Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What theatre can teach about storytelling part 2

Imagine sitting alongside a reader as they experience your story, watching their reaction to key events and characters, seeing when they laugh or cry, gasp or tense with excitement. Picture yourself noting when they frown, switching off for passages you spent months crafting, observing the point where they disengage altogether and go and so something else more preferable. Now imagine doing that with a hundred people. Welcome to writing for the theatre.

As David Mamet says – you can never be smarter than the collective intelligence of your audience – so what can we learn from them?

Engage and entertain above all else

Nothing focuses the mind like being face-to-face with the very people you're supposed to be writing for. Typically there's a huge chasm between the writer and the reader – with theatre this isn't the case. Sitting amongst a hundred people who are watching your story really leaves you very little room for lame writerly excuses – you understand the importance of engaging your audience and then entertaining them for the duration of the story. Everything else is a luxury.

The effectiveness of dramatic irony

This is when the audience (or reader) knows something that a character doesn't. The very contrivance of the theatre – that the audience is watching a simulacrum of life that actors are acting out through story – really demonstrates how powerful a device this can be. It can create suspense, anticipation, desire – essentially the want in the reader to see what happens next. That's what we're after right? Let's use it.

The primacy of plot

Aristotle knew his onions. While character is the essence of drama, true character is only revealed through dramatic action; dramatic action requires the character to be put into dramatic situations, and a string of dramatic situations have to be naturally consequential – and thereby a plot.

A story with no characters can be endured – characters without story is just a chat-show.

Those old-stagers weren't kidding

Telling, exposition, and background are boring. Immediate dramatic events happening to engaging characters on stage now is exciting and worth paying money for.

Get over yourself

This is not your platform. Nobody wants to know what you think about the world. Nobody cares about your politics or the issues you think need to be addressed. Perhaps if you write a good story they will – but not yet. Right now all they care about is point 1. Right now all they want is to hear a good story populated by believable and compelling characters. Truth cannot be draped over a story like a blanket but emerges by digging down to find the universal elements of the human condition. Achieve that and you'll say much more than you ever could by just opining.


  1. I think I have never caught,
    A writ as lucid as yours on Plot.

    Seriously, I have never seen Character-to-Plot described with such clarity and simplicity - and it caused a little light to go off in my head in a way much lengthier tracts could not. Thanks!

  2. Nicely written James. Simple and effective. Enjoying your posts!

  3. This is an excellent way to think about writing. I like to think that I'm making a movie in my books. If someone is going to take the time to read my writing, then I plan to entertain them. I hate boring, self-indulgent, atmospheric plays. I love the theater, though. This is an excellent tool, James Killick. I think you could write a book about this subject. All best to you! --Hunter

  4. Great post! Love your point on dramatic irony. It's something I don't use enough or effectively. Thanks!

  5. @Muse - thank you, Muse, and welcome to the blog

    @Gene - and thanks to you and for your continuing engagement with my blog - it's appreciated

    @Hunter - thanks for your comment - I appreciate you taking the time. Write a book, eh? Now there's a thought...

    @SP Sipal - thanks, SP - yup, dramatic irony is certainly a useful tool to have in our box - glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for following.