Aristotilian Structure

JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 11/9/05: 6
Current Total: 49

Act One, Scene Two is finished. I thought it would only take a couple of pages, but I ended up going six. That’s the way it goes for me a lot of the time, but the lead-up to the end of the scene is better for the added length.

Going by the rule of roughly a minute a page, I’ve got 49 minutes. With me expecting scene three to run 20 pages, that would make the first act an hour and nine minutes long. That’s long, I think, but not as long as Fiddler on the Roof, where the first act runs, if I recall, almost two hours. But then, it’s got singing and dancing in it.

Anyway, I’m going to write the play I want it written and deal with length when I get to read throughs, the editing stage, and if necessary (and if it all comes together), rehearsals. I don’t see it being a problem, though.

One thing to keep in mind is the way I write dialogue. There might be 49 pages of the stuff, but there’s a lot of humor, and humor lives and dies by pacing. My dialogue tends to be fast paced when I write this way – a byproduct of writing hundreds and hundreds of radio spots. So I may only have 35 or 40 minutes of time when these 49 pages boil up into a performance.

I’ve been doing some poking around on the Internet to see how other people approach plays and the writing of same, and came across an interesting page, Playwriting 101 – a condensation of all the basics you need to get going on one convenient page.

One section discusses story structure, and gives Aristotle’s precepts for what we see as the modern three-act structure of a play:

Act One: Protasis (exposition)
Act Two: Epitasis (complication)
Act Three: Catastrophe (resolution)

Given than modern playwriting all takes place in two acts, how does this fit in? First off, with modern storytelling (and this can be applied to just about any bit of writing, I think) structure is a lot less linear than it once was. Films like Memento and books like Slaughterhouse Five take conventional linear structure, rip it apart, and reassemble it to suit the needs of the story. That’s a good thing.

For what it’s worth, stage plays are probably the most rigid form of storytelling out there. Because of their very nature, reliance on flashbacks and other things becomes problematic (although it can be done), so the structure is very traditional. Using my play as an example, here’s how it fits in to Aristotle’s structure:

Protasis
Act One, Scene One: Introduction of principal characters
Act One, Scene Two: Set-up for the conflict

Epitasis
Act One, Scene Three: The conflict begins
Act Two, Scene One: The conflict comes to a head

Catastrophe
Act Two, Scene Two: The immediate aftermath of the complications
Act Two, Scene Three: The long-term aftermath of the complications

What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn’t know about this structure until a couple of days ago, but I instinctively did it. That’s one plug I can give to anyone wanting to write within a genre: read it, read it, read it in order to find out what the conventions are. And if you’re interested in doing a play, spend time – lots of it – hanging out with community theater groups. Then you’ll learn neat things like “don’t have a scene where a helicopter lands on the roof of a building, even if you have an Angel* with really deep pockets, because most community theater groups won’t be able to pull it off.”

Tonight: The conflict begins. And I get to dig out that Deep Purple song I was talking about.

Listening: Stan Ridgway, “The Roadblock” (via iPod Shuffle)

*Angel – in this context, theater jargon for a sponsor

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