On Playwriting: Aristotle, Structure, and Too Damn Many Secrets

I began writing plays because I was an actor for a playwrights group. After working on several of their plays, I sang “I Can Do That” (from A Chorus Line), and started writing my own plays.

I especially wanted write plays because the group was all men, and they all devoutly believed what I rudely call the male orgasm approach to playwriting. That’s the three act, rising-action-climax-falling-action approach.

If your play didn’t do this, it was de facto Bad.

I didn’t agree.

This climax approach started with Aristotle, in the fourth century BCE. But it isn’t his fault. He was describing a specific kind of play popular in his time: Greek tragedy. Centuries later, a bunch of 15th century Italian scholars re-discovered Aristotle’s works, made them into a set of rules, and called them Neoclassicism. The French loved it and made it their own. Eventually, however, it died of a surfeit of regulations.

But over the years, other theatrical theorists wrote playwriting books based on this rising-action-etc. approach to plays. For simplicity, I will call it the well-made-play, or WTM.

For some time, that was how you wrote a play. Some classic plays have been written this way, by greats like Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller. If you’d like to know the whole story, here’s a very short course in the history of the structure .

After years of writing, I agree that knowing how to write in this mode is essential. All stories need a beginning, middle, and end. All plays need surprises, to keep the audience engaged. After all, when sitting in a theatre, you can’t put the movie on pause and go make a sandwich. So the writer has to keep the audience awake and interested.

But insisting that the WMP is the only way to write, or critique, a script, ends up creating a lot of tedious trash. Unfortunately, American audiences seem to love it. Especially if Secrets Are Revealed during that fabled Climax.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some terrific stuff written with revealed secrets: August Osage County, Proof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, to name just a few. But if you use the WMP, you have to do it brilliantly. Lauren Gunderson has an online class that takes the WMP to a new, and incredibly useful, level. She shows us how to use the WMP well.

But not everyone does use it well. For me, all these revealed secrets are getting tiresome. Googling “theatre scripts where secrets are revealed” found the following. Apologies if one of these is your play; I didn’t read them to see if you did it brilliantly. But pushing the Secret in the logline indicates otherwise.

–All ends happily when ‘The Shagwood Secret’ is revealed.
–Really really complicated and totally unique secrets are revealed over white wine.
–Dark secrets hidden in the grey mists of time are reluctantly revealed in this excellent black comedy.
–The secrets of the house have been revealed overnight as the family slept.
–A one-night stand that reveals a woman’s secret.
–A one act drama for youth theatre with a single (bedroom) setting, in which secrets are divulged
And, too often:
–Years after the death of their mother, sisters RETURN to clean out the childhood home their widowed father left behind. When their estranged younger sister CLAIMS her share of the estate, the three women find themselves unearthing…deep secrets and harsh realities of their past lives and decisions.”

I blame screenwriting for this overabundance of secrets. If you want to make money in movies, (instead of riding the endless Indie film rollercoaster) you need the Big Reveal—that is, revealing a Big Secret.

You can also have a lot of things to blow up. But that’s harder to do in live theater.

Read more about screenwriting structure here

But I write plays, not movies. There are many other ways to skin the structure cat. Next time, I’ll look at some writers who don’t worry about revealing secrets, or about the climax.

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