22 March 2013

The Art of Dramatic Writing, A Review

This series will kick off with a review of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.  Readers will remember that I featured this book in a short story, which can be found here.

Lajos Egri's book, while focusing on the art of becoming a playwright, is very probably the most important book on craft I've ever read.  If you want to write a novel, but haven't started yet, here's my advice: write down all the notes and ideas you have, but do not set a word of it to paper until you've read The Art of Dramatic Writing.  If you read no other book on craft - you'd better read more books on craft, but this is THE place to start.  The word premise gets tossed around in most of the books this series will feature, but no one drives it home like Lajos Egri.  "The Premise is a tyrant who permits you to go only one way - the way of absolute proof."

There are many other useful chapters about orchestration, unity of opposites, crafting a smoothly rising conflict, but the work he does on premise, first of all, is straight up ballsy.  He wrote a book that overturned thousands of years of how people look at writing by taking a scientific approach to it.  Bear in mind that it was written in the 1930s so some of the science (germ theory/medicine) is highly dated, but his points are not invalidated.  So what is a premise?  In short, a premise is the heart and brain of your novel; without it you are doomed to write an insipid story.  The premise is what the story aims to prove.  Let's look at a few examples:
Macbeth - Ruthless ambition leads to ruin
Romeo and Juliet - Great Love transcends hate and death
Ender's Game - The burden of leadership requires isolation and suffering
Mistborn - Tyranny leads to revolt.

Now if you look at some of these, you might be able to draw a different premise, but that premise will have the same elements mentioned in my own premises.  In short, a premise is the absolute synopsis of the story.  Let's look at Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to ruin.  There are three parts to every good premise, 1) Character (Ruthless Ambition, Lady and Lord Macbeth), 2) Promise of Conflict (leads to -> something will challenge the Ruthless Ambition or an opportunity will present itself, which leads inevitably to conflict), 3) Resolution (Ruin, Macbeth's death).  Every truly great story has these three elements included in the premise.  With a clear premise, your story will have much better odds at being successful in telling the story you want to tell.  Without a premise, you're sunk.

All in all, I will go on record saying that the single greatest failure of my undergraduate creative writing curriculum was that this was not required reading.  If you read the book and take its advice to heart, it will save you the years of stumbling around in your own stories that I spent wasted in my own.

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