I saw a couple new plays over the last few weeks, and it got me thinking about structure.
There seems to be a trend with young playwrights that rejects the “restraints” of traditional structure. With nothing worthwhile to replace it, however, rejecting traditional structure feels like a rejection of any structure at all. The resulting play feels like a meditation on a theme at best and a plot with no climax or catharsis at worst.
There are two general kinds of structure that I’d like to distinguish: Flow and Story.
Flow is the literal organization of the scenes. The way your play flows from one arrangement to the next.
Flow is important for many reasons, largely because it affects the aesthetics of your play. Think about the flow of your house. If you jam all your furniture in one room, it’ll feel cluttered, and nothing will stand out. But if everything is spaced out evenly, with an eye toward variety, you create a refreshing and memorable experience as you walk through each room.
It’s the same with plays. Each scene has its own event – or series of events – that are more or less evenly distributed to create a sense of tension or release. Their interaction is purposeful, and varied. This variety is something Lue Douthit, of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, once called “the math.” As in – you have a two-person scene next to a two-person scene, so now you want a three-person scene or a four-person scene. You’ve got to break up the math.
Similar advice was given to Lin-Manuel Miranda from Stephen Sondheim as the former asked him for feedback on Hamilton.
The thing he always sort of stressed was variety, variety, variety, variety, variety.
When you’re dealing with a constant rhythm, no matter how great your lyrics are, if you don’t switch it up, people’s heads are going to start bobbing. And they’re going to stop listening to what you’re saying, so consistently keep the ear fresh and keep the audience surprised. And, you know, that was his sort of watchword throughout the writing of “Hamilton.” I’d send him a batch of songs, and he’d say I’m going to say it again – variety, variety, variety. And so I – you know, that was my mantra during the writing of that show.
Flow is often the structure that gets the most attention when developing new plays, and understandably so. Flow is the outward style of your play. It’s like putting together your play’s outfit. Playwrights and dramaturgs love playing dress up, and because its on the surface, it’s more easily diagnosed and changed.
The other kind of structure is the one that I find the most lacking in new plays. This I’ll call “Story.” If flow is the fashion apparel of your show, story is its bones. No matter how stylish the shoes you pick out, it’s not going to matter if you don’t have legs.
Story is the thing that gives plays their climax and catharsis. It creates an expectation for the audience that inevitably either gets fulfilled or upended. It is related to plot, but is not the same. Plot is the unfolding of story in real time (the middle ground between “story” and “flow” if you will.) Story is the very stuff your play is made of.
There’s one particular aspect of story that I want to discuss because in the two plays I saw recently it was the aspect I found most lacking.
What Do You Want?
All stories are driven forward by the main character’s clear want. This is non-negotiable. If your character doesn’t want something, you have no play. If the want is vague, unidentifiable, or otherwise so subtle that the audience cannot perceive it you still have no play.
To want is to be human. We all move through life with major and minor wants alike. So why then do playwrights plop their characters in the middle of a situation, with no discernible want? Those characters float from one scene to the next, possibly in conflict with other characters, certainly with a lot of perspective or feelings, but with absolutely no direction. The play flows prettily from one moment to the next with stylistic flourish. But when the curtain comes down the audience is left thinking, “Who cares?”
To be clear, while it’s not the strongest choice, it IS possible for your character not to know what she wants. But your audience MUST always know, and it must know beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if what your character wants at the beginning changes into something else at the end, the audience must know what they THINK they wanted at the beginning.
Without knowing what the main character wants, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to care about him. His want becomes our want. We want him to get it (or to not get it, depending on your character). Regardless, the point is that the want is an expectation. If we know what the main character wants, we have an expectation as to how the story will unfold. The inherent mystery of whether or not this expectation comes true is what keeps an audience engaged and wondering “what’s going to happen next?”
Our wants create our destinies. Especially in storytelling. When a character has a want, she can then take actions toward that want, which in turn have an inevitable outcome that either fulfills or upends her initial want. Destiny.
This is how plays have catharsis. Catharsis is basically “the inevitable conclusion,” emphasis on the word “inevitable.” If it’s just the conclusion, it has no emotional value for the audience. The “inevitable” part is what allows the conclusion to pack a punch. The only way to have “inevitability” is to have an expectation, aka a want.
The Want Window.
While it is helpful for an audience to know right away what a main character’s want is, there is a somewhat broad window of time that a playwright has to deliver this information. This is where plot can be useful, because plot is the unfolding of story. If the playwright is very clever, she can create mysteries and conflicts that keep the audience engaged (often with minor wants), before revealing the Major Want of the main character.
It isn’t scientific, but you should try to reveal your main character’s want within the first third of your play. If you think of a 3-act play, typically there is an inciting incident at the very beginning and at the end of Act One, we know what the main character wants and what his major obstacle is going to be. Dun dun DUN!
David Mamet’s play November comes to mind as an interesting example of delaying the Major Want until the end of the first act (of a two act play.) In it, failing president Charles Smith is about to be voted out of office. In Act One, it is presented to him that his best hope for being remember is to leave some sort of a legacy – i.e. a presidential library. However, he has no money left over to build one. This is the minor want.
He spends Act One blackmailing and bribing people to procure money for his library. At the end of act one, he realizes that he has raised enough money and blackmailed the right people in such a way that he could actually mount a successful re-election campaign. He no longer cares about a library, he wants to be re-elected – Major Want.
This was his desire all along, of course. Why wouldn’t it be? No president wants to be a one-term president. But imagine if he declared this want at the very beginning. Likely, he couldn’t have sustained it for the length of two acts. He wants to be re-elected, he concocts a plan, to bribe and blackmail, and then he gets it. By craftily waylaying his Major Want, Mamet creates a bigger expectation when it finally arrives at the end of act one.
This would be an exception to the rule, however, as it is usually better and simpler to reveal your character’s want in the first third of your play. There is danger in waiting too long. If the Major Want gets revealed too late in your play, the audience will no longer care, and we will already have gotten bored. The want window may be nebulous, but once it’s closed, it’s closed for good.
Musicals live and die by structure in a way that plays apparently don’t. Therefore I think playwrights can learn a lot by studying musicals.
All successful musicals have what is universally known as an “I Want” song. It is typically the second big number in the show, certainly no later than the fourth (i.e. the Want Window.) It plainly lays out the main character’s Major Want.
Some examples of famous “I Want” Songs Are:
- If I Were a Rich Man, Fiddler on the Roof (“I want to know what it is to be rich.”)
- My Shot, Hamilton (“I want to make a lasting mark on history.”)
- Part of Your World, The Little Mermaid (“I want to be a human.”)
- Corner of the Sky, Pippin (“I want to know my place in the world.”)
- Maybe, Annie (“I want parents who love and take care of me.”)
These wants are then tested and tried over the course of the show, and the conclusions of each story follows inevitably from them. Tevye learns true richness is family and heritage; Hamilton makes more than one lasting mark; Ariel gets to be a human; Pippin finds his corner; and Annie finds a home.
Put like this, the story structure of these shows sounds boringly obvious. But recognize that these shows are boring. Because of this structure, they are made even more exciting. We are engaged from beginning to end, watching to see if and how the characters get their wish.
Playwrights should ask themselves: what would my main character’s “I Want” Song be? And where would I put it and when? Pinpointing the moment in the script where the character announces, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what it is that they want is critically important for the health and well-being of your entire play. Making a character say, “I want” or “I wish” aloud is a great exercise in structure. It’s incredibly bold, vulnerable, and exciting, and your audiences will thank you for it at the end.