All right, the title is kind of click-baity, but I promise I have a point. Recently, a friend asked me for playwriting book recommendations. Aside from the fact that I was tickled someone asked me, I realize that I don’t have a lot of books about playwriting that I actually enjoy reading, or even that I find useful. It’s not that playwriting books are bad, it’s just that they all tend to say the same thing. The old standby (and most often recommended) is Backwards and Forwards by David Ball. He, like most writers who write about writing, only talks about one way of storytelling – what I’ve come to call “The Solitary Orgasm Method,” or when I’m feeling particularly plucky, “Missionary.”
Of course, this is the standard. It’s the way most plays and fiction are written. For the Women #4 Project, I’m in the process of reading the top 10 produced plays of the past season and thanks to a sick day in bed (thanks norovirus?) I binge re/read almost all of them. The majority of these plays tread this well-worn path. And that’s how it has started to feel – well-worn. We’ve conquered traditional storytelling! It has been beaten to death with a shovel, and crippled and sewn back together, and walked a mile in your shoes, and etc. etc.
What is it about chronologically linear that’s so compelling, or if not compelling, prevalent? I came to a few conclusions,
- It’s easier to write.
- It’s easier to understand.
- It has a long history.
But those things don’t inherently make it better. Non-traditional/non-linear narrative is not incomprehensible and not uninteresting. After reading the third traditionally linear play in a row, the strings started to become too clear. I found myself ahead of stories, expecting twists, knowing where the next fight was breaking out. But also, more importantly, I was bored. I ended this marathon of a reading session, by re-reading one of my linear plays. Sadly, I was bored by that, too. I thought, I’m a writer! I’m creative! I should be doing something different. Right?
Shouldn’t we crave breaking out of the comfort zone fort we’ve built ourselves out of pillows and blankets and teddy bears? They are very comfy pillows, sure. But is it as satisfying as it could be? Why do we get trapped here? There aren’t any rules about it. I’m gonna say it again. There are no rules that say THIS IS THE WAY A STORY HAS TO BE OR THE WORLD WILL CRUMBLE AND NOTHING WILL MAKE SENSE ANYMORE (first person to mention the dead, white, guy who made up a bunch a rules gets punched in the jugular; if I wanted Aristotle’s opinion I’d go back to my undergrad Introduction to Theatre History class). And yet, I often feel stuck in the Strict-Rule-Land of Aristotelian Unity.
There’s nothing wrong with traditional storytelling, structures with only the one, ahem, climax. But I’ve come to think of this as a very masculine way of approaching story. Think about it. Men very rarely have the potential for multi-orgasm. Women on the other hand – whew boy. We can have way more than one. What about a story that goes fast, slows, fast, medium, fast, slow, etc. building and crescendo-ing in little ways and then big ways; spinning into so many directions we can’t think straight, and then approach clarity(ies) over and over again? How do/can we move toward a more prevalent, feminine story structure with multiple peaks and valleys? Sure, multi-orgasmic structure doesn’t serve all stories. However, does Missionary have to be the default? Does Missionary, in fact, serve all stories?
Our own timelines and histories might be linear, but the way in which we recall them is not. In the course of one conversation our minds jump from thought-to-thought, memories, images, that one embarrassing moment from seven years ago that still makes us cringe. It’s the emotion that matters, whatever the timeline. So, let’s try to write a few plays that may mess with tradition. Buck (yes, buck) tradition. Or, at least toy with the notion the next time you sit down to write instead of auto-piloting to a linear structure. How about when we’re stuck on where to go next with our story we start with changing up the structure. Rearrange those scenes. Forget backwards and forwards. There are diagonals and zigzags in there.
So I made this little exercise (not exactly an original one at that) to apply to future plays when I’m either early in the process of writing it, or maybe when I go back for a re-write to shake myself up: Erase the idea of rising action coming up to a single peak. Instead imagine a series of branches reaching out concluding, or cutting off into something else. Or, several balls of yarn that all got released and are rolling in different directions. Or waves. Or, hell, a Pick Your Own Adventure book. Think of an image that will change the structure from the expected to the unexpected and try to shape the story around that picture instead.
And then, spend some alone time in your bunk.
Got an image to add to this non-linear story structure exercise? Leave a comment!