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Play Writing - Outlining The Complication

( Originally Published 1915 )

Every alteration or crossing of a design, every new-sprung passion, and turn of it, is a part of the action, and much the noblest, except we conceive nothing to be action till they come to blows.—DRYDEN, Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

I remember very distinctly his saying to me: "There are, so far as I know, three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly—you must bear with me while I try to make this clear "—(here he made a gesture with his hand as if he were trying to shape something and give it outline and form)—" you may take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express and realize it. I'll give you an example—' The Merry Men.' There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which the coast affected me."—GRAHAM BA L FOUR, Life and Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson.

"The crux of the plot is what the word implies--a cross." (I take these illuminating passages from Dr. Esenwein.) "It may be like a cross-roads, with its consequent choice of ways, or it may be the crossing of wills in individuals, or the unintentional crossing of one's purposes by some innocent person, or the rising of an evil deed out of one's past to cross his ambitions, or any one of a countless number of such complications. The types are limited, but the variations are unlimited and invite the resourceful playwright.

"In a full-length play a single complication of major importance and strength may result in struggle enough to keep the characters embroiled down to the very end. In this way minor complications will weave in and out, all contributory to or growing out of the main struggle. The one thing to be avoided, as has already been suggested, is that two complications of major calibre should war for possession of the auditor's interest. Minor complications must resolutely be kept in their places."

Planning the Complication

By means of such devices as are discussed in the immediately succeeding chapters, as well as by use of the ordinary chain of events in the story, the beginner will build a plot outline. Having laid out the strands of interest and motive provided by the characters in their initial situation, he proceeds to the interweaving of those strands. New incidents, personages, or motives are introduced. Something happens which changes the trend of affairs. Two or more characters coming together clash, react, and proceed along diverted courses. A loves B and would marry her. But C arrives and conceives a similar ambition. A and C contend, and D intervenes, with his own peculiar motive, to lend his influence to A. However, E and F are interested in the contest in divers ways, and they take sides accordingly. So the process goes, all designed to interest the audience intensely, as any hard-fought contest must—providing, always, that it does not lapse into mere wrangling or "sparring for wind."

The beginner will find it helpful to examine the plot structure of a number of representative plays. For a good American example, let us take Mr. Augustus Thomas's masterpiece, "The Witching Hour."

"I snare an idea, arrange a half-dozen characters, and begin on the plot. The second act comes out in the writing of the first, and the third act develops itself out of the second." The quotation is from Mr. George M. Cohan.

Obviously, in "The Witching Hour," the theme "snared" by Mr. Thomas is—to put it most simply-telepathy. Assuming that such a phenomenon actually exists, we must at once realize its dramatic possibilities. We can perhaps fancy the author casting about in memory and imagination for characters fitted to work out the psychic theme. According to his own prescribed formula, quoted in Chapter III from a newspaper interview or article, there will be a proponent, an opponent, a person in dispute, and a detached character, "the Attorney for the People."

Mr. Thomas chose Kentucky as the scene of three of his four acts. Perhaps it was because he knew an actual Kentuckian who was fitted to serve as his proponent. Perhaps it was because the author saw in the Goebel murder case material suited to his purpose. It may be that the proverbial quick temper and readiness for gun-play associated with Kentuckians had something to do with the choice. Doubtless there were numerous other determining considerations. At all events, the playwright's mind shaped Jack Brookfield, a gambler, a man of physical and mental strength and magnetic personality, doubtless unscholarly but by no means uneducated.

Complication in "The Witching Hour"

Toward the close of a midnight supper in Brookfield's luxurious house, Tom Denning, a worthless gilded youths comes to play cards. He is told to wait until the guests have gone. Among them are Clay Whipple, a promising young architect, son of the former sweetheart of the gambler, and Viola, Brookfield's niece. The youngsters are in love; and Clay is much exercised when he ascertains that Frank Hardmuth, assistant district attorney, has proposed to Viola. The girl greatly prefers Clay, however; and the opposition the mothers of the pair evince with regard to the match seems likely to prove brief.

Hardmuth comes to enlist for his suit the support of Brookfield. At this point, manifestly Proponent and Opponent are for the first time brought face to face. Hardmuth's moral fibre is too weak, the gambler tells him in all frankness; the attorney, who has sworn to uphold the law, is betraying his duty, and is therefore unfit to become Viola's husband. When the angry lawyer stoops to belittle his young rival for the girl's hand, Brookfield retorts, "Some day the truth'll come out as to who murdered the governor-elect of this state. . . . I don't want my niece mixed up in it."

In a conversation between Brookfield and Clay's mother, we are told how Jack's "profession" came between them years ago. The obstacle apparently still persists; Jack confesses his inability to give up gambling. We get also the play's second reference to his unusual psychic power: when he was in college, Jack used to compel Helen to write to him, merely by fixing his mind upon the idea.

A belated visitor, Justice Prentice, formerly of Kentucky, now of the United States Supreme Court, drops in. After he has astonished Brookfield by casually answering the latter's unspoken questions, the jurist first voices the thesis of the play: "Every thought is active—that is, born of a desire—and travels from us—or it is born of the desire of someone else and comes to us. We send them out—or we take them in—that is all. . . . If we are idle and empty-headed, our brains are the playrooms for the thoughts of others—frequently rather bad. If we are active, whether benevolently or malevolently, our brains are workshops—power-houses."

Meanwhile, the vapid Denning, now tipsy, has been mercilessly teasing young Whipple, who has an inherited aversion to cat's-eyes. One of these jewels Tom maudlinly persists in thrusting into Clay's face. In a moment of frenzy the latter youth snatches up the heavy ivory paper knife—which the audience has already seen Helen let fall by accident—and, striking Denning with it, kills him. Hardmuth has gone to the telephone, when Brookfield checks him, saying Clay himself shall have the credit of notifying the police.

It will be observed that Act I is largely explanatory. The main characters have all been introduced; the theme has been defined; through the visit of the Justice, an element of preparation has been brought in;—and the battle of Brookfield versus Hardmuth is on. Clay Whipple, the "person in dispute," has by his rashness put a weapon into the Opponent's hands. But there is another weapon, as yet unrevealed, which chance is preparing for the Proponent's use. If for a figure we adopt the not inappropriate parlance of the prize ring, we may say that Round One ends with the advantage on Hardmuth's side. What will happen in Round Two?

Coincidence has it that the appeal of Clay Whipple for a new trial, after an unfair hearing during which he has been condemned to death, is taken to the United States Supreme Court, and Justice Prentice has the deciding voice in the matter. Brookfield, Helen Whipple, and Viola call on the Justice to plead in behalf of Clay. Coincidence again has it—this time in no feeble terms—that Helen should be no other than the daughter of Margaret Price, with whom Prentice as a youth was in love. His letter to the old sweetheart, referring to a duel he had fought with a man who had frightened her with a cat's-eye jewel, causes the Justice to reverse his determination not to grant Clay a rehearing. In fact, Prentice promises to testify in the lad's behalf at the second trial. Later, when he is left alone with Margaret Price's handkerchief, her miniature, and the perfume of mignonette, the jurist—as the clock strikes two—is convinced that the spirit of the long-dead woman has been in that room and has "directed a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States."

So Round Two in the fight is Jack Brookfield's round. But the battle is by no means over: the honors are merely even.

Again at midnight, we are in Kentucky. While Clay Whipple's friends are awaiting the verdict after his second trial, Brookfield, thinking hard, strives for a telepathic influence over the one apparently friendly juryman. Jack has just told the newspapers what he knows about Hardmuth's connection with the murder of the governor-elect. The two antagonists again come face to face, and the attorney threatens the death of the gambler if the "story" is published. "I'll print it myself and paste it on the fences," retorts Brookfield, resolved to thwart Hardmuth's ambition to become governor, as well as to reckon with him for the "hounding of Clay to the gallows." If the youth is again convicted, there will be an appeal to the governor. What if the governor were Hardmuth?

Brookfield's efforts at a telepathic influence over the juryman appear to have been not in vain. Shortly after Jack has learned this fact, he gets a warning that Hardmuth, who has now seen the printed murder charge, will shoot on sight. This news moves Helen to confess her love for the now reformed gambler. To his friend Ellinger —a "comic relief" character—and incidentally to the audience—Brookfield explains that, when all Kentucky is thinking about the charge against Hardmuth, the general thought cannot fail to reach the deliberating jury. Mean-while, the newspaper "story" has prevented the unscrupulous lawyer's nomination for governor.

Then Clay Whipple suddenly returns—acquitted. While his friends are rejoicing, Hardmuth rushes in and thrusts a revolver against Brookfield's body. Again Jack resorts to dynamic thought, with the result that the enraged attorney, not able even to hold the weapon in his hand, recoiling slowly, says, "I'd like to know—how in hell you did that—to me."

It appears that Round Three has ended with the Opponent down, if not quite out. So far as conflict is concerned, there is, in fact, little to carry tense interest over into the last act. However, the referee's decision has not yet been formally announced; and for this reason—among others—the spectators are entirely willing to stay on.

For the last time at the witching hour we find ourselves in Brookfield's library. When Clay Whipple is tempted to revenge himself on Hardmuth by reporting for a newspaper the former prosecutor's trial on the murder charge, Jack rebukes the young man and tells him of the mental poison engendered by hatred. In spite of the women's protests, Brookfield by suggestion cures Clay of his senseless antipathy to the cat's-eye and sends him to fetch to the house Hardmuth, whose hiding-place has been discovered by Ellinger. While waiting, the Proponent first practically buys his antagonist's release from Ellinger and then demonstrates, to the latter's profound amazement, that it is possible by telepathy to read the cards in another player's hand.

When Clay returns with Hardmuth, Jack declares his resolve to help the attorney flee the state. "Hardmuth planned the assassination of the governor-elect exactly as I dreamed it," Brookfield explains; "and a guilty thought is almost as criminal as a guilty deed. I've always had a considerable influence over that poor devil that's running away tonight, and I'm not sure that before the Judge of both of us the guilt isn't mostly mine." And Helen promises to stand by Jack as he has stood by her boy.

Simplicity and Adaptation

In considering this basic narrative, here so roughly sketched, the student will note first of all its simplicity and its adaptation to both thesis and characters. Brook-field and Hardmuth fight over Clay Whipple's life and happiness. The protagonist's advantage lies largely—if by no means entirely—in the fact that he employs the potency of dynamic thought in his style of warfare. The antagonists clash first over Viola and immediately there-after over her lover. The attorney's profession and position give him unusual opportunities of offense and defense. It is true that luck comes to the gambler's aid, in the matter of coincidence already noted; but we feel that, even if Justice Prentice had not happened to be the man who had once loved and fought for Clay Whipple's grand-mother, nevertheless the resourceful Brookfield would have found means material or psychic of overcoming his opponent. Winning the youth's freedom, moreover, the gambler wins back his own self-respect and the love of the woman his heart desires.

Three or four characters are used to conduct the fundamental action; the others are essentially minor figures, some of them, like Justice Henderson, Colonel Bagley, and Emmett, existing merely for purposes of exposition and atmosphere. Mrs. Whipple's onslaught on the mind and sensibilities of Justice Prentice in Act II is obviously under the explicit direction of Brookfield. Tom Denning comes into the piece solely to bring out Clay's congenital antipathy, and, by dying, to tie the first hard knot in the web of conflict. Lew Effinger, as has been noted, is for comic relief. Furthermore, he shares with Justice Prentice the rôle of "Attorney for the People" prescribed by the author. Viola is only a temporary bone of contention; her mother, too, merely a pawn in the game.

Jack antagonizes Frank, who wants Viola. Clay, who is to have her, puts himself in Frank's power. Jack gains his friend and fellow-psychic, Prentice, as a potent auxiliary. Jack strikes a knock-out blow with his murder charge against Frank. Frank in his extremity would kill Jack, but the latter by sheer strength of thought completes his conquest over his opponent. Then jack rounds out his achievements in the realm of the pseudo-scientific by abolishing Clay's fear and hatred and by taking on him-self a share in Hardmuth's guilt. That is the plot in its bare essentials. The student will have no difficulty in tracing its movement, the crossing of its strands, the dis-entangling of its threads.

It will be observed that in this somewhat extended discussion of a single example, little has been said of the all-important elements of characterization and dialogue. Both, however, may well be studied in the case of "The Witching Hour." Here we have been concerned as exclusively as possible with plot and its complication. There may be better plots in modern drama than the one here analyzed: certainly there are many worse. At all events, the student should diligently familiarize himself with the mechanism of many typical plays, to the end that the art of plotting may be mastered by the best possible means next to the actual construction of plots themselves, and—for this is important—with a view to making original plots, in due time.


NOTE: Skill in plotting comes from much plotting, even in those who are born intriguers. Therefore practice a great deal. Do not now concern yourself with preparation, suspense, climax, and such other elements of good plot-work as are discussed later, but use these ideas only as you now understand them. Later you will be able to perfect these preliminary plot-drafts by revision.

1. In about three hundred words, make an outline of a plot in which the whole action is manifestly preparing for a great struggle in the last act, with a swiftly-brought-about result.

2. Briefly outline a plot in which the complication occurred before the play opens, and in which, therefore, the whole play is made up of the conflict of forces resulting from the complication.

3. Briefly outline a plot in which the complication occurs almost at the outstart of the first act.

4. Briefly outline a plot in which you handle the complication to suit- yourself.

NOTE: In the foregoing four plots do not overlook the value of contributory minor complications, but do not let them in any sense rival the major complications—make them actually contributory.

5. Point out the complications in five modern plays.

6. Briefly outline the plots of three modern plays, showing clearly how the pivotal points are placed and how the determining forces move.

7. In "The Witching Hour" find fourteen references to the basic idea of the play.


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