Good Reads: The Dramatic Writer’s Companion

A few days ago I mentioned much I had enjoyed the book of The Horse and His Boy. It’s a comment that has raised a few questions that should be answered, namely:

a) In theater, what is a book?

b) How do you know if a book is good?

The first question is far more easily answered than the second. Basically, a book is the script of a musical; the spoken lines rather than the musical numbers sung. (Hence it meriting a separate category altogether in the Tony Awards—Best Book of a Musical vs. Best Score.) When speaking about straight plays, it’s just the script itself. The word “book” in theater, thus, has its own little meaning and, to outsiders, is yet another piece of jargon to master.

However, the second question has long been fraught with debate, because it’s essentially a question about standards. As we’ve learned from previous discussions about criticism and feedback, the topic of standards is a problematic one to have, as this is largely about a matter of taste. If people don’t agree on standards, then you’re left flailing on how to properly evaluate work.

This is what makes the practice of dramaturgy a personal challenge to me, as performing the function of the dramaturg requires familiarity with what makes a work good. Thankfully, there have been many others before me, in that true academic fashion, who have paved that path, and now what I can do is chart my course using the methods by which they took those initial steps.

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So, here’s how I feel if a book is good or not. I look at the product and try to see how it was produced and excavated from the writer’s mind on to the page. Good books need to have gone through a series of passes that reflect a writer asking: “Why should this be here? What does it mean that this scene is here? Why am I including this? What am I trying to say with this material?” For me, a good book, by answering this question, presents a series of arguments that try to persuade me to at least consider the thinking that’s offered through the medium.

Thus, largely for me, it’s question of craftsmanship. There’s nothing I quite enjoy like a well-made, persuasive argument. Since we’re talking about craftsmanship, I’d like to share my go-to guide for crafting a play, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion.The Dramatic Writer's Companion

Written by Will DunneThe Dramatic Writer’s Companion offers several methods and sections on how to construct character, setting, scene work, and so on. It offers different exercises, each covering an aspect of the work involved into making that element of a script work. It’s a great help when facing writer’s block, because the exercises themselves are effective solutions at dislodging a brain that’s gotten stuck or paralyzed when confronted by a blank screen.

Here’s a sample of the advice he gives (and philosophically, can be used for things other than writing):

1. Trust your authority. A basic principle of these exercises is to proceed with confidence and turn off the censor inside you who says your work isn’t good enough. While doing each exercise — at least for those thirty minutes or so — you are infallible and simply cannot make a mistake. Enjoy it while it lasts.

8. Have fun. While writers suffer in garrets and slave over their stories, others enjoy their work. The value of your script will not be measured by how much anguish you experienced in producing it. Dramatic writing is serious stuff — and it will often be challenging — but you can have a good time in the process.

What liberating concepts! Proceed with your work with confidence as you’re making it. The worth of your work is not measured in the stress needed to produce it. Currently, I am struggling to accept these premises in my own work — the lifetime of habits is hard to undo — but I am glad that these were spelled out for me by an expert. It feels even better when you see plays that feel produced with similar principles in mind.

Later on, Mr Dunne goes on to share methods on how to edit and improve after the initial drafts. In an exercise about conflict, I enjoy what he writes:

If conflict drops out, the story will feel talky and wooden. Scenes tend to work best…when conflict slowly rises rather than leaps to a crisis. In drama, things build—from ordinary to extraordinary. If the drama starts in crisis or peaks too early, it will have nowhere to go after that and will have to keep on repeating the same dynamic. We will lose interest because it is more of the same.

For me, it’s another instance of how an argument can be viewed artistically. If the crux of the argument comes too soon, then where can it go? How can it be developed? How does it remain persuasive? This, for me, is instrumental for writing reviews and responding critically to theater, particularly theater that has explored similar themes in the same genre or trope. Knowing how a scene is crafted—knowing how the argument has been repeated, essentially—gives me a standard in assessing the persuasive power of a text.

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Just to end this reflection (recommendation): I started this blog with the intent of spreading theater vocabulary. In coming articles, I hope to add reading lists where artists and audiences can check out the work that elaborate more on the craft. Here’s hoping!

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