In honour and celebration of Shakespeare – short play Sweet Desdemona’s Revenge©

The formerly sweet Desdemona plots her revenge against her unjust death while remonstrating with a sorry Othello.

Click on the link to read the play

Sweet Desdemona’s Revenge©

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Aristotle Drama and the Classic form

Readers of my blog know about my obsession with the classic form. Even if none of us had ever read the work of Aristotle, we know and understand the fundamentals of good drama when we discuss plot, characters and story. However, it took someone like Aristotle to explain exactly why great writers stokes audiences. Aristotle dissected the fundamentals of plays to discover the key principles of classic drama. Poetics freed writers to expand the classic form and this is why Aristotle’s principles of writing good drama continue to be of great significance today.

I studied Poetics because it was vital for me to have Aristotle’s key principles present in my work after I discovered that all the works that stoked me from childhood to adulthood originate from this form. Upon studying the work, I soon realised this classic form also exists in music and poetry I love. The problem for me is to be able to express Aristotle’s fundamental principles without it feeling contrived when you write. There is usually a flow which takes shape when this happens. I myself, am put off by contrived situations on screen and in print. I now realise the only way to avoid this is to practice until the the form becomes second nature in my work. Only then, will I be able to play with the form. I examined the work of Aristotle sometime ago but I now intend to return to the work again and I hope this is useful to other writers like me. Apologies if it is basic but I believe in starting from somewhere.

Aristotle, who lived between 384-322BC, wrote ‘Poetics’ but the work is not known to have been widely circulated or published in his lifetime. The discovery of Poetics years after Aristotle’s death has since influenced the dynamics of writing drama and poetry. The impact includes but is not limited to Poetics being properly translated in Italy during the Italian Renaissance and the time of Shakespeare in 1600. An Oriental version existed in 935AD. The classic form highlighted by Aristotle can be found in the works of Henrik Ibsen, Alfred Hitchcock, Arthur Miller, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon etc. The impact of Poetics has been considerable. I have written a short summary of Poetics but the original text, which is only 50 pages is a great read. It can be found at this url:
http://www.online-literature.com/aristotle/poetics/
 
Poetics looks at the fundamentals of writing great tragedy. Aristotle believed the art of good dramatic tragedy was personified by the works of the Greek playwright Sophocles who was constantly voted as the most popular by audiences. Few of Sophocles plays now survive.

These are the fundamental principles of classic drama: –

Poetics considers tragedy to be the dramatisation of a sequence of events which cause a situation to go from good to bad in a logical but surprising way. The dramatic events must show not tell what actually happens and must function according to the laws of logical probability or necessity. The events must evoke strong emotions such as pity caused by the character facing ‘unmerited misfortune’ or fear caused by relating to the character facing adverse circumstances. 

The plot should be an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. The beginning, middle and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the plot. This is like looking at one’s own life, it is not split into dates but events which shape-shift into the life we have and know.

Aristotle acknowledged good characters must be complex, never stereotypes. The character like all human beings must have a flaw. This flaw must cause their situation to go from good to bad where they lose something of importance be it power, status or even risk their own lives or loved ones. Aristotle believed a good character has to be highly renowned and prosperous for the fall to be truly tragic. 

The character’s speech or action must express their character and their personal motivations must support the plot and its overall holistic theme. There must be continuity.

The written character must be relevant to the role, provide a picture of their morality, be true to life and show consistency through necessity and probability. This realism must also show an otherness which shows the representation of perhaps what may be a greater capacity in all human beings. Today, we may describe this as human ideals but these attributes will be universally recognised in heroes and heroines. A great favourite of Hitchcock and Spielberg is where the ordinary person becomes extraordinary in particular circumstances.

Poetics is the basis of Western drama and is used by playwrights and screenwriters alike. Poetics is the standard text in Hollywood but some choose to digress from the classic form. Therefore, most of us know the classic structure of all drama but choose to watch drama at the cinema, TV or theatre rather than the amphitheatre.

Argo – drama documentary without the documentary bit…

Having watched the beginning of the Oscar winning film Argo which presents itself as a documentary style film without the essential documentary bits. There is cause for concern and here’s why…

The film carefully avoids important facts when it sets up the Iranian Shah as promoting western society while briefly mentioning the poverty of the people without its cause as it sets up the religious orthodox opponent Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The opening scenes show US embassy staff discussing leaving the embassy through the main road while a European man is held hostage by the neck outside. ARGO fails to mention the fact that the British secret service, MI6, and the CIA organized a coup to remove the then Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, who in 1951 had unanimous support for a bill to re-nationalise Iran’s oil industry from what he felt was unfair practices. It fails to state the US and UK helped impose and assist the brutal regime of dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who remained in power until he was overthrown in 1979, some 28 years later. More importantly, this film fails to reference the fact that the US administration had to own up to the involvement in the coup of 60-years ago because the CIA itself released documents. Canadian Prime Minister of 1979 Jo Clark himself felt hard done by the film Argo. He said: “I think the truth is the better story”.

The problem is Argo serves neither the ideals of classical film which seeks to entertain through universal conflicts or the cinematic truth ideals of documentary making. Argo is not only selective and revisionist but it is also dull and meaningless.

ARGO sets itself up as a documentary style film but then fails to deliver or deal with the difficult facts which surround US and UK involvement. No one who uses power is innocent, any Shakespeare play is testimony to this fact. However, I myself only became aware of US and British involvement in overthrowing Iran’s democratic regime after reading papers exposed by law professors who found such information by accident! This questions the very basis of information about Iran. It is therefore odd that the facts in the film ARGO have not been questioned by the kind of historians who saw fit to pour over what was clear fiction in Django Unchained even though so-called recorded facts of slavery have proven to be utterly unreliable because they hide the kind of untruths and barbarity later employed by the Nazis.

Argo was awarded best film at the Oscars. I am left to laugh or cry because this is no place for any genuine film maker. Argo is a joke and a bad one at that.

Writers choices©

As writers we make choices – I am weary of ever claiming or thinking there is a right or wrong way of writing. There is only one way of writing – the individual writer’s way. This is something it took me a long time to realise. This is why the one size fits all books must be considered as aids not the biographical works of how to write. Successful screenwriters have found a myriad of roads to get it on the page.

Here are just a few pointers I found useful when learning about my own craft – again, only use what’s useful for your work. Some of my suggestions evolved after the first draft – that’s the draft where first you get all that stuff on the inside – out. Then the work is edited to what you want to show on screen.

characters – how well we know our characters or get to know them? Do you know the character’s reaction in any given situation? This is the reality of knowing a character. Once you know this, you know the character is real. When they surprise you, that’s development. Is their reaction consistent with a shift or change in their own character?

dialogue – every person speaks with an inflection which is often more of an indication of their character than the person – hence why we love actors who find the essence of a character and bring them to life not just with the voice but the entire persona

story – does your story add up? if a story has holes, we could say our story does not matter. Plot rich consistency matters if you write and care for an audience. It was useful for me to understand my relationship with my audience whether I have one or not. I believe a creative work of art only comes to life with the audience otherwise it lives in the bubble of the artist’s creation. This is the impetus for my work.

beats – what and where are the changes in the drama? Do they change and move the plot and character forward and are the beats noticeable by the audience? Rising tension for instance. Todd Click has written a book on beats. He also wrote an article giving examples of beats showing similarities between the plays of Shakespeare and Spielberg/Lucas film Raiders of the Lost Ark written by Lawrence Kasdan. Please see tiny.cc/ai9n0w

act – emotions must be felt in screenwriting. Go on some acting courses, understand the ease and difficulties of expressing emotion in the character’s world. Acting helped Callie Khouri, Quentin Tarantino, Moliere, Shakespeare (read Hamlet) and countless others. It is also what puts off writers. Sometimes it is unpleasant but keep going.

theme – does your theme have meaning and resonance? A theme is in your entire story and sometimes in every detail not in an obvious way though. Theme is vital – consider the various stages in life, school, work, home – when your life has no meaning, you absolutely have to do something and a film is no different. The great myth is films tell people how to live, no writers simply show how this character found a way to live or die. Music in the words of the great Schopenhauer already has theme – art including great screenwriting work hard so emotion and logic can meet creatively to create depth

truth – to paraphrase Robert Mckee in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, phew!, you may lie in life but not in your art – So as writers it is vital we know our work and the intention of our work. I was forced to expand this point because I could not edit it.

prejudices – I am not a fan of negativity in my blog (remember I want to nurture and inspire) but please avoid negative stereotyping because it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As an example. I study movies and sometimes I cannot believe the number of times where male characters get oral sex from disposable girls (also apply to the depiction of race, colour, countries etc). Sometimes the oral sex is supposed to make the boy/men look cool and other times funny. It just makes me think something else. This is the writer’s wishful thinking and this is what they think of girls and worse still, is this their revenge for being unpopular? If you need a sex scene, why is it there? why is it funny? why is it part of the drama? Think best British comedy The Full Monty by Simon Beaufoy (sexual stereotypes are reversed for full comic and social impact), American Pie by Adam Herz (the audience and the girl characters get a chance to make fun out of the boys who stereotype girls and the guys in the audience who actually think this stuff is cool think this movie is for them) and Pretty Woman by Jonathan Frederick Lawton (theme – how true love overcomes prejudices about identity).

I believe it is our job as writers to root out internal and external prejudices and shine a light on them comically or dramatically especially if we are putting them in our work. Not to feel bad? Feelings uncomfortable or otherwise is often just conditioning and it does not define who any of us really are. It is not our job to judge emotional responses but to understand these ways of thinking and the impact on the world of our characters. The sad thing is we do not always understand the sophistication of an audience. They know the writer’s intentions from the work. Know that your audience will be left with the feeling of the identity of the work produced. The audience has gone to be entertained not to do the hard work of trying to understand why our work came out like this or that. Know that and let your characters evolve to much more than the first thing that came out on the page. If there are prejudices, do not fear being controversial but find out why because it will help improve your work and may even help the audience to understand the world. If you do not believe me, screenwriter Paul Schrader says screenwriting improved him as a person. I came to it as a form of self-therapy, I came to it because I had no choice, I came to it because I needed to do this to save myself. Gustave Flaubert said: “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” Perhaps this is why some great writers say writing makes them better people.

Last but not least, read your work out aloud, sit upright with your spine, if you feel emotion going up or down your spine when you read your characters, I believe you have arrived in nirvana. Your work speaks. Not sure where you’ve arrived but it’s some place cool in the writing pantheon.

Here comes the nurturing bit – I want a story with meaning and characters and theme that resonate. Discover what you want and nurture that goal forever?

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