The order of the feast.



A lot has been said in my various circles, recently, about structure.  To be quite clear, about the structure of plays.

b’seder, for the uninitiated, literally means ‘in order.’ Oh, and it’s also defined as the colloquialism, ‘O.K.’  I like that, the idea of structure being synonymous with everything being alright.  ‘God’s in his heaven,’ you know, like that.

Perhaps I attract like-minded people – of course I do, but also celebrate my world’s collisions with other-minded people, much more interesting that way.  Let me start again.

Many of the generous playwrights and directors and dramaturgs with whom I spend my time are happy to expound on their ideas of structure.  Indeed, my first 10-minute play, which became a Heideman Award finalist, owes pretty much everything to the playwright friend I phoned up when I heard a story that demanded I dramatize it.

“Bob,” said I, “Bob, help, what’s the structure of the 10-minute play?!!”

I had never taken a writing workshop or class – much like an amateur singer, I thought, I know how to type! I have stories to tell! Why shouldn’t I write plays!

Brief disclaimer: I’ve been in theater since age 8, working just about every job from onstage to backstage to front-of-house to production team, most of this being professional work near or at world-level, so it wasn’t like I’d just seen a lot of plays – yes, I’ve done a lot of audiencing as well – and thought I could make my own because I did already understand the nuts and bolts of production and execution.

Nor had I met Gary Garrison, or read the book that I’ve subsequently used as the text for a workshop I taught in early 2012.

But (as usual) I digress.

Bob – the inimitable Robert F. Benjamin – said, “Set up the world on page one, on page three you need a reversal, another on six or seven, climax around page nine, and get out as fast as you can.”

He was right.

I embarked on massive Internet searches regarding play structure and of course came up with Freytag and references to Aristotle – hugely frustrating, I wanted mathematical formulae, I wanted lists, I wanted seder.

So I asked my good buddy P.H. Lin, and was given the following extremely useful list:

  1. Set up the world
  2. Set up what’s at stake (who the audience roots for)
  3. First complication (audience loyalty can change)
  4. Second complication ( ” )
  5. End the first act
  6. Third complication
  7. Crisis
  8. Climax
  9. Resolution

A recent Facebook conversation led me to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who defined it this way.

And then it was distilled even further in a conversation with Robin Rice Lichtig, in which I posited:

  1. Beginning
  2. Middle
  3. Transformation
  4. End

and she added to #3 that the relationship of the protagonist to their world/want must be part of that transformation.

Then I got back to work, which is what I’ll do right now.  Thanks for stopping by.

©2012 all rights reserved

2 thoughts on “b’seder

  1. This may be useful for analysis, but I find that using this kind of template too often produces formulaic work when it’s a starting point. I still look for a situation in which a character is torn between conflicting impulses. Drama is based in the tension created by the choices characters face. Drama doesn’t happen to characters. Characters face dramatic situations because of actions they take. They should not be passive, they should have arrived at their dilemmas because of things they did intentionally.

  2. I agree that there’s more to a play, and particularly to what drives a play, than structure – that’s actually the weakness of my Heideman-almost, it tells a really good story (overheard) but doesn’t set up the want and obstacle very clearly at the outset. I don’t mean that characters should be passive in their stories’ worlds, not at all. But as a semi-beginning playwright who’s having a lot of luck but not quite enough, if you can see the correlation, I got desperate for – you’re right – the tools of analysis. I often don’t know how my plays will end when I sit down to write them – structure isn’t a genesis tool – but when they’re on the page, ah, that’s another story.
    And nor am I advocating formulaic plays (of which there are many many, these days), just tools.
    Quite a few of which you gave me last summer, Jeffrey Sweet, and I thank you heartily again!

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