What Theatre Can Teach about Storytelling

Imagine telling a story without narrative and without description; a story with no 'telling', no explanations of a character's speech or thoughts, why they said what they said, did what they did. No room for authorial voice, the writerly ego. No plugging the gaps in your story, or justifications for unconvincing character actions.

Sound like hell? This is the very hell that playwrights face. Welcome to story-telling bootcamp.

In truth there are theatrical devices that allow for 'telling' and for revealing character thoughts (soliloquy, chorus, monologue) but these are used less frequently in modern theatre pieces, and even if the playwright allows himself these indulgences, the bulk of the writing is pure dialogue.

So what's my point? In fact, I have several:

Narrative without narrative

The two meanings of 'narrative' – a story, the 'structure of the incidents' and the process of narrating the story - are useful when marking the distinction between story (or narrative) revealed through scenes and story (or narrative) revealed through narrative.

Writing for the stage teaches you how to tell a story through scenes. Aristotle's phrase to describe plot - 'the structure of the incidents' – is useful here as it highlights that the order in which scenes are presented becomes essential to the telling of story in the theatre. It's not just what happens next, but why it happens, each scene must be a necessary and natural consequence of the ones that preceed it.

Just imagine how much more powerful your story could be if it could stand up by its scenes alone. Just imagine how much more transferable to film.

The effectiveness of the 3 Act structure

Three acts equate to a beginning, a middle and an end. There are good reasons why plays are broken into acts – they prevent meandering storylines, sagging 'middles' and provide narrative drive and ascending dramatic tension. Acts are so good that Shakespeare uses 5 of them in his plays. All of them. Further discussions on the 3 Act structure here and here.

Less room for unconvincing characters

In the theatre every character in your story is going to undergo the kind of analysis and scrutiny that only a bunch of people with each of them focusing on one character can give you.

You give an actor a script and she's going to see the story through the eyes of that character and that character alone. She's going to ask you questions like 'so what's my motivation?' and say things like 'I don't think my character would do this.' Even the spear-carrier needs to understand and believe his character.

So all your major characters must have convincing arcs and believable actions, your minor characters must be consistent and whole.

Looking at your story from the angle of each and every character as an actor playing that character would can only improve your story.

Dialogue isn't just stuff people say

When it's the only technique available to you the dialogue has to advance the story and reveal character and be expositional and be convincing and fluent. Sound hard? Yes, of course it's hard, but how great will your dialogue be if it achieves all of these things.

I once attended Robert McKee's Story Seminar in London and he said something with regard to this that has always stayed with me. He was addressing when a voice-over can be justified in a film and his test was – if the film can stand up without the voice-over, then the voice-over is justified. The point being that the voice-over, the 'narrative voice', isn't making up for flaws in plot or character, but in fact adding value to an already great story.


  1. Another awesome post! I love Robert McKee's book, Story!

  2. Thanks, Paula - glad you liked it. Yep, Mckee's book is a must read, and I'd really like to read it again sometime.

  3. James, as a children's picture book writer and musical theater writer I have found that writing picture books really helps the play writing process. While working with illustrator Veronica Walsh on my picture book Too Many Visitors for One Little House we talked at length about back story and character. The more we learned about the characters pet peeves, strengths, weaknesses,idiosyncracies, the better the illustrations got. After this process, writing the musical theatre version of the picture book flowed a lot easier.
    I think writing picture books really helps the play writing process and perhaps it could be helpful to write a picturebook version of any play to solve some of the story problems.
    Thanks for your interesting post.

    susan chodakiewitz
    Founder Booksicals Books and Theatricals
    Encouraging Reading Through the Arts.

  4. And thank you, Susan, for your interesting comment. I've had a look at your website and I'm impressed by the scope and intention of your vision for coupling reading and theatre for kids - an interesting synergy - good work.

    With regard to your comment, I think for story-tellers as a whole, the chosen medium can sometimes get in the way of the creator and her story - writers struggle to see beyond the words, musicians the music etc. - so that the underlying story-structure and characters can get lost and therefore compromised. When working story and developing characters, it's great if you can decouple them from the chosen medium for at least a short while, cutting right through to the structure, what your story is about, so you can get that right before you work out the best way of telling the story.

    It sounds like you and Veronica did just that, sat down and talked about story and character, developed them and got to know them outside of the medium in which you were going to reveal them - and the 'telling' was improved as a consequence.

    Good stuff, and a thought-provoking comment. I hope you drop by again sometime.

  5. Excellent post, James. I particularly like the idea of the character giving you a freezing look and saying 'what's my motivation here?' Mine have always done that, and brought me to a halt while I find out what they will consent to do.

    I really like that point of McKee's about voice-over. It's one of those 'forbidden' techniques, like prologue because it's often misused. But no technique should be forbidden. There will sometimes be times when a well-deployed v-o or prologue add immeasurably to what's going on.

  6. Interesting new profile pic, BTW. I always wondered if your glasses were upside down in the previous one.

  7. The upside-down specs pic came about from when I first set up my twitter account - I needed a profile pic and found I didn't have anything useable on the pc. I snapped that one on my phone and used it.

    The new one was taken in the bar of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, it's extreme close-up so makes a good profile pic for a man who can't be arsed to crop/edit a pic. Hemingway stayed at the hotel apparently, so I'm hoping some of the magic will have rubbed off.


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