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Play Writing - Scenario Making And Mechanical Process

( Originally Published 1915 )



The scenario or skeleton is so manifestly the natural ground-work of a dramatic performance that the playwrights of the Italian commedia dell' arte wrote nothing more than a scheme of scenes, and left the actors to do the rest. The same practice prevailed in early Elizabethan days, as one or two MS. "Plats," designed to be hung up in the wings, are extant to testify.-WILLIAM ARCHER, Play-Making.

Hand-script is difficult to read at best and irritates your very busy judge; the manuscript reader cannot give full attention to your work if the act of reading becomes laborious; unconsciously he regards hand-script as the sign manual of inexperience Neatness counts for as much in a manuscript as do clean cuffs on a salesman.—J. BERG ESENWEIN, Writing the Short-Story.

There is a relation between the one-act play and the scenario, if only a quantitative one. The scenario is in reality a condensed version of the longer play, partaking of the tabloid features of the playlet. Practice in writing either form should help in the other. Certainly the ability to devise a good outline is the natural precedent of successful play writing. It is an idle fear that taboos the scenario as restricting the author's and the characters' freedom in the development of the play. After the personage's have been conceived and thrown together under the basic conditions, it can be a question of but a short time until the playwright will want to cast, in at least some definite, if tentative form, the sequence of events that issue from the combination. And even though he map out a detailed story, incident by incident, act by act, even though he include bits of dialogue or whole scenes, there is no valid reason why, should he later see fit, he should not revise the entire programme or rewrite every word of it. On the other hand, unless he have an extraordinarily retentive memory, he will find it difficult to bear in mind the many threads of conduct and character it is his business to weave together.

In the preparation of the scenario for use in the actual writing of the play, every freedom is, of course, available. During the fine frenzy of invention, ideas will be jotted down pell-mell; and even when the first effort at the establishment of order takes place, the author will pay little heed to strict proportion and emphasis.

Having his environment and characters and the first indefinite intimations of the trend of the plot, he will probably begin by mapping out a scheme of time and place, which will depend upon or result in the preliminary division into acts and scenes.

General Suggestions

In planning the one-act play it will usually be best to employ only one scene and to make the time of action continuous. Latter-day realism demands that acting-time and actual time should be identical. The stage clock that strikes ten-thirty six minutes after it has struck ten is likely to excite derision. Besides, in nearly every instance, a little ingenuity should suffice to synchronize with actuality the time of any single scene.

Furthermore, in the drama today the author must take into consideration the events and changes that may have occurred during the periods intervening between the occasions represented in the different acts. Thus each act following the first will often require a brief exposition of its own, which will account for the entr'acte developments, somewhat after the fashion of "Lennox and another Lord" and "Ross and an Old Man" in the intervals between Acts II and III and Acts III and IV of "Macbeth." Much, indeed, may occur off-stage in the drama- particularly scenes of violence—and be the more effective for the invisibility, always providing that there shall be omitted from actual representation no incident that is vitally illustrative, that has been deliberately prepared for, that is, indeed, a Sarceyan scène d faire, or scene-that-must-be-shown.

Actual Scenario Making

Once the rough plan is drawn up, the procedure of scenario making will continue apace with the process of thinking out the play. Unless one is a follower of that advanced "technique" which abhors rising and falling action as over-artificial, he will naturally build up to a climax. He will also prepare for a solution not devoid of suspense and surprise clear down to the final curtain. Of course, at every step the plot should be tested by the characters in strictest logic; and, wherever it exceeds or falls short of consistency and probability, it should be halted indefinitely for ruthless alteration.

Eventually the working scenario, when it has been copied into legibility, will probably be a rather chaotic conglomerate of first and third person remarks. Here and there, in important scenes especially, there will be passages in dialogue; though, for the most part the out-line will be chiefly composed of narrative and description, probably in the historical present. In this form and at this stage the scenario offers almost every opportunity for that preliminary sell-criticism which may be as productive of the greatest progress as it will be saving of hasty and ill-considered labor. In many cases, in fact, it will be found both expedient and profitable to put the work aside to "cool," in order that a fresher and a more detached and impersonal attitude may be adopted by the author later on, when he considers his project anew.

Preparing the Scenario for the Producer.

As for the scenario which is intended to set forth the gist of a drama to one who may possibly be interested in its production, that is quite another matter. To begin with, it is written not before but after the actual composition of the play itself. Generally it will aim to interest a busy and critical manager or actor, in the hope of arousing his desire to read the completed play. The theories in this regard seem to vary. One producer refuses to read a play by an unknown author until a scenario has been submitted; another will perhaps return the scenario with a statement to the effect that, while it appears interesting, one can form no satisfactory estimate without a consideration of the entire play. Perhaps the only safe policy is to submit both play and scenario, and let the reader take his choice.

At all events, this finished outline of a finished play requires care in its construction, if it is to interest and satisfy. To begin with, it must be brief. That means that the writer will have to exercise his sense of proportion in laying out his account of characters and incidents. He will have to blue-pencil the non-essential in all ruthlessness. Yet, on the other hand, he must avoid a sketchy summary which produces vagueness and uncertainty in the reader. Moreover, really good ideas are valuable in the world of the theatre. Stated baldly in brief scenario form, they are perhaps more at the mercy of the unscrupulous than when they have been worked up into finished plays, or at least into complete outlines which represent plays written and capable of copyright.

Above all, the scenario should be dramatic. Upon the manner in which one selects and emphasizes in the outline the significant moments of one's play will its general quality be judged.

When a play has been finally completed to the full satisfaction of the author and, so far as possible, has had such reliable criticism as he may have been able to obtain, it is then put in form for submission to producers and for copyright. Of course, it is typewritten in duplicate. Three or even more carbon copies, in addition to the original, can readily be made. The size of manuscript sheets should be about eight by ten and a half, or perhaps eight and a half by eleven inches. The first copy should, if possible, be typed in two colors: all the dialogue should be, preferably, in blue or purple; all the stage directions, in red. In the carbon copies the stage directions should be underscored with red ink. Do not use a "copying ribbon" on the typewriter—the script smudges too easily and annoyingly stains the fingers of the reader.

Stage Directions

There are various plans for arranging directions and dialogue on the typewritten page. Most writers place the name of each character in the center of the line above his speech. Any direction concerning the speech is then placed in parenthesis on the line following. Stage directions, by the way—except perhaps the description of the setting at the beginning of the scene—should all be enclosed in parentheses.

A few writers adopt the plan of placing the name of the character, followed by any required direction, at the beginning of the first line of his speech. Name and direction are either typed or underscored in red; the speech, in purple, blue, black, or some other contrasting color.

Longer stage directions than the mere phrase that characterizes a single speech are generally arranged in a sort of reversed paragraph, all the lines after the first, instead of the first, being indented, and typed or underscored in red. The left-hand margin for stage directions should be placed an inch or more to the right of the ordinary type-margin. The dialogue should be double spaced; but single spacing for the stage directions may serve as an additional means of convenient contrast. Appended to this volume will be found facsimile pages of play manuscript that will illustrate the most common usage.

It should be borne in mind that the arrangement of the manuscript is for the benefit of the reader. In these days of multitudinous scripts and leisureless producers, many a play probably fails of a hearing because of a disorderly or confusing appearance.

Each act of a play should be preceded by a description and a diagram of the setting. Both should be complete yet simple. The description notes the details of the mise en scène and their relative locations. The diagram still more definitely places them, indicating walls, doors, windows, entrances, and exterior and interior surroundings of every sort. The best usage requires that the name of each object be written on or beside the representation of the object in the diagram.

The present-day movement is toward a simplification of stage terminology. The old manner of describing entrances as "Right first," "Right third," or "Left upper"—except for generally locating positions in exteriors—has passed with the passing of the old-fashioned wing-and-groove settings. Nowadays interiors are completely boxed in, the side walls being as solid, the side doors and windows as "practicable," as the rear ones, with usually a solid ceiling in place of the unrealistic "borders" of other days. The stage, however, still retains its general divisions, Right, Left, and Center, customarily designated as R, L, and C. "Right" and "Left" on the stage are, of course, the actor's right and left as he faces the audience. More-over, the terms "up stage" and "down stage" are still employed to indicate locations toward the rear and toward the front of the stage respectively. Similarly, one speaks of a chair as being "above" a table; though there is no earthly reason why "behind" should not be equally expressive—only, it is not used.

However, an extensive knowledge of stage terminology is not actually requisite to the preparation of play manuscripts. What is essential is that the author should thoroughly know the capabilities of the stage for producing or heightening the effects at which he aims. Flies, rigging-loft, dock, stage-cloth, tormentors, traps, drops, flats, set-pieces, woodcuts, runs, bunch-lights, dimmers, foots, strips, olivettes, flood lights, spotlights, stage pockets, gridiron, lines, battens, tabs, jogs, etc., etc., are all characteristic and interesting terms; but, for the most part, they may be left to the players, more especially to the manager and the stage hands. At all events, the entire special terminology of the theatre can be learned by any ordinary mind with a half-hour's application. And this in spite of the fact that schools of acting and of playwriting sometimes detail the subject in their catalogues as though it were one of the full courses of instruction.

In writing the stage directions, it is customary to give at the first entrance of each character a brief description of his personal appearance and dress. This usually suffices for the entire play unless some marked change in an individual is to be indicated. Napoleon in the first act of "Madame Sans-Gêne" is, naturally, a very different-looking person from Napoleon in the third act.

At the beginning of the play there should be prefixed for convenient reference a list of the dramatis personae. The growing and rational usage is to name the characters in the order of their appearance. This list is, of course, to be printed in the programme. And it should include no more than the names of the personages, without explanation other than an occasional descriptive word. "Manson, a butler" and "William, his son" would perhaps not be out of place; but any detailed description or explanation here of a character, his business, or his relations to other characters, is nowadays interpreted as a confession that the play itself does not succeed in conveying the necessary information as it should. In fact, the stage directions in the version of the play intended for the purposes of theatrical production should usually con-fine themselves, with regard to the characters, to the simplest essential account of the appearance and conduct of each personage. Monsieur Rostand may embalm his stage directions in the form of sonnets, but he does it, of course, with an eye on the reader of his play, not on the producer. When the professed naturalistic playwright adopts a similar custom, even though he write in prose, he is certainly guilty of an inconsistency.

QUESTIONS AND EXERCISES

1. Revise the outline asked for in Exercise 6, Chapter XVI, in accordance with the instructions of this chapter.

2. For exercise, prepare a scenario of any modern play whose full text is available.

3. Referring to Exercise 7, Chapter XVI, proceed with the writing of your long play. When you have finally done this work to the best of your ability, you should revise painstakingly according to the suggestions in the next chapter.

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