Dramatic Form: How do we build a play?

If you were hoping to join us for our latest Like the Clappers meeting on dramatic form, you’re too late. The curtain is down, we’ve finished that act, we’re in the bar afterwards discussing the acting and how comfortable the seating was. But just in case you couldn’t join us here’s a bit about what we did.

On Monday last week we came together in a pub in Clapham to discuss how we put stories together. What is their shape, structure and form? Are there any commonalities between good stories and if so, what are they? What is the secret ingredient to great storytelling?

I’m happy to say we’ve solved it and got the perfect formula for the perfect play, story, film whatever. Well sort of, we all kind of agreed on certain things we all find ourselves tending towards. We all knew about the elusive quality we were all talking about, but thankfully some of the magic remained frustratingly close – but just out of reach. So what did we mean?

We began by discussing STRUCTURE and FORM their similarities, their differences and when they overlap. We compared it to design and architecture – there was an analogy based around buildings and scaffolding and we decided that form was the overall shape of things whereas structure could be seen as the building blocks. Now, we are not saying that this is the definitive definition of these things, just that in this discussion this was the way we found it useful to define and understand these. And it was the endeavour not the definition that was most useful here I feel.

We touched on dramatic time, how chronology and order of events affects things. We discussed our own approaches to writing, dramaturgy and directing, whether we had formulas or approaches to writing scenes or stories based on these ideas. One piece of advice was to begin with a joke, advice that I think should always be taken on board.

We looked at the seven story types. Although more specifically we looked at the size of the book that I have on the seven story types which is more like a breeze block than a book and decided we had got all we wanted from the front cover (I will one day read this book I’m sure of it). We also talked about the three act structure. Now this is where we all really seemed to agree. And despite our best efforts and our desires against it, it seems to be the thing that keeps drawing us back.

The three act structure explained

The three act structure explained

It should be said we weren’t all slaves to it, and by no means go out looking for it. But often find that the more we refine and redraft our work the more it seems to resemble this shape. Some members have been experimenting with being more formal in their approach to writing and have been really enjoying it. Setting out with free writing and afterwards structuring and shaping it into a conventional story shape.

We also discussed plays and stories that play with this, change it and pull it around. Plays that make us think they’re going to use this and then send us in different directions. Plays that we think are not going to be the Three Act Structure and end up being. We also discussed the idea of the prologue and how, actually, sometimes we really like knowing exactly what’s going to happen and just want to see how it’ll all pan out.

We also began a discussion on what freedom a director has in the process and how much they’re allowed to interoperate and move things. However before long this became a discussion about stage directions and my right to ignore them. A discussion that is ongoing and I feel will continue for some time…

Finally we had a reading from Joseph Skelton’s radio play The Druid’s Horse, we didn’t quite get the full effect of this due to what seemed like the world table tennis finals going on not far away. But what we heard we liked and it is currently being recorded and will be available online soon. When it’s uploaded we’ll send the link.

I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the evening and what I think we should all be aiming for when telling stories. Finding that elusive moment that one of our members had when getting to the climatic moment in a brilliant play. She didn’t know whether to ‘cry, laugh or be sick’. If we can twist our audiences into that predicament I think we’re well on the way!



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