Tag Archives: consequential action

Finding the plot

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

Narrative, character, motivation and action have been my lodestars of late. I’ve been developing a treatment for an independent television production company, and returning to the basics has been both a struggle and a joy. It feels like a very long time since I considered story arcs and chronological throughlines and even consequential action… The past few projects I’ve worked on in live performance have been using either non-western structures (Told by the Wind and Japanese Aesthetics of Quietude) or post-dramatic dramaturgies (Playing the Maids). It always takes time to shift between media and adjust to their different demands when you work, as I do, across genre, style, and form. I feel like I need to acclimatise, or pass through a decompression chamber, so varied are the atmospheres and their related demands.

So after spending months considering Yugen, the untranslatable Japanese aesthetic principle which means something akin to ‘the hint’, or ‘what lies beneath the surface’, I now have to make the components which create the drama visible, tangible, concrete. It goes against every fibre in my body. I’ve spent months invisibly structuring, and denying narrative closure to create what Ota Shogo described as ‘Passivity in art’ (no ‘meaning’ or narrative is foisted upon the audience – rather, they are invited to participate in the creation of it). As a warm-up I attend a Pitch Your Film workshop led by the very excellent Angela Graham. If anyone can shake me from my current aversion to formulaic structure and GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT, Angela can.

And she does, with great aplomb. I love her directness, her clear instructions and thorough understanding of shaping material for the particular medium of film. She cuts through my froth and resistance, giving me clear directions in what I need to do to mould this material for the specific medium and for the activity at hand: a Pitch.

I’ve always loathed ‘loglines’ (‘Jaws in space’ – Alien), and I resist the highly codified and formulaic structures required to give the essence of the drama, even whilst understanding the need of these for such an expensive and commercial enterprise. After much struggling the penny drops – a pitch is told in a three act structure – and with some satisfaction I find my own way to supply what’s required without ‘compromising’ on my writing style and storyline too much.

If that sounds snobbish, I certainly don’t mean it to be. It’s simply a description of this particular writer’s struggle across and between media and form and what each demands. After working as a dramaturg with collaborators on a co-created piece of live performance, it takes a while to activate and then strengthen certain creative muscles which haven’t been used for a while. My character-driven naturalistic action/reaction and then and then and then narrative skills had become flabby. It hurt to flex them, and it was immensely difficult to motivate myself into using my imagination in this way after such an absence – especially when I knew it was well-honed and strong from working in other ways. After Angela’s work-out and then some very serious activity alone, the muscle sprang back surprisingly quickly, and I again started to enjoy working this way. It’s all stuff I know and have encountered as a reader, as a student, as a writer, as a maker, it simply takes a while to re-remember it, to re-enter this particular atmosphere, and with all the equipment needed to breathe and prosper there.




Aristotle’s aim of art…


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance; for this, and not the external mannerism and detail, is true art.”  Aristotle.

I hope I’m not alone in being struck by the relevance of the great old man’s adage…

It’s been particularly of resonance this week, as I’ve been revisiting an unfinished play, thinking about characterisation, how to reveal the personalities, dynamics, independent and intertwined histories of the figures I’m making up; the importance of subtext – that wonderful tension from ‘what lies beneath’ – and the impact these energies have when in collision. And then I came across this quotation and it encouraged me to dig deeper, to think about consequential action and what is suggested, not said outright: what is glimpsed rather than outwardly revealed, and to explore how to externalise the hidden, inner life.

How to write the ‘right’ ending, part two: consequential action.

I don’t like endings which are too tidy and ‘pat’. I distrust them. I feel like I’ve been processed – part of a well-oiled machine which has passed me along its predictable, dependable conveyer belt, depositing me unscathed, unchallenged and unsurprised at the end. I feel like the magical mystery tour I signed up to gave me an advance road map, with the route yellow highlighted in. I feel I have been part of a pedestrian equation, where A+B=AB.

It’s essential that there is structure and form to our writing (even – or especially – when the work is ‘experimental’), but here is a line between the well structured and the disappointingly predictable ‘I could see that coming for miles.’

But I’m not a fan of unpredictable, ‘magical’ endings either, where elements not previously existing in the world of the play fly in,  and ‘explain’ or solve everything. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as the god from the machine, deus ex machina. Think the chance meeting and deep conversation with the stranger with the meaningful past/anecdote to tell/piece of ancient wisdom to pass on which has surprising resonance with the protagonist’s dilemma and precipitates a sudden understanding and even swifter conclusion…  Or the surprise lottery win, the unexpected behest, the sudden death or illness, or the offer of a new job/house/country/lover/gender/whatever, which draws everything together in a premature ending leaving the viewer blinking and feeling cheated as the houselights come up.

The kind of endings I like are the ones where we are kept guessing until the last moment and then go ‘yes, of course it would end like that.’ We know that Hamlet will end up on a pyre of bodies, as when we think about it, this is the only possible ending, given his actions and interactions throughout the play. In this kind of writing, character equals plot, and plot equals character. They are indivisible, and there is logic – cause and effect: an action is made which brings a response, retaliation, or reward – consequential action – but not the simple binary of A + B of above, but a logarithm, a complex equation which, in both literary and mathematical senses of the word, is ‘beautiful’.

I’ve always believed that nothing should be extraneous in a play (or a story, or a novel, or a screenplay, or any kind of art or craft). Everything needs to earn its right to be there, and it all should contribute in some way to the ending. I can’t bear loose threads, or the sections included merely as a brain rest, so we can look at the attractive people, or hear a nice song, or be ‘entertained’ by something before returning to the true meat of the evening.

Of course some performances are not presenting a main or single narrative – there may not be a plot. Rather, they can be a montage working towards an overall effect at the close of the piece, rather than the resolution of a conflict, or a quest, or a psychological or emotional journey. Then I feel the power of the ending is cumulative, relying on everything that came before.

I love work which is up-close and personal, so involving and intricate it is as though I’m scrutinising individual stitches and threads, and it is only when it is drawing to a close, or complete, I can step back and see the tapestry, the full woven landscape whose minutiae I know and have followed.

That kind of experience brings great satisfaction and, for me, the most powerful ending, for everything has been created and spun out of what existed at the beginning: a fully realised world, a cast of well-developed characters whose actions and reactions create the stuff of the plot, a narrative full of twists and turns, which is unpredictable, but logical.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 25 August 2012.