Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mim’s Book Review – Writing Drama

Hey guys,

We were approached some time ago by the (very polite) Colette in France who represented the publisher,
Le Clown & l'Enfant, to provide us a perusal copy of Yves Lavandier’s exhaustively researched, 600-page Writing Drama: a comprehensive guide for playwrights and scriptwriters and also post a book review, an assignment that our always great friend Miriam Paschal accepted.

An interview with Yves can be found
here. Praise for his book here.

Thanks so much, Mim. (And thanks to you, Colette.)



Writing Drama by Yves Lavandier is a dense, academic look at how to fashion a dramatic story. He pulls his examples from everywhere, including classic Greek plays by Sophocles as well as European comics for children like Asterix and Obelix. Along the way he includes a few American films, such as The Little Mermaid and 8 Mile.

His take is unique. For instance, in studying conflict we are shown the difference between static conflict and dynamic conflict. He ranks the plots points in order of importance, starting with the Climax. Rather than simply define the inciting incident, he breaks it down over the course of several sections, citing many plays and films along the way. There is the inciting incident as a source of action, multiple inciting incidents, and the lack of inciting incident and how a story can still work without it.

He begins with how stage plays began: way back in ancient times when priests performed stories as part of their rituals. And in order to understand many of his points, the reader has to be well-versed in the classics. The plays of Moliere get a close inspection.

He also defines genre in strictly Aristotelian terms. Aristotle is generally considered the father of modern drama and the two masks of comedy and tragedy are based on his definitions of types of stories. There is comedy, there is tragedy, and then there is something called melodrama. In America, we use the term drama. To us, melodrama is more of an exaggeration of drama to the point of being too emotional and slightly unreal. To Aristotle (and to Lavandier), melodrama is closer to what we call drama.

It is set up so that it can be read in either of two ways: from the beginning, with each point building on the one before it, or in random sections, depending on what you might need help with at the time. He starts by explaining what conflict and emotion are, and once you have immersed yourself in that, he takes you through the protagonist, his obstacles, and finally characterization. The table of contents breaks it down so that you can head to a specific section without reading any of the others.

Of course, if you read this book, you should already have read several of the other screenwriting books on the market. Having a working knowledge of screenwriting is fundamental to getting everything you can out of this book. You should have read at least The Screenwriter's Bible by Trottier before you read this one. Lavandier does not cover such mundane topics as how to structure a slugline or the comparative uses of (V.O.) versus (O.S.). Writing Drama is most definitely best read in conjunction with other works, not the least of which are other screenwriting books.

There is a lesson on every page. Sometimes you learn how to juxtapose unsympathetic acts by a protagonist with sympathetic ones, so as maintain the audience's empathy. Sometimes the lesson is how to make a scene spectacular.

Like other analysts, Lavandier uses specific terms to refer to the elements of drama. We all know Blake Snyder has invented his own terms; you won't find "Dark Night of the Soul" or "Double Mumbo-Jumbo" in any other screenwriting books. Lavandier also uses terms that are not familiar, or rather are familiar, but are used to mean different things than what we're used to. He defines an ellipsis as "a syntactic omission." It is either an omission of time, or an omission or narrative. That is how an ellipsis functions, but it has a symbol: the three periods. As far as I could tell, Lavandier's ellipsis is part of the structure of the script. There may or may not be three little periods. The symbol isn't important. According to Lavandier, an ellipsis is part of plot structure, not a punctuation mark.

After discussing various aspects of story structure, Lavandier breaks down two dramatic works to illustrate how everything functions together in actual drama. He discusses fifteen points in each work: 1) Conflict and emotion, 2) Protagonist-Objective, 3) Obstacles, 4) Characterisation (sic), 5) Structure, 6) Unity, 7) Preparation, language and creativity, 8) Dramatic irony, 9) Comedy, 10) Development, 11) Exposition, 12) Activity, 13) Dialogue, 14) Effects, and 15) Conclusion.

These breakdowns are very informative, especially because they incorporate all of Lavandier's rather unique points of view. For instance, in the Preparation, language and creativity section, we learn about the A-A-A' gag, something called Milking and simplicity, and the Topper.

So there are many, many points in this book that will give us a very different perspective of how to structure a story, and most of them are extremely valuable. After reading this, I think it's very important to have this opportunity to look at our familiar guides and standards from across the pond, as it were.

Unfortunately, the works Lavandier has chosen to analyze in his breakdown section are School for Wives by Moliere (a seventeenth century French playwright) and North by Northwest by Hitchcock. These are classic works, to be sure, but film-making (and story-telling) is an evolving process, not a static one. Granted, the elements that Lavandier discusses have changed little since the days of Greek drama, but it would have been nice to have a more recent film as an example of what he's talking about.

Now that I've revealed the works used in the breakdown section, I can go back to my example of ellipsis. In the North by Northwest section, Lavandier says, "There are several examples of ellipsis. Many of them are classic, and some are related to the language of cinema rather than dramatic technique. When the black steward (Ernest Anderson) comes to make the bed in Eve's cabin, Roger hides in the toilet. He barely has time to examine a tiny badger and lady's razor before the steward has finished his work. This kind of ellipsis is extremely common in cinema."

So this work is extremely important for any film-student. Many of the published and produced works used as examples might not be familiar to modern American students of film, but they serve to illustrate how narrow our view can be sometimes. I recommend that this be added to any screenwriter's library as a reference.


Mim said...

I don't know. I did an okay job on this one, but I think I could have done much better.

Christian H. said...

I guess great minds think alike as Scott over at Alligators was just offering praise for this book.

I did a little digging and found some excerpts of it over Here

It is a dense read but very thorough and informative. Definitely worth at least a look. I'll probably pick it up in my next buying cycle.

Christian H. said...

Wow, I didn't notice you posted links to it. I guess I was too interested in your take.

Mystery Man said...

Mim, you did just fine. I'm very interested in it. Right now, I'm reading "The Story of Film" by Mark Cousins. Once I finish that, I'll have to get myself a copy of "Writing Drama." I'm all about dense, academic stuff.

Hey Christian, thanks for that. Hope you're doing well. When am I going to read a script of yours?


crossword said...

I too think you did fine Mim - thanks for the review. :)

I'm now keen to read the thing itself; talk about whetting of the appetite.

Mim said...

As long as my review makes you want to read the book, it's all good.

Christian H. said...

Not a problem. I've got a few ready. I'm still absorbing information right now so I'm not really pushing scripts.
You can read my favorite though. Just let me know how to get it to you. I haven't posted it anywhere.
I'm turning in 30 pages of a comedy at the FadeIn conference next week.

Wanna read that?

James said...

They contacted me as well. My free copy is supposedly in the mail...

But who knows?

Mystery Man said...

Christian - e-mail me something when you have a finished script. I'm curious about how well you write.

James - Rock on! Let me know when you've posted a review.


Anonymous said...

I reckon the publisher offers a free copy of Writing Drama to anyone who has a screenwriting blog and is willing to review it. If you're interested and haven't been contacted yet, try