Category Archives: structure

Why I Go

Theatre as a Riot in Perpetual Motion?

What the media is slowly turning to, after front page outrage decrying thuggery, criminality and insanity, is the root cause of the recent riots in London. How is it, they ask, that a single incident can ignite such enormous social unrest? It’s perplexing, there’s no single answer, the debate is unending they say.

Difficult questions are abundant in theatre and one of the reasons I continue to return there because the answers are often provocative. There are times however, when the questions are not so compelling and the answers not so fruitful but from these too, there is something to learn.

Two shows I saw last week brought this to mind.  But first, let me tell you about a time when I attended a court case in West Virginia. After everyone was ushered in and took their place, the murderer walked in. He walked past my friend’s family without a glance.   They stood, as the rest of the court did, in total silence, as he went to take his place in the dock. I could only imagine what was going through their minds as the person who took the life of their child and brother, walked calmly past them…in physical reach.

As I watched Stephanie Jacob’s The Quick at Tristan Bates (until 8/13), a moral play on the forgiving possibilities of both criminal and victim, I was struck by the lack of theatrical truth in her premise; that it is possible to forgive. It is not that we can’t do that or that we do not have the capacity but that the kind of truth this play seeks is a banal, middle-class kind of infinite justice mechanism that is not theatrical truth. Simply, it is not interesting to present such a simple question and answer in theatre. So while the dramatic question may be somewhat compelling (will he forgive, will she change?) there are no lingering provocations once that question is answered. I mean, when I left the theatre the play did not carry on in my mind with new thoughts and questions springing forth.

A totally different play but worth discussing in the same vein is Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8/20.  While this is  a comedy about two boyos who discover that they are part of a plot to have Hamlet killed in England, it contrasts with The Quick in  that the premise (who were R & G, really) is answered in the first act. After that, if you don’t find sitcom style ooo-errr kind of comedy a bucket of laughs, you are waiting for the Dead part to come as swiftly as possible. It takes two hours. However, this R&G is a treatise, because  the two minor characters in Hamlet are essentially you and I, in a funny way, as we too are minor and thus it is a note on  our own mortality and purpose. So here we have a case of an interesting idea but very weak dramatic question.

In sum: The Quick had a strong dramatic question but weak theme while R&G had a weak dramatic question but interesting theme. Neither worked very well as a result. Both plays, though very favourably reviewed far and wide,  are interesting lessons in theatrical integrity: that our questions should be both difficult to pose and the answers perplexing and provocative. High standards, yes, but the reason why I go. I don’t have the answers but I sure look to theatre for the questions.


The Meaning of Premise

Elements of Drama: The Meaning of Premise

A question regarding premise was asked of writer Orla Higgins after her reading of her short story, The Thin Blue Line .  The question prompted me to consider a question about meaning. How do we draw meaning from story? To understand this I went back and had a look at premise, a key element of drama.


Premise definitions:

It is the meaningful act by a person that causes change in themselves through a battle with an opponent.

Premise is what the drama is about.

It commits the story to one sentence and evokes its essential meaning. 

The premise is Aristotle’s unity and an essential part of story.

It answers the question, what is the beginning , middle and end?

The dictionary defines premise as  ‘A proposal from which a conclusion can be drawn. Or A proposal from which an argument is based.’  


The premise of The Thin Blue Line  is  ‘A girl discovers her own sense of self while waiting for a pregnancy test’.   Is my premise of her story accurate? Her story is the conclusion or argument. Her story argues for the girl’s reflection which draws her into maturity with a thread as thin as the line on the pregnancy kit.  The dictionary definition means a story which proves a point, or a story which the characters actions show an argument and from which conclusions can be drawn.

But in order to prove this idea, you need to have a unified proposal. Not a half sentence but a full sentence one that states what the proposition is and the sum of the proof.

The power in premise is the story that we then draw meaning from. A solid premise gives a story a certain life of its own, like a creature that  is vibrant and changeable and from which we can repeatedly draw meaning.

 A Premise has three parts at minimum : 

1) The protagonist

2) Their Action

3) The Result

A prince delays revenge for his father’s death and loses his own life and those he loves – Hamlet

 Expanded parts:

1) The Protagonist

2) Their need

3) Their action 

4) The Battle/Opponent

5) The result

The purpose of premise for the writer is to emblazon the central idea of the story so as not to stray and lose the unity of the tale. For the reader, it allows cogent understanding of what happens in a story. Given that Story is what happens and the meaning we draw from what happens, we can talk about a story itself being of being:

1) A set of events – What happens.

2) What the sum of those events mean.

Lets look at meaning first. For meaning to be received by the audience, it needs to be expressed. The meaning is what is received based (usually)  on the last act decision and action made by the protagonist.  This also gives us the theme. Theme is also the expression of the premise.  For a story to be meaningful the audience themselves must be somewhat transformed by what happens – which is astounding because it is not actually happening to them. What this means for a the writer is that you can’t just tell the meaning, because that won’t transform anyone, it will just lecture them. The transformation is done by the mimic of action by a character in the story who themselves are transformed. They are transformed by taking a series of actions and going through some catharsis during or after a battle. We too will follow that journey at least emotionally. That is our transformation, an emotional one.

A definition from Creative Screenwriting magazine:

Story creates the deeper understanding about human nature that we experience when we hear or see what has happened to another human being. Whether it’s an incident in the life of someone we know, the true-life experience of someone in the news, the adventures of a fictional character, or the heroic life of a compelling historical figure, we are fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters, and this progression of events is called plot. However, what engages our imagination on a human level is how the main character reacts to this progression of events, and this cumulative insight is called story

What happens in a story is that someone has one set of ideas and pursues something then someone else wants something too and that something is going to get in the way of what the first person wants. One of them wins out but not easily, not only do they have to fight someone to get what they want, they have to change something about themselves to overcome them because when they started they didn’t have everything they needed to do that, otherwise they would have just got it

That’s what we find interesting. Watching others attempt to overcome.

So what is it about meaning in story? Our lives are constant successions of failure and overcoming. We hardly think of it in that way, but together, those two actions are what we call striving.  Meaning, then, is why we have story. We like to think we do more overcoming than accepting defeat, and meaning  plays its part in building a narrative for our own striving and thus is essential in how it acts as a bridge from indifferent reality on one side and the metaphysical meaning of that on the other. 

The Dramatic Question

You are likely to know the structural item  ‘The Dramatic Question’ (DQ) in story.  Important as the DQ is, it is the tension of opposites in attempting to answer it that brings real power and sophistication to a story.


The dramatic question is a central part of any story but not  in the story -it is in the audience’s mind. It is what keeps them in their seats. The question comes to mind shortly after or at the inciting incident in the story, that event which sets off the protagonist to pursue a path of action leading to the climax where the dramatic question will be answered by the final action of the protagonist. (“Will he be able to prove his innocence in time? – The Fugitive.  “Did she inherit her father’s genius or madness” – Proof).  The real power of the DQ  is in the level of doubt sustained by the audience as to their own prediction of the outcome. This is the Tension of Opposites.   If they do not believe their own prediction, then there is doubt.   Doubt is good.

The audience may not be consciously thinking the question aloud but it compels them nonetheless to stay and watch the rest of the story unfold.  Indeed, the question can change, redirect and become more subtle with the protagonist action since we are not talking rules here. Often it is difficult to be absolute about the question and to say it succinctly depending on the movie, play or book.  Audiences will rarely talk about the dramatic question and may not even understand the term but book readers will say  ‘That book  was a real page turner’  meaning the dramatic question was strong.    Within each scene of the work there is a smaller but connected dramatic question that in it’s own way leads the audience to sway one way or the other regarding the central dramatic question.

Structurally a DQ requires a setup, tension between the two sides of that question   and the payoff.    Here’s an example: Will the sergeant in Lady Gregory’s play ‘The Rising of the Moon’ help the revolutionary escape or will he turn him in for the reward?  The setup is the  discovery by the audience that the beggar is actually the revolutionary and the key to the sergeant’s reward. The tension of opposites is how the writer made the audience veer to both sides. At times you think he will and then at others you think he won’t.    A good DQ can win a Pulitzer! The play and film ‘Doubt’ by JP Shanley has the keystone of the dramatic question in the title.  The DQ is Did the priest molest the  pupil? The audience is brought from positive to negative and back again on this question by the writer planting doubt in their minds as to their own prediction of the outcome leading to an ending that divides the audience down the middle.
Watch for Tension of Opposites in your story and the ones you read and watch. Are you moved from one plausible outcome to another? Do you find yourself changing your opinion of what’s going on, despite yourself? If so then you are in a story of sophistication with a writer who has the power to move minds.