Lessons from the Drama Department

copyright 1999, Karen A. Hertzberg

Envision this scene.  Together at the famed Actor's Studio in New York are Elia Kazan,
director of five Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and winner of two Academy Awards, Rona
Jaffe, a best-selling novelist, and Sol Stein, novelist and master editor to some of the
world's most successful writers.  These famed "heavy hitters" are about to learn a lesson in creating dramatic tension before an audience of their peers.

Kazan directs the action.  The observers know that Stein will play the headmaster of a
private school for privileged children.  Rona Jaffe will be the mother of a boy who has
been expelled by the headmaster.  They are to improvise the scene without a script.

Kazan takes Stein aside and quietly tells him that the mother of the expelled boy is coming to the headmaster's office, undoubtedly to plead for her son's reinstatement.  This child has disrupted every class, will not respond to authority, even after repeated warnings, and is not to be allowed back into the school under any circumstances.

Rona Jaffe's briefing follows, once again out of everyone else's earshot.  Nobody knows,
including Stein, what Kazan tells Jaffe until after the scene has been improvised.  Do you
think Kazan relayed the same scenario to her?

The set-up Kazan whispered into Jaffe's ear was this: She was the mother of a bright,
well-mannered boy.  Her son was a top-notch student. The headmaster was unfairly
prejudiced against him and had treated him unjustly.  Jaffe was to insist that her son be
reinstated immediately.

The improvised scene that followed on-stage exploded into a full-blown argument within seconds.  The actors squabbled, voices raised, faces red.  The audience loved it!  What conjured this realistically intense and dramatic scene?

The actors had each been given a different "script"!

Having different "scripts" is what dramatic conflict is all about.  As writers, we generate
tension in a scene by giving our characters different perspectives.  Let's take a look at the
two characters in the scene we just discussed.

First, we have the headmaster.  From his perspective, he is dealing with an awful,
undisciplined child who causes nothing but problems for the teachers and students of the upper crust educational institution he heads.  He feels justified in ridding his school of this scourge, and he's firm in his conviction that the youth was rightfully ousted. 

Enter Mom, who has eyes only for Junior's sterling qualities.  Why, he's an intelligent lad, a model student!  The headmaster is a pompous ass, cruel and unjust.  It doesn't matter one bit whether Junior has duped ol' Mom by putting on a good show for her benefit, or whether in truth the headmaster really IS a mulish, unfair administrator.  The character's opposing perspectives generates the conflict.

How can we writers use this tool--a method from The Actor's Studio--to improve our writing?  Simple.  No story is worth reading unless it has conflict and tension.  Characters who share the same viewpoint make for boring reading.  How long do you think you could remain interested in a story where the characters were in blissful agreement with one another?  Often, in order to make a scene boil with dramatic tension, we need to give the characters altered perceptions of the same reality.  As Anais Nin is quoted, "We see things not as they are, but as we are."

Of course, not all conflict in writing is generated through character to character
interactions.  We all remember the different formulas for conflict from our high school
days.  We have not only man against man, but man against nature and man against
himself. (Are those basic principles from Ms. Wilson's English 101 class coming back to you now?)  But whenever you write a scene pitting one character against another or several characters amongst themselves, remember The Actor's Studio method.  Hand your characters different scripts.

Reference source: Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein,  (c) 1995.  St. Martin's Press. Purchase at Amazon.com.

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