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Play Writing - The Management Of Preparation In The Plot

( Originally Published 1915 )

The liner with hastily constructed boilers will flounder when she comes to essay the storm; and no stoking however vigorous, no oiling however eager, if delayed till then, will avail to aid her to ride through successfully. It is not the time to strengthen a wall when the hurricane threatens; prop and stay will not brace it then. Then the thing that tells is the plodding, slow, patient, brick-by-brick work, that only half shows down there at the foot half-hidden in the grass, obscure, unnoted. No genius is necessary for this sort of work, only great patience and a willingness to plod, for the time being.—FRANK NORRIS, The Mechanics of Fiction.

There is no idle detail; not one that lacks its utility in the action; no word that is not to have at an appointed moment its repercussion in the comedy. And this word—I do not know how the thing is done—it is the dramatic author's gift—this word buries itself in our memory and reappears just at the moment when it is to throw a bright light on some incident which we were not expecting, but which nevertheless seems quite natural, which charms us at the same time by the fact that it has been unforseen and by the impression that we ought to have foreseen it.—FRANCISQUE SARCEY, Quarante Ans de Théâtre. (The reference is to Monsieur Feydeau's "La Dame de chez Maxim.")

With the exposition set forth, and his chief characters introduced, the playwright is face to face with the development and the complication of his intrigue. If, in fact, he has not already largely done so, he must now proceed with the interweaving of the strands of character and conduct.

Here again logic is his chief guide. What his people are and the conditions in which they are placed will determine both what they will do and their reactions from the behavior of others. The playwright must first be sure that the personages do things that would reasonably and naturally result. But he must also select from this field of possible conduct the deeds that will develop his plot so that it may best illustrate his theme, or at least so that his story will be of the utmost interest.

At the same time that the dramatist is informing his audience of events that have happened in the past, he should be making ready for the things that are to occur in the future. This is the "art of preparation," emphasized by Dumas fils, as the art of the theatre. I do not mean that a play should develop along a route which everyone foresees after the first few lines. Under such conditions there can be no suspense, to say nothing of surprise. But many matters that are to come up later require advance explanation, in order that, when they do happen, they may be instantly and completely understood.

In "The Whole Art of the Stage," which was written at Cardinal Richelieu's command, the Abbé d'Aubignac treats this subject at some length. He says, in the words of the quaint translation of 1684:

"But there are another sort of things, which are to be laid as a foundation to build others upon, according to the Rules of Probability, and yet nevertheless do not at all discover these second ones, which they are to produce; not only because there is no necessity they should come to pass in consequence of the first; but also because the first are shew'd with colours and pretexts so probable, according to the state of the Affairs of the Stage, that the Minds of the Spectators pass them over, not thinking that from thence there can spring any new Incident, so that the preparation of an Incident, is not to tell or do any-thing that can discover it, but rather that may give occasion to it without discovering it; and all the Art of the Poet consists in finding Colours and Pretexts to settle these Preparations, so, that the Spectator may be convinc'd, that that is not thrown into the Body of the Play for any other design than what appears to him.

"But the main thing to be remembred, is, that all that is said or done as a Preparative or Seed for things to come, must have so apparent a Reason, and so powerful a Colour to be said and done in that place, that it may seem to have been introduc'd only for that, and that it never give a hint to prevent [foretell] those Incidents, which it is to prepare."

Examples of Preparation

Preparation is of various kinds. It may be an impressive prophecy, a word let fall unwittingly, a stammering admission wrung from a guilty conscience, or even a bit of "business" or pantomime. A letter is brought in and laid on the mantel, to be discovered later at a crucial instant by an involved personage. The mannerism, perhaps the antipathy, of a character is briefly mentioned at an early moment in order that, when it presently displays itself with significant consequences, we may be ready to comprehend and to recognize it. Mr. Augustus Thomas explains how, in his play, "The Witching Hour," he prepared even his "properties" for the murder that was to be committed. "A dagger," he says, "would have been too lethal, would have startled the audience too much. So a two-foot ivory paper-knife from my own desk served instead. The audience had to learn three things about it —its position, its purpose, and its ability to kill. The first two were accomplished by having a girl pick it up to cut a magazine; the third by a woman's knocking it to the floor, where it made a resounding bump." All this preparation is merely to avoid puzzling the audience with a minor question at a critical moment—a precaution upon which may easily depend the success of a play.

In "Kick In," to cite a recent instance, not only is a revolver displayed, remarked, and ostentatiously placed in a drawer, but a hypodermic syringe filled with cocaine is discussed at length so that the spectators will promptly understand, when both are used during a fight which serves as the climax of the play.

Again, in "Under Cover" much is said in advance about a very conspicuous burglar alarm, which is to be sounded later at a crucial moment. So emphatic was this bit of "preparation," indeed, that Mr. Channing Pollock said he waited through the rest of the act to see that burglar alarm used.

The Triangle of Information

Mr. Thomas refers to what is practically another phase of preparation, when he cites examples of Scribe's "triangle of information." "In one of his pieces a priest tells a casual acquaintance, in answer to queries as to the responsibilities of the confessional, that the first man he ever confessed had owned to a murder. Then the principal character of the play comes in, says ` Good day' to the priest, and, turning to the other man, explains: `You know, I was the first penitent Father Blank ever had.' In a flash the audience is startled, stirred, and at the same time pleased. Little bits of recognition, such as that, make the spectator feel that he has discovered something."

On his wedding day Mr. Smith puts ten one-hundred-dollar bills in an envelope, which his "best man" is to convey to the officiating clergyman. Perhaps years after-ward, at a dinner, various ministers get to naming the sums they have received as marriage fees, and Mr. Smith's rector remarks that the largest amount ever given him was one hundred dollars. Naturally Smith is startled. He questions the clergyman in private and is ready to lodge an accusation against his groomsman. The information has been conveyed by means of the dramatic triangle.

Mr. Thomas himself makes a telling use of this device in the first act of "As a Man Thinks." Burrill has told Vedah Seelig how Mimi, the model, out of gratitude to the man who had got her a place in Antoine's theatre, had dragged off her friends to the court house in an effort to free that man, when he was on trial upon a criminal charge. Some time later Benjamin De Lota, Vedah's fiancé, arrives and, becoming interested in Burrill's statuette of Mimi, casually remarks that he got the model her place with Antoine. Vedah, like the audience, is acquiring information in a startling, indirect fashion.

Again, in Act II of the same play, judge Hoover, coming to the home of his son-in-law Clayton, relates how he has just chanced to see DeLota entering his lodging-house in company with a woman. This woman dropped on the pavement a libretto of "Aida" which Hoover has brought with him. As it happens that the audience has just seen Clayton himself mark this libretto and hand it to his wife, who went off in company with De Lota, presumably to the opera, the knowledge of her apparent infidelity is thus conveyed to both husband and audience through a triangle of information. If the co-incidence here involved is credible, certainly the bit of preparation has served its purpose well.

For still another example of this device, take Mr. W. C. De Mille's play, "The Woman." A political boss and his son-in-law have set out to ruin the reputation of an unknown woman once the mistress of a rival. This woman's identity is revealed to both the hotel telephone operator and the audience when, first, her former lover calls her up to warn her, and, a few minutes later, the boss's son-in-law calls up his own wife: both ask for the same number.

Explanation in Advance

Naturally there are many sorts of preparation other than those just cited. The general principle is that, whatever is to be abruptly utilized at some important later moment in the play—whether character, "property," or fact—must in advance be made clear and memorable to the audience, but not destructive of surprise. A crucial instant in a dramatic conflict is manifestly no time for explaining comparative trifles. Necessary explanations should always be made while there is yet leisure, and when emotional tension need not suffer by interruption.

The thing for which the preparation is made may be, for example, simply a bit of dialogue. The most pleasurable moment in that interesting play, "The Dummy," comes when the sleeping lad, whom the unsuspecting crooks are harboring as a deaf-mute, suddenly exclaims, "I'm a detectuv!" The audience's delight, however, is dependent on the fact that already at other important moments in the play the boy has consciously used the same amusing phrase.

Again, the preparation may be made in advance of the introduction of a character: witness Ragueneau's speech descriptive of the grotesque and terrible Cyrano, which smoothes the way for an instant recognition of that doughty Gascon when he abruptly rises above the heads of the crowd in the Hôtel de Bourgogne and shakes his menacing cane at the actor Montfleury. As a matter of fact, stage heroes rarely walk on before they have been talked about.

Preparation, it will be seen, in a sense merges with exposition. This is markedly the case in "On Trial," for instance, where the courtroom prologues are ingeniously contrived to prepare us for the scenes of melodrama to be enacted before our eyes instead of being merely described by the witnesses.

Readers of plays and theatre-goers can readily identify innumerable examples of every sort of preparation. As has been made clear, the "art" in its simpler forms at Ieast, is one which the dramatist dare not neglect; while in its subtler phases it becomes one of the most valuable aids to the expert craftsman. First of all, the beginner must make sure that no sudden bewilderment can arise at a crucial moment when distracted attention would be fatal. He will find in practice that a frequent procedure is to work back through the play—or, better, the preliminary scenario—and to insert, where it best fits in, the preparation demanded by later developments. Ordinarily this should not prove a difficult matter. But the pre-caution is indispensable.

As for the more complicated forms of preparation—the kinds referred to by Sarcey in the second quotation at the head of this chapter—manifestly no rules can be laid down for their practice. It is "the dramatic author's gift;" and it probably can be neither developed nor cultivated by any means other than the study of great models and much laborious exercise in invention.


1. Cite as many instances as you can of "preparation" in plays.

2. Cite one or two from novels.

3. How do the forms differ in the two literary types, if at all?

4. Invent two complete "triangle of information" situations, giving one in rough outline, the other in full dialogue.

5. Devise the necessary "preparation" for lending effectiveness to any tentative play climaxes you may have in mind.

6. In several noteworthy plays show how a lack of careful "preparation" would have proved a serious drawback.


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