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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Hefting the Dramatist’s Toolkit

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 | Posted by Sarah Avery

the-dramatiste28099s-toolkit-smallHere’s a silly but common way to organize a creative writing program: The absolute prerequisite for any class that specializes by genre–and in this context, genre means the big divisions into fiction, poetry, and drama–is a general creative writing class that purports to introduce students to the the basics of all three genres in a fourteen-week semester. Assume your first class meeting is lost to administrivia, your last class meeting is a wash because students are packing out for their winter or summer holidays, and you’ll lose one or two others to snow days or the flu. You have to give thirty–yes, thirty–undergrads a grounding in all the technique they may ever get in fiction in four weeks. All they may ever get of poetry, all they may ever get of drama–four weeks each.

Moreover, odds are that you’re not a generalist yourself, any more than your students are. At least one of those mega-genres is going to be your weak spot, and now you have to prioritize all the technique you don’t know in that weak genre to figure out what’s most important to introduce your students to in the four weeks they’ll spend trying to be, say, playwrights.

Fortunately for me, I knew a Real Live Playwright who helped me figure out what the most important basics were in her genre. She pointed me to Jeffrey Sweet’s book, The Dramatist’s Toolkit: The Craft of the Working Playwright. Sweet’s book didn’t make a dramatist of me, but it did illuminate what Joss Whedon and his writers were up to in all that crackling dialogue on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As I studied the more uneven shows I loved, like Babylon 5 and The X Files, what separated the glorious episodes from the episodes that fell flat was much easier for me to pinpoint. When I turned my hand to fiction again after a decade as a poet and scholar, most of what I got right was the result of using Sweet to dissect Whedon.

So, what are the tools in that toolkit? And which are the ones we need?

The writer who writes for live theater has a much tougher relationship with the audience than the fiction writer does. When the audience sits in the same room as the bodies that become your characters, breathing the same air those character-bodies breathe, the consequences for losing your audience’s interest can throw off the rest of the performance, even if the script later picks up its pace. Rules of thumb familiar to most readers of genre fiction–show, don’t tell, and avoid infodumps–have even higher stakes in live performance. So even when Sweet touches on points that are familiar, he approaches them in unfamiliar ways:

Our job as writers is to put dramatic action on the stage; then we should get the hell out of the way and trust the members of the audience to discern its significance for themselves. In short, the premises belong onstage, the conclusions belong in the house.

But some of the most helpful parts of the book, for me, are parts in which Sweet discusses things more rarely seen in handbooks on writing fiction. In his chapter about negotiations among characters, he talks not only about conflict and tension, but about props, light, and blocking, and how those very literal sensory inputs illuminate for the audience the emotional core of a story. I love this analogy in his section on props:

Perhaps you remember this experiment from a grade school science class: You place a sheet of paper over a magnet,then you pour iron filings onto the paper. Almost instantly, the filings arrange themselves into a pattern. The pattern indicates the outline of the magnetic field. You don’t see the field itself. You see the pattern the filings make because of the presence of the field. […]

My central point is that, as in life, characters onstage negotiate over anything to which they attach meaning. By negotiating over inanimate objects, people, space, time, light, ideas, and other factors, characters reveal themselves and their objectives more dramatically than if they were to truthfully and overtly proclaim who they are and what they want.

If you ever need to expand on the old show-don’t-tell dictum, there’s a fine way to do it.

Sweet’s discussion of the possibilities and problems that come along with different cast sizes is thought-provoking. Small-cast plays lend themselves better to some kinds of moods and themes than large-casts plays do, and vice versa–those observations translate pretty directly to fiction. I would think his explanations of what kinds of cast sizes are more and less conducive to film adaptation would be useful for any fiction writer who has Hollywood ambitions. Certainly his advice on which kinds of characters to keep and which to cut when pruning a cast of characters is handy, and he has some thoughts about what he calls “lens” characters that are applicable to fiction writers’ choices of viewpoint character.

Strangely, the movement of his book that I found most applicable to fantasy and adventure stories was actually the movement in which he explains the appeal of tragedy. It’s hard to find mainstream books on writing fiction that take seriously the idea of a protagonist who is also a hero. Heroes have been out of fashion in literary fiction for a few generations now. Even in fantasy, where heroes generally find some way to prevail by the end of the story, we drag our heroes through a lot more mud than we used to. If you wonder what makes all the grit appealing in the increasingly gritty novels out there, here’s a possibility from the chapter about internal conflict as a conflict between the protagonist’s social roles:

Much has been written about why one experiences a catharsis watching tragedy. How is it that watching the destruction of heroes produces in the audience not a profound depression but a kind of elation? My theory is that this feeling is the result of our knowledge that Hamlet, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, and Iphigenia (to name a few) ultimately embrace their true, higher natures. Polonius’s advice, “To thine own self be true” is an injunction few in real life have the courage to fully act upon, and there is something liberating about seeing characters who, in full knowledge of the frequently cataclysmic consequences, choose to be their truest selves. This is true not only of heroic characters but of such less-than-admirable figures such as Medea and Macbeth. We may be horrified by their actions, but we can’t deny that their actions ultimately are the fullest expression of their real constitutions.

And because this is, after all, a metaphorical toolkit, Sweet follows this big thought up with this eminently practical note:

What I find most useful about this formulation is that any script conceived embracing the roles-in-conflict principle necessarily has a multifaceted character at its center. Not a bad thing to have going for you when you sit down to write.

The chapter on violating rituals includes several practical tips that require some ingenuity to apply in fantasy, but their potential usefulness is huge. When you’re engaged in worldbuilding, trying to introduce your reader to a world with very different routines and rituals than happen here, you have to work doubly hard to violate a ritual, because your ritual is unfamiliar. You can’t count on a violation of the usual protocols for a wedding or court case to generate dramatic energy, if weddings and jurisprudence in the world of your story are already very different from the analogous social conventions in our world. Still, it is worth remembering that “Anytime you set up an expectation onstage and then violate it, you’re liable to get a burst of theatrical energy.”

I thought I could skip re-reading the chapter on musicals, but even that offers some useful ways of thinking about fantasy novels. The fashion in genre fiction these days is for steadily increasing tension, beginning, as the saying goes, “with the blood on the floor,” and ratcheting the tension up without any break until a couple of pages from the end of the book. That’s the kind of pacing that’s easiest to sell in the current market. I wonder, though, whether the terrible sameness of all these novels that have only one kind of pacing might not be partly responsible for the decline in reading in the U.S. In the musicals chapter, Sweet leads up to a discussion of how important it is to vary one’s pacing and style:

The writing of a musical is a balancing act. One constantly has to juggle and keep in proper proportion the elements of spoken material, song, and dance. In addition, one constantly has to be on guard against monotony. For instance, three romantic ballads in a row, even if they are beautiful songs, will not play effectively. If you listen to the cast albums of the great musicals, you will hear that from song to song there are major shifts in tempo, form, style, and/or the number of singing parts. Rarely will a solo song for one character be followed by a solo song for the same character. One of the reasons so many of the so-called rock musicals didn’t work very well [….] was that the same beat in song after song made it impossible to differentiate the songs; the scores became large, ill-defined muddles of sound. Also, it became difficult to distinguish the characters because they were all characterized by the same musical language.

The novels most often allowed to deviate from the all-tension-all-the-time model are the novels of sprawl, the books so vast that no one would be able to maintain the fast pace throughout. If you’re reading 800 pages of George R.R. Martin, one thing you can count on is a variable pace. For the writer who wants to vary pacing without indulging in sprawl, this observation about structure in musicals could come in handy.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

5 Comments »

  1. So much to say! First, speaking as a working playwright, I’m not a great fan of Sweet’s books. (Another of his is SOLVING YOUR SCRIPT, which suggests, to me at least, that scripts begin broken. Kind of like original sin. And I don’t buy that, either.) It’s not that Mr. Sweet doesn’t have valid points to make, but it sometimes arrives encoded. For example, Sweet really wants to use the term “negotiation” instead of “conflict” whenever possible.

    And I really don’t like reading snippets of his work, or his students’, which he includes a LOT in SOLVING YOUR SCRIPT.

    On the plus side…

    I agree entirely about pace. Jim Butcher defines the problem: more, more, more. How about a pause for some thought along the way, a glance at something sidelong that might illuminate more than plot and the Next Big Set Piece? Real art tends to be messier than that.

    For my money, there isn’t a really great playwriting how-to. The one I find most helpful personally is THE PLAYWRIGHT’S PROCESS by Buzz McLaughlin. It includes interviews with tons of (deservedly) famous playwrights, and their perspective provides tremendous inspiration when I’m in the middle of a project.

    If anyone out there reading this is in Los Angeles, you can decide if I know what I’m talking about first-hand: go see the reading of my play BEARS at The Road Theatre (co-hosted by Absolute Theatre) on Monday, Nov. 26th. Details on the website for either theatre. Think of it as a preview: a fully produced BEARS will open off-Broadway in NYC next March!

    Keep the solid, thoughtful posts coming, Sarah.

    Comment by markrigney - November 23, 2012 10:27 pm

  2. Thanks, Mark! The McLaughlin book definitely looks to be worth a read. I have some vague notion, too, of doing a post about Toby Cole’s Playwrights on Playwriting though I haven’t reread it yet, and it’s been most of a decade since the last time I looked at it.

    Congratulations on the production. Sounds like you’re based in LA. Will you be coming east for your off-Broadway opening?

    Next week I’m going to need to be solid and thoughtful about something that requires a little less prep time than the writing books. I had planned to write about another one every week until I ran out of ones I liked, but now it’s looking more like I’ll do the writing books once a month. I’m still trying to find the sweet spot that balances a reliably worthwhile column and a sustainable weekly writing routine.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - November 24, 2012 11:54 pm

  3. Sarah – I’m not in L.A., I live in Indiana. Quite close to the estimable Mr. Jones, who graces this site with great (and deserved) regularity. But will I get to NYC for the BEARS opening? To quote Sarah Palin, “You betcha.” (Or is that Tina Fey?)

    Re: the Cole book, I’ve looked at that, too, and I like it, but it’s mostly anecdotal, from what I remember. So if you (or the students) know that particular writer’s work, it can be useful. Informative. If not…

    Comment by markrigney - November 27, 2012 12:39 pm

  4. […] one assignment he did was stellar. In part this was a result of the weird framework of the course that had been handed down by the mighty powers of the department–we had four weeks for […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Whatever Became of That Kid? - November 28, 2012 3:29 pm

  5. […] Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Hefting the Dramatist’s Toolkit […]

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