Comedy with the Structure of Drama

In June 2018, the comedian Hannah Gadsby debuted her show Nanette, causing an immediate sensation. For a time, it was hard to turn left or right without someone quoting her words or reacting to what was said.

Exactly two years on, with all the hype gone, I listened to the show with the intention of making up my own mind about it. I knew some of the gags in advance, and I knew that during the gig, she announces she’s quitting comedy.

By the end, there was a lot to chew over. I liked the content: I thought the gags were observations were spot-on, and I that Gadsby’s reasoning for quitting was a sound one, but I found it difficult to formulate a comment about it. I felt utterly indifferent.

It took more than a week to figure out what was so jarring: it was the structure of the show.

There isn’t a standard structure to stand-up comedy. As a general rule, however, a show will begin with more tried-and-tested gags, and any unifying theme or narrative will be introduced. Between the halfway and three-quarters points, you’ll often find more experimental or riskier material, which will build up to a climax near the end, often referring back to earlier in the show.

In drama, the action will usually begin with a major event, slow down a little, perhaps include some comedic elements, then the plot will thicken and thicken until the climax near the end.

What Nanette did was to switch to a drama-style structure at around the three-quarters mark.

It’s not in question this was deliberate. At one point, Gadsby actually tells the audience, ‘That was your last joke,’ before finishing her monologue, so they don’t hear the payoff they were expecting. It takes confidence to carry this off, or a sense there’s nothing to lose

Despite working through my feelings about Gadsby’s routine, I still have that indifferent reaction. It’s not dramatic enough for drama, it’s not comedic enough for comedy.

As such, I’m also hitting a wall as I try to end this entry. At least if I’d hated every minute, I’d have some kind of conclusion to draw.

Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.

Improvisation and Motivation

Over the weekend, I had my first experience of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). If you’re unfamiliar with this, here’s a brief introduction.

I enjoyed my experience because players are allowed to improvise parts of the storyline beyond how the Dungeon Master has described the scene. For example, my character had a vivid dream as part of the story, but I could interpret the images any way I wanted, and that interpretation would contribute to the direction of the story.

The experience reminded me of an exercise from drama class in high school. Each participant was given an outline of a setting, plus an individual motivation kept secret from the others until we revealed it through improv.

This produced natural-sounding dialogue, even from school pupils without an acting background. Similar methods are used by some reality TV shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex, to avoid the action sounding too scripted.

The same principle can be adapted for scripted drama. Aaron Sorkin takes the approach of working out what each character wants, then writing the scene accordingly. In this way, he’s produced The West Wing and The Social Network, among many other screenplays.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking part in more D&D sessions. I think the key to making a more interesting campaign is to work out what exactly my character wants and bringing it to the surface when interacting with the other players.

I believe improv keeps me sharp, and roleplaying seems to be a great way to exercise that metaphorical muscle.

Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.

The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.