Playwriting

The Story and the Plot

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We have talked about place and setting. It’s good to have a good setting, and of course we need great characters – but what do characters do in a place? They need to do something, and that something needs to create a story. But what is a story? We started the workshop with some questions that Professor Musgrave wanted us to answer to.

What is your favourite story?

If I need to think about my real favourite story, then I’d say my grandmother’s story. But for fictional stories, then it’s hard. Probably The Lord of the Rings.

What kind of story do you like most?

I guess that when I read I like non happy-ending stories. That’s also usually the kind of stories I write. But when I watch movies, I like the old, reassuring ones – such as, as I said, LOTR.

What kind of stories do you write?

It depends, but mostly, as I said, I write unhappy ending stories.

Why do you think those are your kind of stories?

Because I guess that an open ending or an unhappy one can imply a realisation and growth. I like when stories end up that way because they make me think and just stare at the wall for a while, as something is really happening. I don’t know. It’s difficult to explain.

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The class about story and plot began with these questions, but in advance we had to read a summary of the book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. Professor Musgrave asked us which was our favourite basic plot. These are the different types:

  1. Overcoming the Monster: the hero wants to destroy an evil force.
  2. Rags to Riches: the hero is surrounded by dark forces, but s/he matures and becomes a better person. S/he earns riches, a partner and a kingdom.
  3. The Quest: the hero learns that there is a great McGuffin (motivational object) that s/he needs, and sets out to find it.
  4. Voyage and Return: the hero heads off into a magic land with crazy rules, s/he triumphs overmadness and goes back home as a mature person.
  5. Comedy: the hero and heroine are meant to be together, but a dark force is preventing them to do it. Then the dark forces repent (a bad guy turns good?), and they’re free to get together. Relationships correctly form.
  6. Tragedy: the protagonist turns to be evil, s/he is the villain. S/he falls into a slow spiral down to darkness before being finally defeated.
  7. Rebirth: the protagonist realises his/her error before it’s too late, and turns good before being defeated.

These plots can of course be combined and they represent a very rough summary of what can happen in a story. Complex stories have more plots. In The Lord of The Rings, for example, all these plots fit.

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When Professor Musgrave asked us what is our favourite plot and which is the one we use more often, I was not sure. He told us that Voyage and Return is probably his favourite. For this kind of plot, you need a place where the protagonist is going and, of course, you need home. There must be some complications. The playwright Arthur Miller used to ask himself what his characters just can’t avoid. Why can’t they just walk away from the problem? Why do they have to defeat someone or start a difficult journey?

There are many, many questions. Where is home? Why do you have to leave it? What is it that’s problematic about it? Is it a unhappy home? Is there something we need to change? Or does the voyage  happen casually? One day, we may fall into a rabbit hole. Or walk into a magic wardrobe. And we find ourselves into another world, we freak out, we start to explore, we learn things we never knew we could do or know. We realise that we’re slowly turning into different people. And then we learn that there is a shadow that we need to confront. We need to conquer something within ourselves. We become aware that we can do something about it, until the final battle comes – in which the monster is defeated and we face a thrilling escape from death. That’s the moment when we need to go back home, and we do it as different people. We are taking something with us. And home is always the same – but also different. We may find ourselves in the hearbreaking moment in which two people can’t be together because they are different, they come from different worlds.

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The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and many, many other stories have these plots and different storylines. There are journeys, requests, returns, rebirths, defeats, protagonists and sidekicks who are funny and sometimes more heroic than the hero/heroine themselves (this is very typical of The Quest kind of plot).

After this explanation, Professor Musgrave gave us some children books that we could read in less then 5 minutes and to point the plot they used. I was given the beautiful Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is the story of a boy who wants to be wild and savage, does a lot of naughty things and his mom sends him to bed before supper. He dreams of travelling to the wild beasts land, where he soon becomes the king. After a while, he starts being homesick and lonely, so he goes back – only to learn that his mother brought him his dinner. I think this was of course a Voyage and Return kind of plot, and maybe there were some elements of the Rebirth, since the protagonist goes back and learn that being wild and naughty isn’t that good.

I think this workshop was very useful because, even if it could seem unbelievable that all the stories ever written or told can be summarized in these plots, they are a good reference when we try to write something. I am sure that all these plots could be a good source of inspiration, if we don’t know how our story could go on.

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