One of the nice things about dramatic writing is: the same basic tools are used to make very simple and very complex artifacts. Or, put differently, craft and taste are very different.
Take a simple situation.
A man whose family name is Schweddy makes seasonal treats, including popcorn balls, cheese balls, rum etc. So, yes, this man sells Schweddy Balls.
Everyone likely knows the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch based on this not-very-complicated dirty joke. The sketch elaborates the joke through constrast and repetition.
Contrast. Mr. Schweddy is interviewed by two very buttoned-down female hosts in those recognizably subdued tones characteristic of public radio--a medium very far removed from vulgar puns.
Repetition. The female hosts need to discuss the Schweddy Balls in detail: their appealing size, the way they glisten, how good it feels to have them in your mouth, etc.
Clearly, there is nothing too complicated going on here. A single pun structures most of the sketch. But the very simplicity allows us to unpack this structure in ways that show something larger about dramatic writing.
The two larger ideas could be called: summary and subtext.
Namely, a well-constructed bit of drama can be divided such that:
- one part stands in a special organizing relation to the whole, and
- the whole scene is split horizontally, so to say, between something on the surface and something hidden or unspoken.
The part that organizes the whole is the summary. In the case of this sketch, it's the punchline of the sketch--this is the line that seems to get the most reaction from the audience. This is the moment when Mr. Schweddy says "No one can resist my Schweddy Balls."
The punch line (because it's a comedy sketch) summarizes the whole scene. Everything else in the scene is essentially laid out there to illustrate, embody, act out, and point to the summary.
Sometimes the summary is a line spoken in the scene. When Hardy says to Laurel "this is another fine mess you've gotten us into," that summarizes what the rest of the scene acts out, bit by bit: Laurel getting he and his buddy into a mess.
Not every scene requires that the summary be spoken aloud. But if the audience doesn't get the summary, couldn't articulate it for themselves, there's a rather serious problem--or it's a different art form than what I'm discussing here.
A summary for James Joyce's Ulysses, hefty as it is, might be: "Bloom is a modern-day Ulysses." It's not complicated, but it's true. The summary is a kind of matrix: it connects something and something else, one semantic unit and another, be they a Jewish guy in Dublin and an ancient literary hero, or holiday treats and perspiration-soaked testicles.
The other key division is between what we see and what it points to--which in anything worth paying attention to, must be somewhat different than what's on the surface.
- If the surface points to nothing other than itself, you're again talking about a different art from: something literal and based on boredom, rather than symbolic and based on curiosity.
So in the Schweddy Balls sketch, as in almost every bit of drama, there is a surface string of: actions, behavior, conversation. And this surface is held together by a logic we understand from everyday life.
There is action and reaction, question and answer, a topic and its exploration--all sorts of verbal continuity we recognize from life.
Were the scene more physical, we would have to recognize the logic of physical actions: beginning and ending actions, exerting effort, becoming tired, preparing to do something, etc. There is no exhaustive list of these things, and that's why writing about dramatic structures is so tricky and usually fails when it tries to be exhaustive.
This sketch is immaculately constructed.
- Every sentence points in two directions: on the one hand towards eating holiday snacks, and in the other direction towards two women licking a man's testicles.
- The set-up of the radio show underlines this. The sketch's imaginary radio audience hears only the verbal layer and thus is deprived from the behavior we can see: the women eating holiday treats.
The fact of one sign pointing in two directions has many names.
- Ambiguity is one way a single sign can point to more than one meaning.
- A pun is a single string of sounds that can be interpreted as more than one word or sentence.
- Subtext is when characters say one thing and actually mean another.
- Dramatic irony is when the characters think one thing is happening, but we know another is happening: as when Oedipus marries his mother but doesn't know it.
Many aesthetic terms point to the same general phenomena: something that's also something else. Indeed, art in general could be subsumed under such an idea: daubs of paint that looks like grapes, shabby actors that are also kings and queens, to name only two.
Thus in a simple, elegant, funny and coarse comedy sketch, we can see something powerful about how dramatic writing works.
- There must be a surface series of actions, whether physical or verbal.
- The surface actions must be held together by an autonomous coherent logic: we must feel 'this is how people talk,' or 'this is what people do when putting on a radio show,' or whatnot.
- The surface actions should point towards something else. The characters have secrets, or something hidden is going on, or they're clueless, or we know what's happening and they don't. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as the surface actions have some other meaning an audience can get interested in.
- On some level, the actions, behaviors and conversations must hang together. They must add up to something. Either the characters need to be able to summarize what's happening--"We're lost!"--or the audience will be lost for real, not as a fictional story.
- Likely the writer wrote the summary first, and then invented the behaviors to embody it, and if the writer did a crappy job, the actions are not separately interesting in the logic of their unfolding: they do nothing but flesh out the summary.
This is delicate work: many things can go wrong.
- If the surface actions do not hold together by some recognizable logic, that's a problem, because the audience can't follow along.
- If the surface actions point to nothing besides themselves, you're trapped in literalism, and it simply is not that interesting. The audience can't remain interested for every long--unless the people are very good-looking or doing something inherently interesting, like performing risky stunts or having sex. (Pornography is almost entirely of subtext: it relieves us from the burden of meaning in a way that's pretty delightful.)
- If no summary is possible or given, or the wrong summary is given, the result is likely too confusing to be pleasurable. (I assume here that some balance of understanding and confusion is pleasurable.)
All of these then make reasonable criteria for us to use on our own writing or on others'.
- Is there a logic holding the actions and dialogue together? Can it be recognized?
- Can the scene be summarized? Can we unify the actions under a clear idea?
- Is the scene simply the summary boringly written? That is: is there not enough of a gap between the actions and their summary to justify our paying attention?
- Is there subtext or dramatic irony? Is there more than meets the eye?
Finally, there's the question of how the summary of the surface actions and the subtext line up. This is complex and more a question of art than craft. Likely some will find Schweddy Balls/sweaty balls uninteresting, just as some will find Leopold Bloom/Odysseus uninteresting.
But that is a matter of taste, not craft.
--Edward R. O'Neill