make out their emotions more than their thoughts and desires. Drama manages to combine both parts of the picture, to bring image, thought, desire and emotion into the same frame, and to allow the spectator to put himself into another person's skin.

What is equally remarkable is that this other person is both a character in fiction—the character we shall get to know as the protagonist—and the writer speaking through him as Gustave Flaubert spoke through Madame Bovary (Madame Bovary). In drama we have numerous examples, such as Sophocles speaking through the older Oedipus (Oedipus at Colonus), Molière through Arnolphe (The School for Wives), Hitchcock through Christopher Balestrero (Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man), Hergé through Tintin, Thomson and Thompson and Captain Haddock (the Tintin comic books), and so on. The relationship between Charles Chaplin and his on-screen character, the little tramp, is even more obvious. Drama therefore creates a dual link: between the creator and the spectator, which is a defining quality in all the arts, and between the character and the spectator, the phenomenon we know as identification. Freud [75], Nietzsche [142] and others have observed that identification is one of the basic pleasures of drama. It probably has therapeutic effects. In India, instead of prescribing medicine, some doctors tell their patients stories appropriate to their illness.

Drama also bears a strange resemblance to the world of dreams. Indeed, we are both actor and spectator in our dreams, even if these do not always tell a story. This is precisely the position the spectator places himself in when he identifies with the protagonist of a work of drama. And dreams, as we well know, are a vital form of nourishment for the psyche.

The origins of drama

The art of drama lies at the very heart of the human personality. Theatre historians customarily see drama as arising out of religious ritual. The imitation of human (or divine) actions first took place in a place of worship, and the first actors were priests; this was so even in so-called primitive civilisations. The first subjects of drama were the basic human activities (birth, death, hunting and so on) and the phenomena of nature (storms, the sun, germination and so on). Gradually the sphere of representation broadened out; above all it moved from the sacred to the profane even if, as we shall see later, it has retained some of its religious nature (in the etymological sense). In western societies, this shift took place on two occasions: in the fifth century BC in Greece, and at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe.

In my view however there is another original source of drama, different in nature and arguably more deeply rooted. A baby learning to walk or speak is driven by a force of instinct: imitation. In other words, it is performing the human actions of its parents or its brothers or sisters. As time passes, the child continues to imitate and takes the process even further: it sets up a series of more or less fictitious worlds and plays roles in them. Its daily life becomes a succession of fabulations and imitations. In fact, in the way it places us in that symbolic zone set between reality and fantasy, drama resembles the "pretend" games of children. We might even say that it is an adult equivalent. In short, the first actor-spectator-playwright was not the pygmy sorceror or the Greek priest but the child that each of us used to be. This child will feature prominently in these pages. Let us note too that a child is first a spectator, then an author—or more precisely, adaptor—and finally an actor.

back to the top of page

 


EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 2: PROTAGONIST-OBJECTIVE

Four essential conditions

It is not enough, if you want to write a story successfully, simply to set your protagonist an objective. The writer must also make sure his story meets the following four conditions.

Firstly, the objective must be known by the spectator, or at least perceptible to him, early on in the story. The narrative does not really begin until the spectator has worked out, more or less consciously, what the protagonist wants, and until that happens the spectator will be unsure of what he is being told. After a while, the spectator will find this disagreeable. In order to avoid this, the writer must himself be sure in his mind what his protagonist's objective is. Only then can he make sure his story is rigourously constructed.

Secondly, the motive for the protagonist's objective must be clearly indicated so that the spectator can share it. If the spectator does not understand (let alone approve of) the protagonist's objective, he will have no sense of there being anything at stake.

Thirdly, the objective must be particularly difficult for the protagonist to achieve. This does not mean the writer should make it too hard or, what is worse, impossible to achieve: one of the hardest skills for writers of drama to master is getting the right balance between difficulty and ease in overcoming obstacles. I shall discuss this more fully in the next chapter.

Fourthly, the spectator must feel that the protagonist is utterly and irrevocably committed to achieving his objective. The protagonist must on no account give the impression that it would not matter too much to him if he had to give up en route. The more the protagonist is pledged body and soul to getting what he wants, the more the spectator will become involved in the story.

Consider Antigone (Antigone) who is prepared to risk death in order to give her brother a decent burial; Galileo (The Life of Galileo) who takes on the whole world, and even risks catching the plague, in his determination to discover, and prove to others, new truths about the Earth's place in the universe; Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) in Children of Paradise who is thrown out of a window by Avril (Fabien Loris) and who comes back in through the door—usually, with people who strongly want something, it is the other way round: they leave through the door and come back in through the window; Hildy (Rosalind Russell), in His Girl Friday, who to obtain a scoop chases after a witness, even though she is wearing her business clothes, and brings him down with a rugby tackle; Ethan (John Wayne) in The Searchers, who spends 15 years scouring the vast expanses of the American West to track down his niece; McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who is so determined to see a baseball match that he invents one on a blank television screen, commentating on it as if he can actually see it (see analysis page 519); Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) in Where Is the Friend's Home? who pesters his mother (Iran Outari) for permission to go out until at last she gives way; Krimo (Osman Elkharraz) in Games of Love and Chance, who gives everything he owns (roller-blades, trainers, video-player,etc) to Rachid (Rachid Hami) for the right to play the role of Arlequin, enabling him to be with the girl he wants to impress; Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), in the very first episode of Desperate Housewives, who mows the lawn at midnight, in an evening gown, to prevent her husband finding out that she's having an affair with the gardener.

If the protagonist does not show that he is doing everything he can to achieve his objective, the spectator will feel cheated. In The Freshman, for instance, the protagonist (Matthew Broderick) is duped on innumerable occasions—even getting himself forcibly married—but does little more than protest vaguely. Ineffectual in his efforts to save himself, he allows himself to be swept along by events.

How can the spectator be expected to side with the protagonist if he is indifferent, fails to take action or even refuses to act? This is the reason for the failure of Secret Agent, as Hitchcock himself clearly understood [92]: "It didn't really succeed, and I think I know why. In an adventure drama your central figure must have a purpose. That's vital for the progression of the film, and it's also a key factor in audience participation. The public must be rooting for the character; they should almost be helping him to achieve his goal. John Gielgud, the hero of Secret Agent, has an assignment (ie. to kill someone) , but the job is distasteful and he is reluctant to do it. "

In fact, it could be argued that the protagonist of Secret Agent has two contradictory objectives: the first, to kill someone, has been supplied by his superiors; the second is to get out of having to achieve the first. Unfortunately for the quality of the film, the protagonist does not really get to grips with the first, and the second is simply not dealt with. Secret Agent is one of those works based on the premiss that the protagonist, often a soldier, a policeman, a spy or a detective, is given a mission to accomplish. For a drama of this kind to work, the protagonist has to believe in the importance of his mission and commit himself fully to achieving the objective he has been set.

To conclude, a protagonist must be active; at the very least he can be reactive, but not passive. And he must appear utterly obsessed with pursuing his objective.

back to the top of page



FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 4: CHARACTERISATION

Prince charming and the love that binds

Another character whose characterisation leaves much to be desired but who has nevertheless been hugely successful is Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic. Part of the film's popularity derives from his character, I believe. For Jack is a Rescuer with a capital R. In a matter of days he saves Rose (Kate Winslet) from suicide, boredom, frigidity, marriage, the aristocracy and a second time from death. In addition, at the end of it all, he sacrifices his life. This was a very smart decision by James Cameron. By creating a kind of super-Rescuer, almost a Christ-figure, the writer of Titanic sets up a prince charming of the kind many men dream of becoming and that many women dream of meeting. The problem is that in real life these princes charming do not exist. Titanic's vision of love is the kind we associate with small children: a damsel in distress, instead of relying on her own resources and calling on her own inner rescuer (small-r), places herself in the hands of the handsome Leonardo, with his free spirit, his sense of sacrifice and his Buddhist philosophy appropriate to a 75-year-old monk. Any woman who, after seeing this film, stakes her future happiness on finding a Jack-figure is likely to be terribly disappointed.

It is worth stressing too that Titanic shows only the first stages of what happens when we fall in love, the time of bonding. This is the time when everything is wonderful, when the other person is the most marvellous person in the world, and one is in love, alive with delicious, powerful emotions. It is a pity that the cinema, like theatre and literature in general, does not deal in greater depth with the subsequent stages of a love relationship. Most love stories confine themselves to the period just preceding or following the initial encounter. They end on the assumption that, as in fairy tales, the couple will live happily ever after. In real life, of course, things do not always work out that way. "The most reassuring thing one can show one's children," writes Françoise Dolto [60], "is a marital relationship that endures." Could there be anything more reassuring to show any audience?

One can think of several reasons why drama tends to neglect married life in its post-honeymoon phase. Firstly and obviously, the initial contact, the courting, the capture and the honeymoon are the aspects of the mating game that are richest in emotion and spectacle. It happens too that many writers project themselves into their work and are personally more familiar with the falling-in-love aspects of romance than its workaday long-term repercussions. Among the exceptions, that is to say the works that deal with married life after the initial passion has faded, are such movies as Journey to Italy or the short movie Ages Ingrats in which an elderly couple (Macha Méril, Philippe Nahon) face a crisis as they celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Stories such as these show that a marital relationship that has endured so long does not necessarily lack conflict. Examples in a similar vein are The Cat, Marriage, Scenes From a Marriage, Shoot the Moon, We Won't Grow Old Together, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and A Woman Under the Influence. But these cases are rather different: faced with so much blackness, the spectator may find him- or herself wanting nothing better than a sugary Jack-and-Rose confection!

back to the top of page



SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 4: CHARACTERISATION

D. EXAMPLES OF OUTSTANDING CHARACTERISATION

More than any other, characterisation is an area where one spectator's personal tastes can be as good as any other's in determing what works and what does not. The following lists are therefore a reflection of my own tastes and personal predilections and are provided as a basis for discussion. Readers are invited to add to them—or to subtract—as their fancy takes them.

What makes a character engaging?

Characters who go around saving the world with a penknife, or sometimes their penis, are in my view extremely boring. I prefer Captain Haddock to Tintin, Obelix to Asterix, Falstaff to Prince Henry (in Henry IV, parts I and II), Cyrano de Bergerac to Christian, Agent 86 (Don Adams in Get Smart) to Agent 007 (the James Bond movies). Without Clark Kent's stumblings, Superman would be intolerable, as far as I am concerned. The same goes for Spiderman without the shyness of Peter Parker. It is their capacity to sympathise with Perrin-Pignon (Jacques Brel, Pierre Richard or Jacques Villeret) that makes Milan (Lino Ventura), Campana (Gérard Depardieu) and Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) appear more human. In fact, many of the films written by Francis Veber (ComDads, The Dinner Game, Les Fugitifs, The Goat, A Pain in the A…) can be read as parables on how the strong, those whom life has placed at an advantage, can render themselves more human by acknowledging and accepting their own vulnerability, their inner Pignon.

Here are some of the characters in stage or screen drama that I have been most moved by. As I shall demonstrate, they have certain qualities in common.

- Antigone (Antigone);
- Oedipus (Oedipus Rex);
- Falstaff (Henry IV, parts I and II);
- Othello (Othello);
- Lear (King Lear);
- Arnolphe (The School for Wives);
- Nora (A Doll's House);
- Cyrano (Cyrano de Bergerac);
- Charlie the tramp (Charles Chaplin)
- Stan and Oliver (Laurel and Hardy);
- Mother Courage (Mother Courage and Her Children);
- Galileo (The Life of Galileo);
- George Bailey (James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life);
- Cody Jarrett (James Cagney in White Heat);
- Will Kane (Gary Cooper in High Noon);
- Annie Sullivan (The Miracle Worker);
- C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon in The Apartment);
- Felix (Tony Randall in The Odd Couple);
- César (Yves Montand in César and Rosalie);
- Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk in Dersu Uzala);
- McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest);
- Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere in Série Noire);
- Pupkin (Robert de Niro in The King of Comedy);
- Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg in Impudent Girl);
- Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor in Where Is the Friend's Home?);
- Alice (Mia Farrow in Alice);
- Phil Connors (Bill Murray in Groundhog Day);
- Peter Duffley (Jim Broadbent in The Peter Principle);
- Mulan (Mulan);
- Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich); and
- Carla (Emmanuelle Devos in Read My Lips);
- Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller in season 1 of Prison Break).

The following points are true of all of them.

i) They are not perfect—far from it. They are not superheroes, either physically or intellectually. They have flaws, contradictions, complexes—in the broadest sense, they are handicapped. Oedipus is blind and headstrong (as well as being cursed). Nora is naive. Cyrano is deformed and a coward in affairs of the heart. Mother Courage is venal. Felix Unger is an obsessive. César is the jealous type. Charlotte is envious. Peter is irredeemably incompetent. Charlie is poverty-stricken. Ahmed is a child (in a world of adults). Mulan is a woman (in medieval China). Jarrett, Pupkin and McMurphy are borderline psychotics. Similarly Franck Poupart is a good example of a four-year-old boy in an adult's body.

ii) They are neither black nor white. Which is not to say that they are a bundle of contradictions, both cowardly and brave, both optimist and pessimist, both stingy and generous. They can be each of these, and wholly so. They may have flaws, but they also have virtues. And vice versa. Antigone, Oedipus, Felix, George Bailey and Will Kane have integrity. Cyrano is physically brave. César is perfectly charming. Mulan is astute. Falstaff loves life.

iii) Each tends to have a specific, remarkable quality, a skill, something that can prove useful to them. Charlie the tramp is adaptable, able to turn his hand to any line of work: priest, boxer, tightrope walker (see below). Cyrano writes marvellous poems. George Bailey has a gift for friendship. Dersu knows how to survive in the tundra. Carla can lipread. Michael Scofield is extremely smart. Sometimes their sole redeeming feature is their ability to make us laugh. Stan and Oliver or Peter Duffley would surely be hard to stomach if they were not so amusing. Sometimes the only virtue that really sets them apart is their perseverance (see no. 5 in this list). But what a virtue: it is often what makes the crucial difference—in life and in drama!

iv) They experience conflict. Without conflict, a fictional character is devoid of interest. Lear is stripped of his kingdom, his retinue, his daughters, his reason and finally his life. Othello is blinded by jealousy. Mother Courage loses her children. Will Kane is abandoned by everyone around him. McMurphy piles up the frustrations, Stan and Oliver pile up the failures. Alice can no longer cope. Phil Connors finds himself trapped in an endlessly repeated single day.

v) They act, seeking their own salvation rather than waiting, like Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic (see above), for someone else to save them. They take their destiny into their own hands. Each in his own way is a fighter. Oedipus pursues his quest to the end. Pupkin kidnaps a big-name comic (Jerry Lewis) because he wants to become a comedian. Arnolphe tries everything to keep Agnès away from Horace. Galileo resists the Church, persists in his beliefs, managing at times to get around the obstacle. Erin Brockovitch moves heaven and earth in her fight against the corporations. McMurphy invents an imaginary baseball match. Carla, timorous and sexually frustrated, a social failure, an unworldly secretary who is everyone's doormat, refuses to let others get her down. At times she displays great force of character. She begins by recruiting another social outcast, Paul (Vincent Cassel), to help her as if her unconscious, knowing what will be good for her, has determined that he is precisely the kind of person she needs to shake up her existence. To get back at a colleague, she asks Paul to steal a file, putting him under pressure: "You owe me a favour. " In short Carla, like the other characters I have named, is anything but a typical melodrama victim—though she has some of the qualities.

vi) Sometimes they play a game of "Yes, but…" Yes, I would like to change, to achieve my objective, but I'm afraid. Afraid of the void, afraid of what I don't know, afraid of losing my crutches, afraid of not succeeding. As Hamlet says in his famous monologue (Hamlet), "we rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. " Though none go as far as Hamlet in terms of putting off the hour of reckoning, all of them, we feel, at one moment or another, are tempted to throw in the towel. The biggest "Yes, but…" of all is Oedipus's when Tiresias gives him the solution enabling him to achieve his objective right at the start of the play. Yes, but Oedipus is afraid of the truth. When Charlie the tramp meets up again with the flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) he is fond of he prefers to take his leave. C.C. Baxter goes and gets drunk in a bar when he learns that the woman he loves is seeing another man. Phil Connors attempts to commit suicide instead of having to live through endless repetitions of the same day.

This "Yes, but..." characteristic must be handled with care. As we have noted, the spectator identifies with a protagonist who is resolute in pursuing his goals. When Cyrano hesitates despite his success in winning Roxane's heart (end of Act IV), he is likely to strike many not so much as endearing as irritating. Rather like Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) in The Remains of the Day, unable to declare his love (see above).

back to the top of page

 


FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5: STRUCTURE

Plot points: a special case

The vast majority of stage plays have a straightforward structure: first act - second act - third act, with an inciting incident in the first act and a climax at the end of the second act. This gives the following diagram:

This simple, logical outline is so embedded in the unconscious of writers and spectators that we find it everywhere, including many documentaries (cf. Roger and Me, page 515) or in a narrative as fragmented as that of 21 Grams. A man is walking with his two daughters when a hit-and-run driver knocks him down and kills him. This is the inciting incident. The film follows the fortunes of his widow (Naomi Watts), the hit-and-run driver (Benicio Del Toro) and the man who receives a transplant of the victim's heart (Sean Penn). What is strikingly original about this film is the way it breaks up the three storylines into their component parts and presents them in complete disorder, inviting the spectator to piece things together for himself. But the narrative is not quite as deconstructed as it appears. The inciting incident is presented in its essentials about 25 minutes into the film (out of a running time of just under two hours) and the climax comes five minutes before the end. In other words, even 21 Grams sticks to the classic structure as outlined above.

The well-made plays of the 19th century gradually led to the development of a slightly different structure, a variant of the standard form, which was subsequently adopted and developed by the cinema (though not all movies use it). It consists of introducing a twist at the beginning of the third act as a means of relaunching the action. As if the writer were calling out to the audience: "Stop! Stay in your seats! Perhaps the dramatic answer is not quite right, something is happening that is throwing everything into doubt and causing the protagonist to resume the pursuit of his objective." (Note that this must still be the same objective). We are thus given a second dramatic answer to the same dramatic question.

The third act of this modified structure can then be a little longer than in the classic structure. With the classic form the time distribution was roughly 20-75-5 pages (a page corresponding to one minute of running time), but the modified structure gives a time distribution of 20-70-15 (these of course being averages and not a doctor's prescription).

And the modified third act is constructed like the whole of which it is part: it has its own inciting incident (the twist in question), its own climax providing the second dramatic answer to the same dramatic question, and its own third act. Which gives the following diagram:

E.T. (E.T.) dies. That is it. The second act is over. Without ambiguity. Suddenly we realise that there is still a flicker of life. His objective (to go home) is back on the agenda. He tries again to achieve it with the help of Elliott (Henry Thomas). And this time he succeeds.

Mrs. Thorwald is alive, she has been traced (Rear Window). Jeff's (James Stewart) suspicions are shown to be unfounded. He gives up his objective. He is even disappointed to find that the woman has not been killed. But then, a twist: the neighbours' little dog is found dead and Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is the only person who appears not to care. Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) resume the pursuit of their objective (to prove Thorwald's guilt) and continue right up to the fight between Jeff and Thorwald at the climax of the third act.

In Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin and Captain Haddock have still not found the treasure by their deadline of the 15th of the month, so they give up and return to Europe. End of the second act. Without ambiguity. Then, twist: Marlinspike Hall is up for sale, which puts Tintin back on the trail of the treasure. And this time he finds it.

Note that this second inciting incident must not be fortuitous, unlike that of the first act. If this were to be the case, it would be a deus ex machina or, at the very least, a diabolus ex machina. It must flow logically from what has gone before—but still surprise us, of course.

Two opposed dramatic answers

Usually the second dramatic answer is the opposite of the answer provided at the end of the second act. For example, in many Hollywood movies, the protagonist fails at the end of the second act and succeeds at the end of the third (cf. E.T., Rear Window and Red Rackham's Treasure ; and note the construction of Asterix and the Cauldron, The Apartment and of It's a Wonderful Life discussed below).

Sometimes the dramatic answer remains unchanged (usually when it is positive) but it takes a second attempt to achieve it. This is what we find in Alien. We think that the monster is dead at last. Surprise, surprise: it is still alive. And off we go again.

Cases where the dramatic answer starts by being positive and then, after a twist at the beginning of the third act, becomes negative are relatively scarce. The Threat is one of the few movies whose writers have been brave enough to disappoint the spectator to that extent. Children of Paradise operates the same way. At the end of the second act, Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) has at last achieved his objective: he is loved by Garance (Arletty) and they sleep together. Surprise, surprise: Nathalie (Maria Casarès) turns up and makes a scene. Garance then decides to walk out of Baptiste's life. He tries to find her but in vain. The second climax—the climax of the third act—takes place on a crowded boulevard where a carnival is taking place.

As described above with Rear Window and as in North by Northwest (cf. chapter 15), it can happen that the third-act climax is more intense than the second-act climax. This is not always a good idea as it can cause the spectator to miss the first of them. On the other hand, it reinforces the sense of crescendo over the work as a whole.

back to the top of page

 


SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 5: STRUCTURE

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Inciting incident: none. The death of the father (Samuel Hinds) resembles an inciting incident but is not one since it does not determine the protagonist's objective. The father's death is the first obstacle.
Protagonist: George Bailey (James Stewart).
Objective: George states his objective at the beginning of the film: he wants to accomplish great things. But there are innumerable ways of accomplishing great things. George Bailey's plan is to travel around the country, build construction works and above all not to fritter away his life in Bedford Falls. His father's death means that he has to delay his departure to settle an inheritance. Then he has to defend his father's memory. Finally, to prevent Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from getting his way, he feels obliged to remain in Bedford Falls and take over the running of his father's home loans business. At this point he could formulate a new objective: to keep the business going. But the scene where George Bailey takes this decision does not exist. He has barely made the decision to remain a while in Bedford Falls when a jump in time takes us forward four years and we learn that he has been waiting for his brother's return before finally taking off. His first objective (to accomplish great things by travelling) is thus still operative, and the second (keeping his father's business going) is an obstacle to the first. The difficulty presented by the film—at least to the analyst, if not the spectator—is that George Bailey devotes much more time to the second objective than to the first. Or at any rate that is how it appears. For little by little the film's structure reveals itself: in saving his father's business, George is accomplishing something great. He thus achieves both his objectives simultaneously, though previously he had believed them to be incompatible.
First act/second act transition: see above.
Internal obstacle: George Bailey's goodness of heart and the conscience that makes him prefer to give up travelling (including his honeymoon voyage) rather than see his father's business fall into ruin.
External obstacles: his father's death, his brother's marriage, the unscrupulous Potter, the panic of the clients and the incredible recklessness of Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) who loses 8,000 dollars. This last development is a diabolus ex machina.
Climax: Potter refuses to help George and instead does what he can to make things worse.
Dramatic answer: negative.
Twist: the intervention of the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who astutely turns George's thoughts away from suicide. Even though this intervention has been foreshadowed at the beginning of the film, it has to be admitted that it looks rather like a deus ex machina. In real life we do better to count on our own resources than expect angels to fly to the rescue.
Third act: George sees what Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
Third act climax: the town's residents lend George money.
Second dramatic answer: positive.

THE LIFE OF GALILEO
Inciting incident: none.
Protagonist: Galileo.
Objective: to have his theories accepted. This objective is not clearly and sharply defined from the beginning of the play mainly because of the lack of an inciting incident. Nevertheless in the opening scenes Brecht sets out the direction in which the story will develop. Galileo tells Andrea that he is doing what he can to be understood. Later he complains at not being able to undertake any research. And above all he tells Mrs. Sarti: "We have made some discoveries that we cannot hide from the world much longer." This is no more and no less than a statement of his objective. The problem of perception, for the spectator, is that this statement is buried amid an accumulation of petty conflicts.
First act/second act transition: see above.
External obstacles: the stupidity and dishonesty of the scientific and religious authorities. Note that the plague is not an obstacle as it does not prevent Galileo from achieving his objective. It represents a danger intended to show Galileo's determination (cf. page 52).
Internal obstacles: the difficulty in obtaining evidence. But the biggest obstacle (external of internal origin) is the danger Galileo faces because of the religious intolerance of the times. As long as he is not being forced to do something, this obstacle is more a prospect of conflict rather than a conflict as such. But Brecht is careful, right from the beginning and on several subsequent occasions, to prepare it. In particular there are several references to the burning of a philosopher, Giordano Bruno, at the stake. Note that Galileo's cowardice is not an internal obstacle. On the contrary, it is because he opts to remain silent for eight years and later to retract his findings that eventually Galileo is able to achieve his objective.
Climax: tableau 13. Galileo recants. As with A Doll's House, the protagonist is barely present. But the effect is not the same. The true climax is not tableau 13 itself but Galileo's appearance before the Inquisition, of which tableau 13 tells us the outcome.
Dramatic answer: negative.
Third act: Galileo is not allowed to leave his home. Twist—unknown to his daughter and the men charged with guarding him, he has continued to work and has produced a book. Andrea succeeds in smuggling it across the border.
Second dramatic answer: positive.
Note that by remaining true to the historical facts Brecht has succeeded in constructing a profound, moving and effective play of the highest quality.

back to the top of page

 



EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 7: PREPARATION

Disappointed anticipation

Though it is usually obvious when a scene must be written, there are numerous cases of writers making promises and failing to keep them.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice (Jodie Foster) is an FBI trainee who is called in to investigate a series of psychopathic killings. To help her understand the killer's mentality, her superior (Scott Glenn) suggests she visit another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist held in a high-security prison. Lecter is reputed to be fiendishly manipulative. Clarice is warned by her superior: "You tell him nothing personal. Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head." The warning is clear—you do so at your peril. Soon afterwards, we learn that Lecter has driven the man in the next cell to commit suicide. And it is very clear to us that Clarice will need to be extremely cautious. When Lecter, at their first meeting, asks her questions about her private life, we feel concern. When, at their next meeting, Clarice starts to talk about herself, we fear the worst. But nothing happens—Clarice opens up but suffers no consequences. Her superior's warning and Clarice's subsequent attitude do not lead to a payoff.

We are disappointed since this represents a lost opportunity for further conflict. But there is more to it than that. If the writers had established a close link between Clarice's confidences and Lecter's subsequent break-out—the former contributing to the latter, for example—not only would the film have gained in rigour and unity of action, it would also have shown more clearly that in order to catch one dangerous psychopath, the FBI trainee has been obliged to allow free another, much more dangerous psychopath. In other words, the powerless of American society would have been demonstrated more convincingly.

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, John Connor (Edward Furlong), his mother (Linda Hamilton) and the good robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are being pursued by an evil "transformist" robot, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). After one of the chases, the T-1000 drops a piece of metal (his "flesh") onto the protagonists' car. John Connor picks it up and throws it into the roadway. The T-1000 arrives. The piece of metal then melts and reattaches itself to its owner. Now previously it has been foreshadowed—with unnecessary insistance—that the T-1000 is able to take on the shape of any human it comes into contact with. When Connor touches the piece of metal, we tell ourselves that the T-1000 will seize the opportunity to turn itself into John Connor in order to spread confusion among the co-protagonists. But nothing of the kind happens. The T-1000 does indeed take on the form of one of the protagonists, not that of John Connor but that of his mother. And unfortunately—this is another weakness—the conflict is immediately resolved. It could be argued that the T-1000 has no interest in turning itself into John Connor, since all it wants to do is kill him. But in that case, what was the point of letting us believe, through foreshadowing, that it might do so?

Halfway through Minority Report, the surgeon (Peter Stormare) who has just transplanted new eyes into John's (Tom Cruise) head, insists heavily: "Don't take the bandages off for twelve hours. If you take them off before then, you'll go blind." A time-counter is set ticking. The problem for John is that his colleagues are looking for him and have just arrived in the area. Eye-scanners are being used to check the identity of all the residents of the building where John is hiding. The counter shows that six hours have elapsed. In order to avoid being detected through the heat of his body, John plunges into icy water. Not long afterwards, he is obliged to raise the bandage over his left eye to present it to a scanner. Whereupon the spectator immediately thinks: aha! he is now going to go blind, at least in the left eye. But it doesn't happen—there are no consequences.

Footnote. In a version of the screenplay available on the Internet, the foreshadowing is fully respected: John's eye turns milky as it is scanned, and he has the use of only one eye to the end of the film. For his own reasons Spielberg chose to throw out the idea. Unfortunately, he forgot to remove the foreshadowing. This is not an isolated case. It is well known that a screenplay can be partly rewritten on the editing table. Sometimes a scene is thrown out because it has not been shot properly. This is one of several cases where the presence of the screenwriter could prove useful because when the scene that ends up on the cutting room floor is a scene that must be written, the editor and the director do not always have the presence of mind to remove the foreshadowing. The same mistake is sometimes made in the theatre by adaptors or stage directors who cut classic plays considered too long, or who change the scene order (cf. the short version of Kenneth Branagh's movie Hamlet, page 164). Samson Raphaelson [161] tells the story of Ernst Lubitsch calling him to the set one day, during the shooting of a film, to check that it would be all right to change one line of dialogue. "Imagine this man, who was better able to write a line, if he had to, than any other director who ever existed (...) he had the intelligence to know that maybe the change that he wanted to make might have something to do with something he had forgotten, about some character, about some value, which this change might contradict. He wanted my memory of the whole script, and he wanted my sense of the character (...)—one line! " In France it is commonplace for the directors of TV movies—with egos as large as Lubitsch's but with somewhat less self-confidence—not to consult their screenwriter, either during or after the shooting, and to end up with gaps and incoherences in the end product.

In Le Chant de la Baleine Abandonnée, Yves Lebeau shows a rifle on several occasions but, contrary to the advice given by Anton Chekhov at the head of this chapter, does not use it. This is particularly a pity as the play could have ended logically (cf. the subject page 44) with, in my view, the killing of the mother by her three children (with the rifle, of course). Having wanted to get rid of her by sending her to an old people's home, they would have found themselves with a corpse on their hands!

For the writers of these works to fail to make the best use of planted material is one thing. No one is saying that these things are easy—far from it! But for them to leave in an element of foreshadowing and then to fail to pay off on it, thus disappointing the spectator, is something else. Unable to make good on a promise, they would have done better to remove the promise. In other words to do what the circus juggler did not, and remove the torches from the basket. To sum up:
- every piece of information must serve a purpose, and
- no promises must be made that cannot be kept.

back to the top of page

 

FIRST EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 8: DRAMATIC IRONY

Note to internet surfers. For a definition of dramatic irony see the excerpt from the glossary below .

Audience participation

It is clear from all these examples that dramatic irony can be an extraordinarily effective means of drawing in the audience. It puts the spectator in a privileged position relative to the victim, one that all too often he is unable to enjoy in relation to his own situation. In everyday life, too many of our actions and decisions are shots in the dark. We may attempt to plan our lives, to set ourselves benchmarks and objectives, but in the vast majority of cases, as for characters in drama, things do not work out as planned. In some cases this is attributed to destiny, to the hand of fate, or to sheer chance. In fact it is often the workings of our unconscious (the submerged part of the iceberg) that have led, directly or indirectly, to these unexpected outcomes.

Moreover we have all of us been the victims of innumerable lies since our childhood, and not merely those of politicians, advertisers and broadcasting professionals. Claude Steiner [186] explains that a lie can be expressed in the form of an action and not just in words. When a parent tells his child one thing and does another, he is lying. When you deny having thought certain improper thoughts in order to avoid compromising yourself, you are lying. And a lie undermines our sense of reality. Being lied to in high doses can lead to madness.

Imagine therefore the satisfaction the spectator feels when, under his exceptionally lucid gaze, characters less percipient than himself find themselves enmeshed in the toils of the author's plot. He can look on benignly while they suffer the consequences of the lies they are told, or fall inevitably into the traps set in their path. What a pleasure it is to be invited by the writer to join him in his omniscience and superiority with regard to his characters. The popularity of theatre since the time of the ancient Greeks, and that of cinema over the past century, undoubtedly owe much to pleasures of this kind.

Conscious and repressed knowledge

It may be however that there are other causes for the spectator's keen enjoyment of dramatic irony. In some of the examples listed above, it is clear that the victim's ignorance is conscious. But what's going on at the unconscious level? If Nora, in A Doll's House, is unaware that she is being mistreated by her husband, it may be that deep down this rather suits her, and that for the moment she would rather not know. If Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard) hasn't realised that she is no longer a star, this is probably because the truth would be too hard for her to bear. The same consideration applies to Oedipus (Oedipus Rex), who is clearly repressing truths that he would rather not face up to.

The phenonemon is of course the same in everyday life. Often the boundary between what we consciously know and what we know, or feel, unconsciously, is not clearly demarcated. In some of the examples I have listed above, the term "does not know" appears a little strong. Sometimes the victim of a dramatic irony is not unaware, but simply does not wish to know, or is refusing to believe. And in some cases the victim may suspect something that we, the spectators, know with certainty. This is perhaps why deceived spouses (in life as in vaudeville) are always the last to "know."

In other words, setting up a dramatic irony may in some cases involve calling into play the immense energy that our unconscious deploys to spare our consciousness having to acknowledge truths that are too cruel to bear. Thus the use of dramatic irony adds precision and depth to the characters' psychology. And here too it is a matter of satisfaction for the spectator to see in others some of the traits that he harbours in himself without being fully conscious of them.

In addition to A Doll's House, Sunset Boulevard and Oedipus Rex, three other works provide perfect illustrations of the contrast between conscious and repressed knowledge: Death of a Salesman, Shadow of a Doubt and Festen. In Arthur Miller's play, Willy Loman refuses to acknowledge the truth because it is too painful, though we often feel him to be at least semi-lucid. At times we even feel that he knows, that he has understood. This is one of the things that makes the play so rich, profound and fascinating. In Hitchcock's film, we know that Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is a murderer on the run; his family does not know this. However his niece (Teresa Wright) suspects that something is wrong. Gradually her intuition hardens into certainty. The whole of the second act is devoted to this process of revelation. And in Festen, we believe Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) to be telling the truth when he accuses his father (Henning Moritzen) of sexually abusing him. Note that there is no formal proof of this, but that the power of the drama, the unconscious urge of the spectator to identify with the character in conflict, inclines us to side with him. But the great majority of the guests disbelieve him. Some don't know what has been going on, some don't want to know, while others (essentially the father and mother, played by Birthe Neumann) lie. At the very least there is a collective reluctance to look the truth in the face. One of Festen's great strengths is its description, during the second act, of how the party-goers are little by little brought to full awareness.

 

back to the top of page


 

SECOND EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 8: DRAMATIC IRONY

Note to internet surfers. For a definition of dramatic irony see the excerpt from the glossary below .

DIFFUSE DRAMATIC IRONY

Take a simple scene, in itself quite unremarkable, in which a character borrows his neighbour's car, telling him that he'll take good care of it. We as spectators are immediately alerted to the likelihood that things will not turn out this way. We may not know exactly what is going to happen to the car, but because we are in the cinema or at the theatre, we feel something that neither of the two characters feels. This is dramatic irony. If the borrower should be Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) or Inspector Palmer, the principle remains the same, except that the dramatic irony would be much stronger, much more obvious.

Take a second scene, in which four men in their thirties go canoeing on the river. At the start of the expedition, as they put their canoes into the water, they are in no doubt that everything will be fine. This is what we have at the beginning of Deliverance. We for our part are by no means sure that things are going to work out so well. Thus, after a fashion, we "know" something that they do not, we feel things that they do not feel. Here too, what we have is dramatic irony.

Take now two tramps waiting for someone at the side of the road. Dusk falls, and they learn that the person they are waiting for is not going to come. The next day, they resume their waiting. Oddly, everything happens just as it did the day before. Gradually, we realise something that our two characters cannot understand: the person they are waiting for will never come (Waiting for Godot).

Take a very disturbed adolescent girl whose parents are presented as severe and puritanical. She is locked up in a psychiatric home and diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Her parents and the doctors are convinced that the young girl's illness is either due to a virus or is the devil's work. Although the writer (of Family Life) does not take a clear stance on the issue, it appears clear that the parents are the most likely culprits for the girl's condition.

A Venetian money-lender-let's call him Antonio-borrows three thousand ducats from a colleague, whom we shall call Shylock and who hates Antonio. Shylock offers him the following deal: if Antonio does not pay back the loan by the agreed time, Shylock will be entitled to take from him a pound of his flesh, from whatever part of his body he sees fit. Antonio, expecting some income to arrive shortly, accepts confidently. Much more confidently, of course, than the spectator at the end of Act I of The Merchant of Venice.

Finally, take a seaside resort being terrorised by a shark. All the fishermen from the region join in the hunt and finally capture a 10-foot tiger shark. Everyone is happy. We the spectators have no idea whether this is the shark responsible for the killings or not. What we do know, on the other hand, is that the film (Jaws) has only been going for 40 minutes. What are we to make of this?

The spectator's distance

There are numerous other examples of this. The principle is always the same: whatever the situation, whatever the scene, the spectator fears the worst-cynics, or those of a suspicious nature, will say that he hopes for the worst-and feels that the situation is going to be more conflictual than the protagonist does. He thus has information that the characters, and in particular the protagonist (local or general), do not. This is not dramatic irony in the sense that I have defined it thus far, as the spectator does not have any precise piece of information that at least one of the characters does not have. This is a more subtle form of dramatic irony that I will describe as diffuse.

This diffuse dramatic irony is the result of the spectator's distance. The fact that he is seated in a darkened theatre, and watching the misadventures of the characters on the stage or screen, sets him apart from them. This distanced position enables him to understand more clearly the events that are happening to the characters, to enjoy the lucidity that they lack. Thus all works of drama, without exception, contain diffuse dramatic irony. This can be applied in a variety of ways, notably as straightforward, or "heavy," dramatic irony. It is with good reason that dramatic irony is found in so many works, as it is often simply a form of exploitation of the diffuse variety.

 

back to the top of page


 


EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 9: COMEDY

Noble but scorned

Despite its nobility and its usefulness, comedy is still far too often scorned as an inferior artform. True, Gilles Lipovetsky [122] notes in L'Ère du Vide that humour is now widely seen as a social imperative in Western societies. Mockery and parody are to be found everywhere (often in an aggressive form), and television is obsessed by comedy. But the effect has been to lower comedy in critical esteem rather than to confirm its noble status. The examples of Aristophanes, Molière, Chaplin, The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice seem to count for nothing: the idea that humour and art go hand in hand continues to be stubbornly resisted. "We laugh from beginning to end, but we only laugh," is one of the classic (and most ill-informed) critical reactions. A serious work that fails can nevertheless be described as difficult or ambitious. A comedy that fails is immediately described as vulgar. Oscars, Césars, Golden Palms and other baubles handed out on the festival circuit are rarely awarded to comedies. Gérard Depardieu is nominated for a César for his role as a whiteface clown in ComDads, while Pierre Richard, who performs brilliantly as an August clown in the same movie, is not. Actors seen as "comic" have to act in a serious film in order to attract attention. Typical cases are those of Michel Galabru, Dan Aykroyd and Coluche, who won recognition for their roles in (respectively) The Judge and the Assassin, Driving Miss Daisy and Tchao Pantin, although we already see them preforming at their peak in earlier films such as The Annuity, The Blues Brothers or Inspector Blunder. There are several reasons for this.

i) Comedy, as we have already seen, is an assault on human vanity. It reminds us that we are all made of flesh and blood. It confronts us with the phantoms of our unconscious. Tragedy and, even today, serious drama attribute to us an importance that is perhaps overstated but which flatters us. Like most people, writers and critics have a tendency to take themselves too seriously.

ii) We lack detachment. We tend to regard our existences in a pitying rather than a mocking perspective. We find our lives alternately tragic or melodramatic, sometimes good-humoured—on those brief occasions when there is no conflict—but rarely comic. This is all the more true over the short term. Thus works that describe extreme situations and throw in a little humour are often accused of a cavalier attitude. This was the case for example with Stalag 17 which takes place in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. The accusation is quite unfair, of course. Numerous prisoners of war have testified that humour and practical jokes were common fare in the camps, if only as a means of retaining one's sanity.

iii) Although the apparent lightness of comedy may lead us to believe that it is written easily, it is, in fact, the hardest of the styles to master. Comedy needs careful handling and requires a certain amount of technique. There are fewer constraints involved in being serious than in being funny. In The Critique of The School for Wives , Molière has Dorante say: "I believe it is much easier to gird oneself about with fine sentiments, to challenge Fortune in verse, to accuse one's Fate and to curse the Gods, than to face up, as we must, to the ridicule of men and to present agreeably on the stage the faults that we all have in common." A sentiment confirmed by Mario Monicelli [135]: "I find it easier to make a drama movie than a comedy." And François Truffaut [197]: "Anyone who ever has tried to write a screenplay knows that comedy is the most difficult genre, one that demands the most work, the most talent, the most humbleness too."

It follows from the above that there are fewer comedies than serious dramas, and probably also fewer successful comedies than successful serious works. In cinema, comedy represents a small number of films, causing it to be bracketed as a genre, along with Westerns, thrillers and musicals (see chapter 3). Howard Hawks [87] said that the hardest thing in the world was to get one's hands on a funny story.

iv) I incline to believe that if the clown is scorned by dictators, the church and certain intellectuals alike, this is simply because he is the most lucid as regards the tribulations of life, the most intelligent, a very devil in the depth of his understanding. We can then see the scorn directed at the clown as an expression of fear or hatred. Perhaps it was in order to offset that intolerable intelligence that kings and princes used to recruit their jesters from among the ugly and the deformed.

It is notable however that most of the scorn directed at comedy comes from people with media access (critics or cinema professionals) rather than the general public. In France, the biggest movie hits have been as much comedies (The Cow and I, The Dinner Game, Don't Look Now We've Been Shot at, The Goat, Three Men and a Cradle, The Visitors, War of the Buttons, etc) as adventure movies (Ben Hur, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Once Upon a Time in the West, etc). If he cannot laugh at his own life, the spectator is quite content to go to the cinema or the theatre to laugh at someone else's. In the United States, box-office figures point in a different direction: it is the latter-day fairy tales (Batman, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Titanic, etc) that have pulled in the most customers. Which perhaps signifies a difference in age and mentality between the two peoples. Writing about the American cinema, Pauline Kael [104] observed that "the movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage." In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore develops the idea that the American people's culture is based on fear. Others have suggested that fatty tissue and guns are two ways of warding off this fear. We can add a third: latter-day fairy tales.

Although history does not tell us for sure, it is a fair bet that the woman who operated the theatre in the concentration camp of Stutthof with characters made of bread used them to make her spectators laugh.

Comedy is therapy

Laughter, it hardly needs pointing out, is beneficial to mankind, and has long been suspected of having therapeutic effects. In his article on humour, Freud [73] explains that a humourous attitude is a refusal of pain, a proclamation of the invincibility of the self, an affirmation of the pleasure principle which has the immense advantage of allowing us to maintain our psychic well-being, unlike other forms of defence against pain such as neurosis, madness, drunkenness, ecstasy or withdrawal into oneself. This view is shared by Boris Cyrulnik [52], who states that "humour is a valuable factor of resilience."

Numerous research programmes have shown how the act of laughing improves mental and psychic health, reducing stress, increasing longevity and reinforcing the immune system. In the 1960s, an American journalist, Norman Cousins [49] learned that he was suffering from a very serious disease, ankylosing spondylarthritis. He decided that he would take a laughter cure. He spent day after day watching comedy films, reading funny stories, finding every possible way of creasing up with laughter. And at the end of it all he was cured. This is a true story, and many clowns are now employed in hospitals which provide gelotherapy, the technical term for laughter therapy.

Comedy has another psychosomatic characteristic: it deconnects the brain's left hemisphere and lowers the receptor's guard by bypassing his mental faculties. Humour is a form of hypnosis. It is used in this way in psychotherapy or in Buddhist teaching, and is very useful as a means of imprinting the content of a particular message as deeply as possible. A spectator who is laughing is more receptive and understands better what he is being told. The Bosnian director Danis Tanovic [188] recalls that after seeing how his short movie Dawn—not a particularly uplifting story—was received, he understood that what he needed in his full-length movie No Man's Land, if the public was to listen to what he was saying about war, was humour. Hiner Saleem, preparing a film about the fate of the Kurds, reached a similar conclusion and came up with a comedy, Vive la Mariée... et la Libération du Kurdistan, to the discontent of Kurdish militants who had been hoping for a serious, committed drama.

back to the top of page

 



EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 13: DIALOGUE

Payoff lines

Payoff lines that achieve their effect because of the situation in which they are placed are much to be preferred to self-standing witticisms and wisecracks. Fitting into the context is virtually the definition of good dialogue. To appreciate this you need only consider the effect of the most famous line of dialogue in the history of drama: "To be or not to be..." It means entirely different things depending on whether it is spoken i) by Hamlet in Hamlet (III/1), ii) a passer-by in the street, or iii) a theatre prompter (Adolf Licho) in the movie To Be or Not to Be .

Another example is Shylock's tirade in The Merchant of Venice (III/1): "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? (...) If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" This is of course a powerful speech in itself, independent of context. But in the context of the play it has different connotations: it is not the bitter plaint of a Jew faced with persecution, as it may appear on first hearing, it is the lament of a Jewish father whose daughter has run away, and who seeks to justify his desire for revenge against Antonio ("And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"). In other words, Shylock is not telling Antonio: "Stop mistreating me, I'm human like you", but: "You have shown me contempt, that has wounded me because I am human, and I will make you pay dearly for it." By changing the context in To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch and his co-writers give the speech another meaning.

Examples of payoff lines

Thus a line of dialogue which appears totally unremarkable outside its context may strike the spectator as particularly resonant when set in an appropriate situation. Here are some examples.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice (V/1), Portia asks her husband Bassanio for the precious ring she gave him. The spectator knows that he has given it to his lawyer as a reward for his services. He also knows that the lawyer was none other than Portia in disguise. It is therefore she who possesses the ring that she is demanding. She then hands it to Bassanio saying: "Keep it better than the other."

In Pass the Deal!, Francine is caught in bed with a man who is not her husband. With as innocent an air as she can muster she tells her husband: "What…? What…? I suppose you're going to jump to conclusions again."

In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, James Allen (Paul Muni) is believed by the police and the courts to be a criminal whereas he is totally innocent. After several gross miscarriages of justice including several spells in prison, he finally manages to escape. He seeks out the woman he loves (Helen Vinson) for one last goodbye. This is the end of the film. She asks him how he gets by. He replies: "I steal."

In Ninotchka, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), a grim-faced Soviet commissar, is sent to France on a mission. She is greeted by three comrades (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) who have already been led astray by the wanton hedonism and capitalism of Paris. The four of them are in the royal suite of a luxurious hotel when they decide to order some cigarettes. Three young, lively cigarette vendors then arrive, dressed like call-girls. They break off when they see Ninotchka, and the three men stare at the carpet shame-facedly. Ninotchka admonishes them: "Comrades, you must have been smoking a lot."

In The Great Dictator, Hynkel (Charles Chaplin) dances with Napaloni's wife (Grace Hayle). Her dancing skills prove to be minimal. He congratulates her: "Madam, your dancing was superb... excellent... very good... good."

In Humulus the Mute, Humulus is allowed to speak only one word a day. He decides to save up a month's worth of words so that he can tell the woman he loves how he feels about her. The great day comes and he opens up his heart to her. Whereupon she takes out a hearing aid and says: "Would you mind saying that again?"

At the end of Some Like It Hot, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) would very much like Osgood (Joe E. Brown), who believes he is a woman, to stop making advances. He tries a variety of arguments, none of which have any effect. Finally, as a last resort, he comes right out and admits that he is a man. Without missing a beat, Osgood comes out with the immortal line: "Well, nobody's perfect."

At the end of Spartacus, the slave army formed by Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is defeated by Roman troops under the command of Crassus (Laurence Olivier). The survivors are rounded up to await execution. They are told that they will escape crucifixion if they identify their leader Spartacus, either dead or alive. Spartacus is about to give himself up when Antoninus (Tony Curtis) stands and calls out: "I'm Spartacus." Another prisoner stands and does the same. Then a third. And in rapid succession, all the slaves stand and call out: "I'm Spartacus."

In Asterix the Legionary, Obelix is introduced to Falbala, with whom he is in love. He offers his hand, saying: "Wkrstksft."

At the end of Frenzy, the protagonist (Jon Finch) is caught by Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) standing next to the body of a young woman who has just been strangled with a tie. Things are looking black for him. Suddenly the two men hear a noise, and we see Rusk (Barry Foster), the real murderer, arriving carrying a suitcase. "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie," the inspector observes. On this the film ends and the credits roll.

In A Pain in the A…, Milan (Lino Ventura), a hired killer, has been charged with shooting a man from the window of his hotel room. His problem is that his neighbour in the next room, Pignon (Jacques Brel) is a man with problems whose failed suicide may prevent him from carrying out his mission. Moreover the bellhop (Nino Castelnuovo) is preparing to call in the police. Milan takes the bellhop to one side and tells him icily: "What he needs ... is a little human warmth. I will handle it myself."

At the end of Viva Papa!, an Achille Talon comic book, our hero is being "warmly" kissed by a young Tapasambalian woman. Embarrassed by this display of unbridled passion, Fonske observes: "Er... Gosh, look how far the left part of the sky is to the west today."

At the end of The Goat, Perrin (Pierre Richard) has already given the private detective Campana (Gérard Depardieu) a piece of his mind when he sees a snake approaching Campana's leg. He tells Campana to freeze, draws his gun and fires. The bullet goes through Campana's shin, causing him to sigh and say: "I had a rather boring life before I met you, Perrin."

In Le Père Noël Est une Ordure, Thérèse (Anémone) offers Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) a home-made knitted jumper as a Christmas present. Pierre's response is: "Oh Thérèse, what a great idea, a floor-cloth, that's terrific!"

The translation scene in Life Is Beautiful mentioned earlier (page 289) is a superb example of payoff dialogue.

Note that dialogue of this kind is akin in some ways to the one we find in news-paper cartoons. Here too the words are often banal, and it is the contrast with the image that provides the humour. Since we always take in the picture before reading the dialogue, the words are a kind of payoff dialogue. The cartoonist Sempé is a pastmaster of this art.

back to the top of page

 



EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 17 : COMPOSITION

Time and energy

"Make haste slowly; do not be discouraged, but return to the work frequently. Rewrite it again and again, sometimes adding, often slimming down." Nicolas Boileau's timeless advice [24] is not just true for the completed text, though this is what is usually given the most attention at the rewrite stage. Writers like buffing up their dialogue because that is what comes easiest. But the initial intention, the choice of the protagonist, his objective and his obstacles, the framework, the step outline and the treatment should also be returned to frequently and go through several drafts before work begins on the next stage. The fact is that a good work of drama is a rich, complex product that simply cannot be got right at the first attempt. It requires a great deal of rigour and reflection. It requires time. Anyone can rush through 100 pages of dialogue in three months. With very few exceptions, the result is a mess. A first draft is certain to contain innumerable obscure scenes and slips (some Freudian: a first draft script would probably be a good tool for psychotherapy by an analyst specialising in drama as some specialise in the analysis of dreams). This first draft would also be difficult to read and, if produced in that form, probably incomprehensible to most spectators.

In his memoirs, Frank Capra [31] wrote: "And do these scenes come out of a spigot, like tap water? No, indeed. They are created. By a talent. Yes, an extraordinary talent. But also they are created by writing and rewriting, out of sweating and head-banging, out of the endurance and stamina that mark a decathlon champion. And Sidney Buchman came through with a gold medal performance in the writing of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Returning to the work frequently also means having time, plenty of time. Obviously it is impossible to give a precise figure but, if we include time for reflection and the maturing of the material in the writer's mind over an extended period, the writing of a drama can take a year and a half, sometimes two or three years. This is a fact of life that too few people—including writers—are aware of. Festival events such as screenwriting marathons in which participants are required to write a screenplay in three days—as if drama were a fairground performance!—help to perpetuate the notion that improvisation and spontaneous creation can give good results in drama. This is an extremely dangerous attitude. Drama is not free jazz, nor is it lyrical abstraction. It is, of all the arts, that which probably requires the longest time and the greatest rigour. Painters and musicians are able to produce hundreds, even thousands, of works during a lifetime, where by contrast dramatists rarely achieve more than a few dozen . At the end of his life, Goethe was still writing parts of his play Faust, begun 60 years earlier. Between 1979 and 1998, Peter Shaffer rewrote six times the final confrontation scene between Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus. There is also the example of Chaplin mentioned earlier (cf. page 20) reshooting over and over again a key scene in City Lights, rewriting the script in the process.

Decision-makers too should be more aware of the need for time and be more patient, more demanding and more generous with their writers. Studio mogul Darryl Zanuck, in an anecdote recounted by Billy Wilder [211], told Ernst Lubitsch, then shooting Heaven Can Wait: "How's the work going, Ernst?" Lubitsch replied: "To tell you truth, slow but good." "That's swell," Zanuck replied. "The only thing I would have preferred to hear you say is: Very slow but very good."

Time is moreover an invaluable ally in the process of creation. A work of drama continues to mature even without our working on it—or rather, it is the writer who matures with relation to the work, acquiring distance from it. This allows the writer to work on several projects at the same time, passing from one to the other as the fancy moves him. Or even to undertake other forms of activity, one of the great benefits of the writing profession.

Returning to the work also consists of reading out drafts to other people, or telling the story to others when the opportunity arises. This is an extremely useful exercise. Marcel Pagnol claimed that he resolved his structural problems with the movie sar by recounting the story to an elderly lady who was dying—so close to death, in fact, that she could not wait for the finished film.

back to the top of page

 


EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 23:
READ A PLAY OR A SCRIPT

The right frame of mind

Before attempting to evaluate a work of drama, before even starting to read it, the reader must bear in mind three basic points.

i) Firstly, a playscript or a screenplay is not an administrative document but a vulnerable artefact that needs to be handled sensitively. It is the fruit of an artist's labours, one in which he has invested a part of his soul. This is true even in cases where the resulting work appears terrible. A text and its writer should be approached with the greatest respect.

ii) Secondly, a text should be regarded as a work in progress whose potential needs only to be unlocked for it to flourish. A work of drama is too often read as if it were the finished product, incapable of improvement before going into production. This is indeed the case with the classical theatre, but it is not so with a newly written drama. The reader must look for the possibility of hidden treasures in a text, remember that to write is to rewrite, and that a writer can often hone his skills on his own handiwork. Let's not forget: the first draft of Some Like It Hot was a mess.

iii) Thirdly, and this is an extremely important point, we cannot compare a script or playtext (and even less so a pitch or a synopsis) with a finished work. At one of my workshops one day a participant pitched an idea, an outline that came to a few lines. Another participant, a producer-director, said the idea reminded him of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and added that he preferred the latter! This is hardly surprising—the movie came with added sound, images and actors playing out the roles, not to mention the fact that in all likelihood the screenplay was worked and reworked before finally going into production, with further final touches being made during the shooting and the editing or mixing processes.

(…)

The reader's report: accentuating the positive

A reader's report must think seriously about the things in a text that make it work and are likely to please. As in business and marketing, it is best to start with the B's (benefits) before going on to the C's (concerns). As I have noted earlier, it is too easy to criticise others. Writers urgently need to know what people like about their work. This has less to do with sensitive egos than with motivation. Where critical comment can point out ways a text can be improved by rewriting, positive comment can provide the drive to rewrite. If a reader really cannot find something positive to say, it may be that he needs to try a little harder. It is sometimes the case that the reader is a writer manqué and that he is unconsciously prone to twinges of frustration, jealousy and even bitterness. When he was a producer, Frantisek Daniel had an unusual way of reducing the chances that personal motivation might affect his readers' judgement of other people's work: he paid more for reader's reports that were positive.

There is another tendency that readers must resist at all costs, and that is the assumption that if they like a text it must be "good," whereas if they do not like it, it is necessarily "bad." Blaise Pascal [150] famously wrote that "egoism is hateful"—a warning against narcissism and self-regard. He did not say that "speaking of oneself is hateful". On the contrary, to speak of oneself and not to take one's personal views for universal truths is to display humility. Who are we, as readers, to decree that such-and-such a project is worthless and that the writer should look for other ways of earning a living? Hailing someone immoderately as a genius is not terribly helpful to a writer either, though it does at least send out a positive signal (while raising standards to intimidatory levels). By contrast, demolishing a writer's work can be extremely damaging to the writer.

Symptoms, diagnosis and prescription

It is important too to make a clear distinction between symptoms, diagnosis and prescription. The first of these is a reaction along the lines of "I didn't like it," "I didn't laugh," or "I was bored by pages such-and-such." A diagnosis is to suggest that "there is not enough conflict" or "there are inconsistencies in the way So-and-so is characterised" or "this particular event has not been prepared properly." A prescription would be advice saying that "you should reverse the order of scenes 12 and 20," "make your protagonist older" or "it would be better to develop this event as a dramatic irony." These are clearly very different kinds of reaction. But too often readers are unable to distinguish between them and to refrain from going beyond a description of symptoms. Telling a writer: "Sorry, I don't know exactly why but I didn't much like your work" is not exactly a professional response. Readers therefore tend to dress up their prejudices with a smattering of analysis (diagnosis) and, if they have some rudimentary knowledge of dramatic technique, some suggestions for what needs to be done to improve the text (prescription). Often these suggestions are wide of the mark and serve no purpose.

What a writer really needs to know is the symptoms: what works and what doesn't. Obviously the reader can help him to understand why some things work and some do not, and even suggest some solutions. But it is essential that the reader keep these things clearly separate. There is a good reason for this: unlike the diagnosis and the prescription, the symptom leaves no room for doubt. If the reader laughed, he laughed. If he was bored, there's nothing for it but to admit he was bored. And thus the symptom provides a surer basis for working out how best to rewrite the text. The diagnosis, by contrast, may be purely a matter of opinion; so too may the prescription. A reader's report often tells us as much about the reader as it does about the text under consideration.

Writers working in television meet a profusion of decision-makers at all levels who all have different opinions about the text they are dealing with. Clearly distinguishing between symptoms, diagnosis and prescription might not eliminate all the confusion but it would at least lend some coherence.

back to the top of page

 


EXCERPT FROM THE GLOSSARY

Irony (dramatic): the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus of placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. It involves three stages: installation, exploitation and resolution. 147, 263-315, 328, 338, 412, 419, 434

Irony (diffuse dramatic): a dramatic irony in which the spectator feels—rather than knows—something that the characters do not know. Diffuse dramatic irony derives from the distance that all spectators have relative to the characters in a work of drama. 299-303, 315, 328-9, 338, 420

Laughter: phenomenon expressed by a set of vocal and physical (mainly facial) movements set off by good humour, certain diseases, laughing gas, tickling, nervousness or mockery (ie. comedy). 316-7, 343

Leftover: narrative element that was meaningful or useful in an earlier version of the text but plays no role in the later draft. A consequence of the (re)writing process, leftovers handicap the development of a work of drama and are sometimes hard to spot. 479

Life routine: element of characterisation , usually placed at the beginning of the work, presenting a character (often the future protagonist) in his everyday existence, indicating his social habits and main psychological traits. Sometimes reveals a dramatic need. 116, 130-1, 157, 163-4, 505

Literature: anything written to be read (see Drama and Exposition). 36, 232-3, 356-61, 369, 466, 481-7, 497

Logline: see Pitch.

MacGuffin: in the strict, Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains. In the broader sense, it denotes any justification for the external conflictual premisses of a work. This justification is often negligible since it is the protagonist's motives that interest the spectator, not those of the sources of external obstacles. 80-2, 223, 426

Main marker: a major plot point in the second act which usually begins or concludes a sequence. See also Midpoint. 351, 464

Means: the measures taken by the protagonist (local or general) to achieve his objective. If the means are difficult to achieve, they form a secondary objective. 63, 161, 175-6, 425

Melodrama: dramatic genre marked by an accumulation of external obstacles. 73-5, 75-8, 120, 264-7, 412

Meshing: structuring the material organically in such a way that the scenes appear to be interlocked. A form of milking at the structural level. 233-6

Mid-act climax: see Midpoint.

Midpoint: a powerful plot point placed roughly halfway through the second act, setting the action off at a new angle without concluding it. Sometimes called Mid-act climax. (See Main marker). 169, 172, 181, 185, 189

Milking: from the verb to milk, in this context to exploit a component in a work of drama (a setting, a character , a situation) for everything that can be obtained from it. In other words, to derive maximum benefit, or mileage, from the material at hand. Synonym for optimum exploitation, and a form of creativity. 27, 253-8, 345, 419, 432, 438, 467, 475

Misunderstanding: a double dramatic irony . Sometimes used as a straightforward synonym for a single dramatic irony. 285-8, 420

Modified structure: a variant of the standard three-act structure which consists of introducing a twist at the beginning of the third act as a means of relaunching the action . 166-9, 173-85


back to the top of page