In today’s world,
where so many books tell us instead of show us,
where so many authors speak instead of teach,
where the only thing we remember about a book is its lack of substance…
From its simple lines
to its complex meaning,
the 1942 ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ will take you to a place you’ve been before
but have yet to discover.
‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’
(By Lajos Egri)
Go back to a time where character mattered.
(Yeah, I live in a fantasy world where publishing companies make commercials for their books like car commercials.)
So, THIS book. I’ve missed train stops because of THIS book. Egri’s language is crisp and straightforward, being academically unadorned at times while never sounding stale. His ideas are remarkably fresh considering how universal they are, since a lot of the times, books on craft are telling you things you’ve heard since English 101. His philosophy is smart but not stuffy. And most importantly, he is engaging. You hang on his every word like that professor you had in English 301. He is your teacher, not your friend, and you don’t mind this. In this day and age of the nicey-nice narrator speaking to you in a third-grade-level, sugar-coated, pretty-font, blurbs-in-the-margins style, you kinda like this. You kinda need this. Let’s get down to it.
-One of the most important and enlightening chapters of the book is the one on character. He introduces the concepts of the ‘bone structure’ of a character (physical, social, and psychological), the dialectical approach to a character’s arc (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis), choosing a pivotal character, and the method of finding a unity of opposites for your characters and the orchestration of those characters to create conflict. For Egri, character is the lifeblood of a story; and along with the premise, is crucial to its success. What makes Egri stand out to me even today is his steadfast idea of what drama is:
“The drama is not the image of life, but the essence. We must condense. In life, people quarrel year in, year out…[i]n drama this must be condensed to the essentials.” (Egri, p. 166)
-The chapter where he talks about jumping conflict is a memorable one. He does this so very well by, again, showing us and not just telling us. He presents to us Ibsen’s ‘A Doll House’, with key pieces of the last scene taken out, and then, after telling us where it jumps, gives it back to us in its entirety for us to reread. This makes our reading more participatory. This makes us doers instead of listeners, which, as any teacher will tell you, is how you make things stick in kids’ heads. You just don’t see this anymore.
-Check out the chapter on Transition, where Egri talks about how jumping conflict (the curse of many a bad story) is not found in nature and therefore should not be in a story. Even when a real-life person flares up, seemingly jumping from calmness to hostility, it is not a jump but the result of a superfast mental process which should be slowed down to show the audience every step:
“A good playwright will record the minute movements of the mind as a seismograph jots down the slightest oscillation of the earth thousands of miles away.” (Egri, 200).
-One little quirky thing is the presence all throughout the book of an anonymous disembodied voice who asks Egri all types of questions and even gives the author a little petulant razzing every now and again. He does this to teach you in a way that engages you instead of turning you into a passive participant. You really feel like you’re in a classroom. It’s a brilliant way to address questions that we may have without just listing them robotically.
-Finally, I love his voice and language, where single lines in some places are pregnant with meaning and intelligence. It’s one of those old craft books back in the day that was written as a philosophical book on an art form instead a recipe-for-success book. This is a book you sit down and read carefully. And he’s truly a philosopher. Egri’s ideas and examples resonate with historical, scientific, and philosophical references to the concepts of change, movement, and expression that have been encapsulated within us since the dawn of conscious thought. Yeah, this motherfucker gets deeeeeeeeep.
‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ by Lajos Egri gives you one of the best books out there for writing dramatically, which is the only way, in my opinion, of engaging, entertaining, and emotionally affecting your readers to keep them reading. I begin with drama and then grow my novel fictionally, adding elements that can’t be done on stage (the intimate and taboo sub-levels of the character’s mind, the voice of the narrator, the pace and movement of a strong style and language) to make the best story I can. Egri has taught me (and continues teaching me) more than any other craft book because of his ability to present to me the main subject of a writer, an artist, and a human–life.
Please leave a comment and tell me what you think and how I’m doing!
Create and Complete!