The structural and dramatic flexibility of a full-length play made up solely of monologues

Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne

The monologue is obviously to be played by a solo actor, and is usually incorporated within part of a scene, or a stand-alone scene, within a multi-actor play, especially if it is a full-length play. However, it is also possible to put together a play, say of 80 minutes plus, one with a strong plot and storyline, delivered by a single actor in monologue form. A really interesting idea, though, would be to construct the play so that other players can also ‘interact’ with the primary actor throughout the play. This experiment with the monologue form may end up giving us quite a deal of structural and dramatic flexibility in the presentation of the drama.

I have written such a play, yet at first I did not aim to accomplish this type of project. I simply set out to write a piece of drama as part of an evening’s entertainment of Irish culture; entertainment which also includes storytelling, comedy and music. The stipulation for this piece of drama was that it be a monologue of no more than ten, possibly up to fifteen minutes in length. However, and as is usually the way with me, I had no intention of writing a single monologue, and simply leaving it there. If I was going to create a new character, I wanted to create a strong one, and if this character is strong, so my reasoning runs, then why would I be satisfied with leaving it boxed into a single monologue of no more than fifteen minutes total in length.  I wanted to write at least three separate monologues, wherein I might explore the solo character within the structure of a short play; but one which would include a strong plot, storyline and conflict, as well as other strong characters (particularly the antagonist/s).

In fact, each separate monologue would be like a part of a miniseries, whereby it might contain more than one scene; and each scene will end on a bang, a twist or a question the audience wants answered, especially at the end of the part, where it must really end on a cliffhanger so that the audience is left eager for the next part (instalment). By consciously breaking the whole play into parts in this way, it gives us the flexibility either of running all the parts one after the other or else leaving a time lapse between them.

I actually ended up with six monologues, each of which hovers around the fourteen/fifteen minute mark, and therefore brings the whole play to a running time of around 90 minutes when performed. The end of the play now has the feel of a ‘natural’ ending, although the play can, in fact, easily be extended to another six monologues, which, in turn, means the whole story then covers two plays or one long play. Think of the possibilities here! A monologue stage play of six parts has the potential to be broken up into six units time-wise, or else broken up into two or three units, meaning that you can have one or two time lapses in between these break-ups.  This allows the units to be played over the course of a day or evening’s entertainment or even over several evenings while other types of entertainment are slotted in between, entertainment that is possibly of a related theme to the play: my own example is an Irish-themed play for an Irish-themed evening.

The character carrying the full-length play in monologue form will obviously need to be strong, but so, too, will the other main characters, even though they do not appear as actors here. Without strong supporting characters, it will be very difficult to create enough conflict and tension to keep the interest of the audience running for 90 odd minutes, even if this time is broken up into segments. This brings us back to the idea of transforming the play from a monologue form to a multi-actor one. If the other main characters come across well in the monologue form, then there is no reason to believe that these characters will not remain strong or become even stronger once they are truly ‘fleshed out’. We are experimenting here, continuing to test the structure and flexibility of this set of monologues that make up a full-length play or a miniseries.

The monologue means the solo actor is always on the stage and generally not giving us information second hand, as that is not particularly dramatic. This tells us that with the introduction of other actors, the structure of the script will probably change very little. Now when a character appears ‘in the flesh’, we may well need to trim away some physical description (appearance, body language, tone of voice), and, of course, dialogue tags, all of which previously came out of the mouth of the solo actor when the script was only a monologue, but this will usually only be some minor tweaking if the monologues are well written and in good editorial shape.

Two notes of warning!

If you have three other main character parts, for example, you cannot simply bring in one other actor and then leave the original actor of the monologues to continue playing the other main characters. The play will now appear to be out of balance. You must fill in all the other main roles with actors. Minor characters, on the other hand, will continue to be played by the first actor, or maybe even by another actor, depending on the context.

A solo actor can project powerful self expression and so create their own dramatic world which can be incredibly enticing. I state this with reference to the fact that the play will be written firstly in monologue form and so must work strongly as such. When other actors ‘intrude’ on the space of this solo actor, it will certainly destroy the original solo’s world, creating an entirely different dramatic tone. So, using more actors is no guarantee that a better play will emerge. Having said all that, the future belongs to those who experiment.

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Why writing drama is harder than writing a novel

Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne

At a mere glance, the idea that writing drama is harder than novel writing may seem astonishing when we consider that most plays are a lot shorter than even a short novel, and that, dialogue aside, everything else in the play is given as stage setup or direction, (action, character mood, for example,) and generally delivered in clear, simple, crisp prose; whereas the novel’s narrative encompasses detailed description of scene, action, inner monologue, the physical, psychological and emotional state of character, as well as dialogue. This comparison in favour of the novel for easier writing may seem even more astonishing because we also know that dialogue is usually presented in a simpler form of syntax than any other aspect of the narrative; for example, scene description in the novel will generally include similes, metaphors, adjectives and adverbs (more than will dialogue, anyway) and other rhetorical flowerings that writers use in order to enrich the narrative.

So what gives? Why should writing drama be the harder of the two creative forms? Well, we’re not talking here about the actual labour involved in each form but of the inherent difficulty, or trickiness, in mastering the inner workings of each of them.

Although writing dialogue ought to be a simpler task than writing any other aspect of the narrative (for reasons mentioned above), in fact, dramatic dialogue can be incredibly tricky as its mere existence must run in parallel to either the creation or the development of character. And here we come to a very important point! Possibly the hardest thing to do in drama and fiction both is to create and develop well rounded character. Because dialogue represents the immediacy of character, it will not take long after the play starts before the dialogue begins and therefore the character must also jump into life. This suggests that the dramatist must already know his character just as it is ready to go about its business in the play, which means well before they even open their mouth to speak. Here is where the novelist has a big advantage over the playwright. He can start to build and ‘know’ his character through other parts of the narrative (less immediate ones) for quite a while before his character need utter a single word. So what at first glance looked to be a disadvantage for the novelist now looks to be quite an advantage.

If we think of dialogue as the character’s skeleton on which the flesh has yet to be added, we may come to see even clearer why the medium is trickier to accomplish than that of the novel. The dramatist creates the skeleton out of nothing else but dialogue and a few stage directions, and he creates only the skeleton. On the other hand, the novelist gets to fully flesh out his character, not just with dialogue but also with inner monologue (even a soliloquy is still dialogue and must be dramatic, anyway, so is not strictly comparable to inner monologue), description of senses, mood, physical person, action, as well as back-story (more difficult to pull off in the immediacy of drama). The novelist can take his time and use all his narrative resources in order to raise his character from the vague to the detailed and solid. Many novelists really do need the little details to help them build character. As a matter of fact, even scene and scene atmosphere and mood are rich ingredients that aid the writer to breathe air into the character’s lungs. The dramatist can create mood and atmosphere within the dialogue and suggest it with scene setup and direction but these means are still far more limited than those of the novelist. For the play to succeed fully here, it really becomes the job of others later on to accomplish these tasks. The novelist also has the opportunity to develop character over quite a range of scenes and incidents, which may involve interactions with a multitude of secondary characters. For structural as well as practical purposes this is something rarely allowed the dramatist.

Also, as the dramatist must engage the audience constantly, dialogue in a play must never be allowed to ramble or become too abstract or overly intellectual or in any other way difficult to follow as it may do in a novel. Although in the novel, plot focus and reader engagement are also important, there is much more leeway in reading than in watching and listening. The reader can read slowly or go over what they have just read to make sure they understand the meaning; the audience don’t get a second chance to hear the dialogue. So, here, too, even within the dialogue itself, the dramatist has less manoeuvrability than the novelist in developing character.

Now, once the dramatist has built this skeleton of character out of dialogue alone, he must pass on his creation to the actor who will be the one to flesh it out. In this sense, the playwright is writing more for the actor than the audience. The actor must perform an interpretation from the skeleton, deciding in which precise ways to flesh it out, a little like someone doing a forensic body reconstruction. The dramatist may advise, but ultimately he cannot control the interpretation. Anyway, plays are often produced without any outside input at all from the writer.

It is quite extraordinary how little tools the dramatist has to work with and yet must pass on a well rounded set of skeleton characters as well as a suitable plot with often only the suggestion of tension, atmosphere and mood. What is even more extraordinary is how easily his dialogue and therefore his character may jump into life in the mouth of a good actor. However, a poor actor, or the wrong actor for the role, may, for instance, lack the nuance that the role calls for, and so weaken the play overall. The dramatist can only pray that the director and actors share his vision of the play and deliver on it in the appropriate way.

The novelist, on the other hand, though far more likely to be labouring away on his project for longer, has many more tools to help him in character creation and development and furthermore has complete control throughout the whole creative process.

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The storytelling elements of the short story and the shorter play have much in common. So how might this be an advantage for the writer?

Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne

INTRODUCTION

The length of the short story discussed here is not much more than 10, 000 words and the length of the shorter play not beyond a 90 minute performance and often shorter. Here I show the similarities of the storytelling elements for these two disciplines and why this knowledge is of great use in helping the writer work from one form to the other using the same idea. For emphasis, one of my own pieces serves as an example.

The 3 act plot arc structure is a tried and tested formula (not to be confused with formulaic (derivative) writing) that can be used to structure both the short story as well as the play. It is added as an appendage in order to shine greater clarity on the strong connection between the two writing forms.

THE STORY IDEA

Here is the blurb of my 90 minute play The Civilian Zone, a psychological thriller:

Bee’s new boyfriend, Frank, a military man, in the past helped rape victims in a combat zone kill their attackers. This revelation prompts Bee to tell him that she herself is a ‘stranger-rape’ victim, and is still being ‘casually’ stalked by her attacker, as due to poor evidence, the police never brought a prosecution against him. The two lovers hypothetically discuss his execution, until the rapist makes another but unsuccessful attempt at raping her, and then the hypothetical becomes the very possible. The combat soldier will help Bee kill the rapist, but only under certain conditions. Once the man is in their power, he must be killed and Bee must do the killing. Feeling she has run out of options, liberal-minded Bee willingly agrees. However, agreeing to Frank’s conditions and actually carrying them out may not be as easy as she imagines.

The idea for the play originated as a play idea but below I show how easily it might be turned into a short story, especially by using the finished play as a template.

STORYTELLING ELEMENTS OF THE SHORT STORY AND SHORTER PLAY

The main storytelling elements are character, point of view (POV), plot, conflict, theme, drama and setting.  We will also mention time period here, though it is not strictly a storytelling element.

Character

Character definition and development is limited in the short story and shorter play, and ought to be completely plot and theme related. Unless it is specifically plot related, in both disciplines character depth is more hinted at than drawn, as there is simply not enough space/time in which to develop the character in other directions. However, in both writing forms character must be three-dimensional. Usually, one major protagonist is in conflict against one major antagonist, and the fewer the characters/actors, the greater the ability to focus on the internal conflict of the play.

The early drafts of The Civilian Zone included three characters, Bee, Frank and the rapist. But after professional feedback, I rewrote the play with only two characters, Frank and Bee. The psychological drama (and theme) really revolves around Bee and Frank, and, so, after dropping the rapist as a character, the play became tighter, tenser, and more focussed. A further by-product of doing this is that the physical absence of the rapist enables an air of greater malevolence and mystique to surround him as he is still someone very much to reckon with offstage in the play.

In a short story version, I’d have originally worked it as a three-character story, too. But now, with the experience of the play behind me, I’d make it a two-person setup and for exactly the same reasons as in the play.

We discover very little about Bee’s background and absolutely nothing about Frank’s that is not plot related. This would not change in the short story. Bee has phone conversations with her mother about her father’s failing mental condition, and though these two older people are not a direct part of the story, at one point they are used as a plot device to help ratchet up the tension and force Bee to make a decision. The conversations also serve the purpose of creating a contrast between two very different worlds. It would be easy in the short story to introduce her parents as new characters but I would not do so, as it would introduce new scenes and lengthen the story unnecessarily, thereby distracting from the increasingly claustrophobic and dangerous world in which Bee finds herself during the course of the play.

Point of view (POV)

Point of view in fiction doesn’t work in quite the same way as in drama. Nevertheless, we can easily imagine similarities for our own purposes here. POV must be restricted in the short story with usually one inner perspective (called the third-person limited style). A play with a single person’s set of monologues may be considered the equivalent of the third-person limited style of the short story.  Otherwise, and in general, the play is the equivalent of the third person objective of the short story, where we get no character’s inner voice, just the narrator’s ‘objective’  POV or perspective.

In the third act of The Civilian Zone, the dialogue consists solely of a monologue by Bee. I think I would keep it this way for the short story, except she would not be talking out loud for the audience but thinking out loud for the benefit of the reader.

Plot

Plot strands or subplots are considered a no no in the short story and shorter play. The introduction of a plot strand impedes on time/word length, and may end up involving the creation of more characters, themes, scenes and settings. Too much ‘noise’ in our short pieces only encourages us to take our eye off the main purpose of the writing. Plot strands also often weaken the tension of the main plot. The work may soon start to look sluggish, even confusing. Of course, exceptions exist but few good short stories have more than one plot strand and it will be directly related to the main plot.

The Civilian Zone has no plot strands. Bee’s parents might have been introduced as one for the short story but as already stated, it would not help the story grow stronger, only weaker.

The plot of the short story is also broken into dramatic scenes just like in the play.

What I might change about the plot for the short story would be to start the whole thing at the point where Bee and Frank already have the rapist in the cellar, which then allows Bee to reflect on how she happened to arrive at that particular junction. This could tighten up the story even more. This option isn’t available in the play.

Conflict

Once we have the set-up (see plot arc structure below) the story’s conflict should begin with the inciting incident and continue until the climax in the third act. Conflict has no particular restriction in the short story/shorter drama in and of itself. Other elements will naturally restrict its development. Without conflict, there’s no story, not on the page and certainly not on the stage.

The play’s conflict revolves around Bee’s and Frank’s very different worldviews. He is the hardened mercenary and she is the typical middle-class liberal woman. Will Bee accept Frank’s offer to help her revenge herself against her attacker? And, if so, once she has accepted the offer, will she finish off the rapist in the way Frank insists she must? The play’s conflict centres not only on the dialogue between Bee and Frank but also on Bee’s monologues – otherwise the third act would be without conflict. In the short story, the conflict would develop in the same way, around their conversations and within Bee’s inner voice.

Theme

The theme, a very powerful element of the tale or drama, is often easier to explore and highlight in shorter pieces of writing where we have far less ‘noise’. The theme of The Civilian Zone hinges on whether it is okay for the protagonist to exact lethal retribution on her offender after society has failed to act on her behalf, with further consideration to the fact that she genuinely believes she is continuously in danger of another attack by the offender. It is a simple and universal theme and one as easily explored in creative as dramatic writing.

 Drama

Drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices. Most modern fiction has drama as an intrinsic element of the story, unless the story is aimed solely at humour. Obviously, this also holds true for drama itself. The drama or morality (theme here) of the play is woven into every aspect of the conflict. The same would hold true for the short story because we would also be writing only as much as we need in order to make the story work well.

Setting

The setting may be incidental or critical to the story/drama. If the setting is not necessary for character, plot or conflict development, or for the creation of tension or suspense then the setting is incidental and described very briefly in the story or on the stage. A critical setting may be important to character, plot or conflict development, and if so, then the setting will certainly also help evoke mood and build tension and suspense. But setting is much more likely to be critical in the written word for obvious reasons – much of a written story can be built on its setting, the mood it evokes and the characters which emerge from it. Think of an historical or science-fiction story, for example. It would be hard to recreate the way the setting saturates the whole story on the stage as it does on the page. The detail will simply be lacking. However, descriptions of critical setting should be used strategically and sparingly in the short story; restrictions on the stage will be more to do with practical or financial considerations, or even taste.

The setting of The Civilian Zone is incidental. The whole play is set in Bee’s kitchen, so the short story version is hardly in need of lots of detailed description of setting. We already know what the average kitchen looks like.

Time period

The time period (the time over which the story/play takes place) is generally restricted in the shorter works in order to help keep the story focussed and immediate (just like with restrictions on character, POV, plot, scene, setting and theme). With a shorter time period, the writer is less inclined to introduce new scenes, characters or plot points, which, again, may only weaken the focus of the story. However, if other storytelling elements are kept tightened, the time period may stretch, and the story may still keep its focus. Much depends on the original idea and the skills of the storyteller.

The Civilian Zone stretches over several months, but because all other storytelling elements in the play are kept tight, this time stretch does not feel particularly emphasised. In other words, the play’s time period does not weaken the focus on the plot, the theme, the conflict or the tension and suspense in any way. The time period for the short story would remain the same as in the play.

CONCLUSION

Obviously, not every idea is going to work in both writing forms. But many will, and if you are a short story writer considering the possibility of writing a play from your original short story (or the reverse), then an understanding of the similarities of the storytelling elements between the two forms will indeed serve you well when putting together the new piece of work off your old template. Basic mistakes you made while developing your original story or play will not have to be repeated in the new form. It’s my belief that you will have a lot more flexibility working from the play to the short story than the other way round; but don’t get silly and forget the rules of good short story writing. Good luck with your experimenting!

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THE 3 ACT PLOT ARC STRUCTURE

The plot arc for the short story can be structured like a 3 act play and like in a play the acts are divided into scenes.

Act 1

Start with a set-up. A set-up can be viewed in a simple way: introduce a protagonist within a setting where a problem is about to hit him. What triggers the conflict’s story and kicks the plot into gear at the same time is known as the inciting incident. This incident or problematic situation will be something that both disturbs and challenges the protagonist. It comes as close to the beginning of the story as possible. Once character and setting are introduced in the set-up, the inciting incident should happen. The end of the inciting incident signals the end of the first act.

Act 2

This is the main body of the story. Here we are placing scenes that develop character, plot and conflict in a smooth and logical manner and the tension must always be rising, even in quiet periods of reflection; which means that the stakes are rising for the protagonist and that everything is heading toward a final and inevitable clash with the antagonist.

We have two or three events here where the protagonist and antagonist clash to keep the tension rising, bearing in mind that the inciting incident may be the first clash. The last event in this act will have a high point and the darkest moment. At the high point, it may look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, but then unexpectedly, the darkest moment arrives, and all he has tried to achieve now looks to be undone. It seems as if he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the challenge of the story. This is an essential moment that forces the tension even higher. It is the nail-biting moment in the horror film when it looks like the monster is dead but then it rises up sneakily behind our hero getting ready to devour him. Our hero is surely doomed now.

Act 3

The climax is where our hero turns round in time and has his last battle with the monster. It is an all or nothing moment where everything the hero has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point.

In the resolution all the loose ends are tied up.

 

3 Act Play

A short story plot arc can be structured like a 3 act play. This covers the set-up through to the resolution and the overall objective/problem to be tackled.

Act 1

Set-up

Inciting event

Act 2

Conflict (rising tension)

High point and darkest moment

Act 3

Climax

Resolution

 

The 3 act plot arc structure is a common formula that works for many popular films, plays, novels and short stories but it may still get some tweaking depending on the kind of story or play we are writing. But to manipulate the formula successfully, we must understand the underpinning psychology of why the formula creates rising tension and holds the reader or audience spellbound to a high degree. We can use a sporting analogy as a reference point to explain this underpinning psychology. Let’s think of a tug of war contest.

Act 1 is the set-up and the inciting incident or challenge.

The two teams get ready. The game begins. One team screams out a challenge to the other and tugs hard on the rope (antagonist does the challenging) pulling the other team (protagonist) toward the line. It is aggressive and confrontational but exciting for the spectators (reader, in our case).

Act 2 is the middle part with conflict and rising tension, and has a high point and darkest moment.

The challenged team (protagonist) might manage to pull the other side a few feet forward, but then the challengers (antagonist) dig deep and pull the challenged team forward close to the line. This exciting to-ing and fro-ing is constantly forcing up the tension. The most exciting moments come round possibly three times, so it’s like three little scenes of conflict within the overall match. The challenged team (protagonist) pull the other side right to the line (high point) and it looks like they’ve got it won. But the challengers recover, and soon drag the challenged team toward the line. One of the members of this team slips and falls, releasing his hold on the rope. Surely they’ve lost now. (Here is the darkest moment for the protagonist.)

Act 3 is the climax and resolution.

The losing team (protagonist) suddenly finds its second strength. It pulls back hard and regains a step. The other side pulls back hard. Another fierce struggle ensues, but this time the challenged team (protagonist) pulls its opponents over the line in a nail-biting finish (climax). The winning team get their medals and everyone shakes hands (resolution).

You don’t have to be a tug of war fan to understand this sporting analogy. It is a simple and expressive example and gets the basic points across clearly. If you were just to have a match, where within the opening seconds one team pulled the other over the line, or a match that lasted minutes but one team looked like it would win right from the start with no real balance in the struggle between the contestants, it would not be anywhere near as exciting. Of course, you can’t plan the most exciting outcome for a sport, but you can for a story.

Although the conflict here is described in physical terms, the same rules apply if the conflict is psychological or emotional. The emotional plot in a story has its challenges, its conflicts, its ups and downs and its bruises and tears just like in the physical plot.

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Intellectual versus emotional inspiration in the creative writing process

Copyright © 2016 Jerry Dunne

I include here a definition of these two types of inspiration, offer a practical example of each from my own work and point out some pros and cons of the two approaches. Of course, inspiration may also come as a combination of both, but when this occurs we have the best of both worlds and this discussion becomes merely academic.

Whatever the source of intellectual inspiration, be it a snatch of conversation, a painting, a story, fable, poem, etc., we have immediately taken the first practical step on our journey toward the final draft. The inspiration is in and of itself practical, offering us a partial or even full storyline, perhaps some plot, perhaps the flickering of an image of the lead character, perhaps more, and perhaps a combination of any or all of these. Of course, an emotional arc rises here, too, but this ‘lesser’ emotional high is common in the creative process, anyway, invariably triggered whenever we think up something clever or imaginative that is soon to benefit us. It is more akin to feelings of delight and enthusiasm than to raw passion. It does not make us feel that we absolutely have to pursue a development on this initial inspiration. Its power does not haunt us and continue to do us for months, even years after our first experience of it. Our intellectual inspiration may even throw up better ideas than we have ever dreamt up but our enthusiasm for developing them rests almost exclusively on the practical side of storytelling.

Based on this purely intellectually inspired approach, I quickly evolved the basic characterization, storyline and plot arc of my latest psychological crime novel, A Deadman’s File. Once I imagined I had some clever plot twists worked out, my enthusiasm made me race in the writing of it; but, in turn, somewhere toward the end of the first draft I realised that the novel was missing something very important. It lacked thematic depth. I had been so busy focussing on plot that I had failed to see this obvious flaw. Because the novel lacked thematic depth it also lacked character depth. Despite still believing I had some clever plot twists in play, I now understood that the novel was rather shallow. I had failed to invest real emotional energy in the story, which is why theme and character depth were sorely lacking. So, to introduce strong theme (in particular concepts of justice and revenge) and character depth, I was forced to engage with the story at a deeper emotional level. After I had set about correcting the weaknesses, the novel really started to grow. Now it had emotional tone: theme flourished; characters became passionate and far more engaging, their reasons for their actions became more convincing; situations became more dramatic; and last, but certainly not least, the psychological side of the story deepened. But if not for two previous psychological crime novels I’d written, both with strong theme and character, books I had engaged with at a fairly deep emotional level, I would not have been able to measure the third one by them and so might never have realised that it was missing something fundamental. Here, I believe, is the biggest drawback in bouncing a story into play off the back of intellectual inspiration alone. We may be so intent on developing those clever plot twists, for example, that we forget our writing also needs emotional engagement in order to develop theme and character depth.

Raw emotional inspiration works more or less to the opposite effect of intellectual inspiration. It happens suddenly, jolting the emotional side of our artistic personality to a very high degree, giving us a powerful and overwhelming feeling that the movie, novel, article, documentary, photo or whatever it was that set us off in this way will definitely have repercussions for our own creative processes; but it achieves this without immediately offering us any of the practical aspects, such as a flicker of character, storyline or plot idea, that is the hallmark of the intellectual approach. In the short term, it may possibly offer us no solid foundation at all on which to build the creative process. However, we really do feel deeply that we will eventually be stirred into finding and developing great character, storyline and plot, great stuff indeed to match the powerful and overwhelming feelings that our initial inspiration encouraged in us. We believe that once we get this story together, it will take our writing to a whole new level. We may even believe that this powerful urge to create ‘a special work’ triggered by the inspiration relates to something very primal about our personalities, our lives and our writing. This sort of emotional passion can burn away in us for years, of course, and the longer it burns, in the true artist, at least, the brighter it burns. The thing to remember is that we have absolutely no idea yet of the working substance of it.

For my latest piece of writing, a play, Falling Molly Twist, the inspiration behind it arrived in raw emotional form. In the French novel A Sun for the Dying, a subplot involves a Bosnian woman, Mirjana, a victim of the civil war in which her family have been murdered, and who, now in France, has fled captivity as a sex slave. Still on the run from the slavers, she temporarily takes up with the protagonist. The only thing she has left of her past life is a book of poetry by the French poet Saint-John Perse and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off. The photo is cut for a reason which I won’t go into here. But it is this startling image of a person who has so little left from their previous and tragic life that struck me most forcefully. A book of poetry and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off! No sooner had I read about her than a raw emotional surge of inspiration gripped me. For weeks, maybe months, I had no or little idea what I would do with this inspiration, what I might write about off the back of it; but the inspiration’s energy had swept me up so completely and held me in such a vicelike grip that it eventually compelled me to dream up the beginnings of a story. By the age of twenty-three, with no friends left in her life, Molly Twist has slid into casual prostitution. She has nothing left of her past, except a copy of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which she has owned since the age of twelve. The book is stuffed with her notes, notes deemed very important at the time of writing, notes written between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. The play opens where fate is about to deal Molly a savage blow.

The main downside to bouncing a story into life off the back of emotional inspiration alone is that we may end up neglecting, at least in part, basic craftsmanship. Though the emotional inspiration behind Falling Molly Twist had been feverishly burning away in my mind for about two years, it was only when I started to write the play that I understood that some aspects of good storytelling were still lacking. Yes, strong character and theme quickly became of great importance in the development of the play but not necessarily storyline and especially not plot. Midway through the first draft, I realised that I needed more story and much more plot movement in which to control and nurture the emotional charge of the play. This is necessary, of course, in order to produce a continuously interesting and captivating story. No matter how much passion we have for our special story, our baby, how important we believe it to be, the reader or audience is still entitled to a well worked out piece of craftsmanship and entertainment. This is more or less the reverse attitude to the one I took with the psychological crime novel where plot development was at first of primary importance and character and theme depth of secondary importance.

The big lesson we can draw from the above examples is that neither emotional nor intellectual inspiration on their own are going to give us a good story. Whichever type prompts or propels us to write, we are now aware it may be limiting us unconsciously. We must always remember that a good story relies on both intellectual and emotional investment: strong character and thematic depth on the one hand and strong storyline and plot on the other.

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Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

Why write psychological crime? explains the category of psychological crime referred to in this post.

For female characters to engage in leading roles in our subgenre of psychological crime, it will undoubtedly mean that they are up for the odd murder or two, whether directly or through proxy. Statistically, women are far less likely than men to indulge in a good murder, but women do still murder in the real world and sometimes in all sorts of skilful, imaginative and horrific ways. Besides, considering only a tiny handful out of the overall male population actually commit any type of very violent crime, and the male personalities committing murder in our subgenre of crime tales arise mostly from the socio-economic class least likely to be incarcerated for any sort of offense, it is hardly stretching credibility then to envisage ‘talented’ women at least as capable of killing as most of these latter type of men.  Yes, of course higher socio-economic classes of women are the least likely of all to commit murder, or for that matter to be a victim of it, but this doesn’t mean that no talent or desire exists amongst this demographic pool to carry out the act. And let’s not beat about the bush here but wholeheartedly add that the fact that they are least likely to do so in real life only adds an extra thrilling and interesting layer to the story.

It must be stressed that absolutely no evidence exists to contradict the assertion that some women are able to perform at the highest levels of skill, intuition and creativity regarding the exciting activity of murder. Emotionally and psychologically, females are as capable and are often found to be as committed to the task as are men. It is only a lack of social and cultural conditioning that have hindered them at all up to the present date and therefore kept their contributions low in the overall statistical tables. But thank God that is all rapidly changing!  And yes… yes… I know what you’re thinking! Doesn’t the physical difference between the sexes factor into this at all? Yes, it does; of course, it does; though not as much as you might imagine. If the heart is in it then the hand is willing and a willing hand will transform itself into a more than capable hand. This is really the core of the matter. Muscle mass is not anywhere near as relevant as attitude. And one might even argue that muscle mass is a red herring. A sudden bullet in the heart, an unexpected slip of the knife between the ribs or the odd enthusiastic push off a cliff edge, all these gestures have a lot more to do with attitude than they do with muscle mass. Long gone are the days when a woman was expected to perform murder only through a subtle poison. With women’s horizons greatly broadened, their knowledge and skills base deepened and their growth in abundant resourcefulness and confidence a given, there is no longer any reason why this should not be reflected in much more active and powerful roles in our type of story, including more diverse and skilful ways of achieving the coup de grace. Surely no one in their right mind could disagree with this point, particularly as we now see governments (in the western world, at least), opening up frontline (killing) roles for women in the military, which means that those who are experts in the various fields of military professionalism are super confident of women accomplishing the arduous task of slaughter with as much talent, skill, enthusiasm and daring-do as our leading men.

Just as within the context of military life, so, too, in our area of concern, the potential for murder is all about context. Given the right set of circumstances, which includes personality type, motivation and opportunity, few of us would not be capable of rising to the challenge of carrying out such an act. The psychological crime story is a wonderful environment for all of us to explore and develop the darker side of our personality. So the author should have no problem convincing the reader that a woman can do any amount of murderous chores. Our characters are mostly ordinary people on the surface (like all of us, no doubt), so it is with the undercurrents of the personality that we concern ourselves the most. Here is where the author must strive to convince the reader that this ‘ordinary’ personality will really commit this act of murder. Have the emotional and psychological inner workings been explored and developed sufficiently to convince the reader of this? It shouldn’t matter how they appear physically (man or woman, big or small) or that they are a successful author and clinical psychologist or a corporate manager, or whatever; what matters is what is hidden in the heart. This is where the road to murder begins.  Of course, the physical side of the story is not without importance. You must certainly convince the reader that the crime can be realistically executed. But much of the tension, suspense and conflict in the story take place inside the depths of the personality.

This post isn’t some sort of macabre call for affirmative action in an attempt to push women up the corporate killing ladder and bring statistics for women’s murder convictions on a par with those of men, and all just so we can pat ourselves on the back and boast how we have done something against discrimination in this area. Women protagonists who take a much more lively and active role in pushing the plot forward will inevitably dirty their hands through their participation in the odd murder or two, as already stated in the first sentence. And this enables the author to create fresh and exciting dynamics in the relationships between characters and even within the storylines. Below are two examples of how this works, and, ironically, both examples use as their inspiration two very old storylines.

In the psychologist, the novel’s first half is inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, except the gender roles are reversed. Amanda, the protagonist of the story, plays Iago to her husband’s lover, Gabby, her antagonist, who plays Othello here.  Using another identity, Amanda befriends Gabby with the sole intention of destroying her relationship with her husband. But after learning that her husband wants to divorce her and take half of everything that she has worked hard for over the years of her career and use it to feather the nest of his new relationship, and also after discovering that Gabby’s psychiatric history (one of violence toward past lovers based on a condition of irrational jealousy), Amanda’s handling of Gabby takes on a much darker tone. Amanda, a clinical psychologist, knows how to manipulate Gabby’s psychiatric condition with professional ease, and she skilfully goads her into killing her husband. So the role of Desdemona falls to Alfie, the husband. Iago and Othello’s roles could only be played by women in this story as two men (straight men, anyway) would not become so intensely intimate with one another and certainly not so quickly in the way the two women do. The story is about the power struggle between the two women, which becomes increasingly complex as the story progresses, ending in another tragedy. Alfie, the man, plays a passive role in the plot, and a victim in the story itself. Not surprisingly, despite the traditional inspiration behind the story, the role reversals have thrown up completely fresh perspectives on character and storyline and none of it appears contrived which may not realistically have been the case if the novel had been written eighty (maybe even thirty or forty) years ago.

The Troubled Househusband is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Role reversals occur here up to a degree but still enough to throw up fresh dynamics in the relationship between the main characters. Danny, the househusband of the title, an ex-amateur boxer, is living the ideal middle-class life with his wife, Carol, and their three children. That is, until her personality undergoes a dramatic shift and she is soon busy undermining his role as a stay-at-home dad. Eventually, he discovers that workplace bullying is the cause of the change in her behaviour. She works as a senior and aspiring manager in the corporate world but the bullying is affecting her career and therefore the family’s future economy as she is the sole breadwinner. Determined to get her career back on track, she pressures Danny into helping her out with her work-based problems. As a consequence of him doing so, two people end up dead and another crippled.  Carol plays Lady Macbeth but also a little bit of Macbeth, as it is she who is both pushing him into action but also doing it for her own career’s sake.  Although Danny is called on to do the dirty work (so he is also playing Macbeth to an extent), it is Carol who forcefully moves the plot onward and it is Carol who is always ready to lend her moral and logistical support, and she even plans in detail their only deliberate attempt at murder. In many respects, Danny is the hapless pawn between Carol and her enemies; he moves reluctantly to the extremes she pushes him toward, and really only does so because she makes him feel completely undermined as a father, a husband, and a man, while also convincing him that their family is finally under threat and a refusal on his part to act on her plans would spell doom for them. Throughout the story, Danny sees himself as increasingly powerless within a morally decaying environment.  The role reversal for Danny, where he is playing a progressive role of househusband, but now is also being forced by real threats into playing a traditional role as family protector (by brutally attacking those who threaten his wife and so by implication his family life), gives us fresh perspectives on character and storyline that could never have occurred had Danny been the main breadwinner and Carol a stay at home mum.

The complete role-reversal in the first novel and the partial role reversal approach in the second story have certainly produced a much more interesting set of dynamics than a simple update of inspiration and plot direction from the old plays without any role reversal whatsoever. They are a good example of how promoting women in our ever-changing society to a more active role in the psychological crime novel can help create a whole fresh set of tensions, conflicts and dramatic angles.

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Why write psychological crime?

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

I have just finished writing my second psychological crime novel, and here I’m happy to explain what I mean by this category of crime writing and why I choose to write in it as opposed to any of the other crime genres.

The crime novel includes sub-genres such as classic detective, police procedural, cosy crime, hard-boiled, standard private eye, thrillers, the historical whodunnit, the legal thriller, courtroom, the spy novel, the crime caper and the psychological angle. Some of these categories have further sub-categories of their own and some cross-pollinating is also going on.

Psychological crime itself can certainly be broken down into sub-categories – at least in my mind. For instance, there is the standard serial killer story where the expertise of our forensic psychologist is used to help catch the crazy. This category may also cross over into another crime category. There is (I speak cynically here) that other type of psychological crime where the plot seems incredibly slow moving to the point where you wonder if there is one at all, and where the reader spends an awful lot of time soaking up a great deal of information about the main characters but ends up wondering what was the point of it, and in fact, what was the point in reading the book in the first place as one is left feeling indifferent or totally bored by the entire story.  I will not name names either of author or book title because of course all books (even the most boring ones) have their fans and I do not want to upset anyone here.  But these types of stories are what put a lot of people off from attempting a second or a third psychological crime story. I’m afraid I don’t actually have a technical definition for this type but am certainly fully aware I have one on my hands before the first chapter is over.

But a third type of psychological crime story (the one that I believe is not just far more interesting than the other psychological crime categories but also of any of the other general crime categories), can trace its lineage back to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in my opinion. This novel has certainly been a great inspiration for me. If I had never read the story, it is probable that I would never have felt any interest in writing psychological crime stories at all.

Strangers on a Train is fascinating for its portrayal of an ordinary and well-socialised man who once dragged down into the darker side of his personality commits the extraordinary act of murder. In this original story, both the inner and outer personality of Guy Haines, the protagonist, is fully developed and dissected with skilful precision; both sides are laid out clearly for our observation. This occurs within a well-structured plot which offers the reader direction and pace right from early on; the plot throws up convincing and unexpected twists to keep our attention fixed eagerly on the story. The deep psychological and emotional aspects of the story never become a drag in reading, simply because Highsmith adeptly balances plot development between the inner and outer world. This is what impresses me most about the novel: it is deep but lively, informative but also greatly entertaining.

Ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and struggling to deal with their new reality is generally what fascinates us most with a story. The ordinariness of the main characters enable us to identity with them and therefore cheer for them; we can easily follow their line of reasoning based on their social and moral anchors as we share these anchors – until, of course, the darker side of their personality begins to emerge. Then we watch spellbound as they begin to unravel, detach themselves from their social and moral environment and descend into the dark void.

These types of characters are indeed very familiar to us. They are members of our family, our relatives, our close friends, casual friends and work colleagues. They are the neighbour next door. They are you and I. This is what gives these stories their real frisson. We are usually able to make very close and direct comparisons between ourselves and these characters. So, even though we feel a little squeamish about it, we persist in identifying with them as their descent into the darkness continues.  We then bewitch ourselves with these questions: Could this have been me? Would my mind have been played with in this way? Would the fear and stress have also twisted me into psychological knots? Would a darker side of my personality have emerged to help me deal with this new reality? Would I have done this crime under the same set of circumstances? These stories challenge us to ask questions about ourselves in a way other crime stories cannot because they are peopled with earthy, quite domestic characters that are similar to ourselves and who find themselves in situations that some of us might possibly also find ourselves in one day.

Murder is hardly something the average person enters into lightly. That is why this type of novel creates vast amounts of tension and suspense on the psychological level. Will she, won’t see? How will she go about it? Will she lose her nerve at the last moment? Then how will she eventually justify her crime, at least to herself? Compare our sort of story to one about a hardened killer who is intent on committing another murder. Psychologically and emotionally we have no distance to travel with this other character. We are unlikely to sympathise with them to begin with, anyway, but that is not the big point.  Killing to them is normal and they don’t have to undergo some inner metamorphosis to achieve it. There is no moral conflict involved here, so there is no psychological struggle, no inner challenge to overcome. All inner conflict is already resolved. The killer has already crossed that bridge. As readers we are only witness to the killer’s challenges involving the technical and logistical aspects of his plans. Of course, the story will still be exciting, but we have far less of an emotional connection to make with this character. We don’t feel pulled into it on a personal level because we feel disconnected to the inner psychological and emotional world of the casual killer. There is no inner story burning through the pages that belongs to us as much as to the main character.

In our Highsmith story, we have so much at stake, not only for the protagonist but also for society.  Once the deed is done, Guy Haines, the ordinary and well-socialised man, has lost his innocence, an innocence he can never regain. He is now a murderer, and that status can never be thrown away. And, yes, in the story Guy certainly feels this loss of innocence. He knows he can never again lay claim to his old pre-murder personality. His dark side has won. But not only Guy is shocked and disturbed here by his own actions. Society is also disturbed; the social order has been shaken. Ordinary man, our next door neighbour, our brother, our father, the university educated, the successful architect, has carried out a brutal murder of an innocent man. Now he is a cold-blooded killer! We as a society are shocked and shaken by it in ways we would not be if it had been a gangland murder – because he is one of us and therefore he is bold proof of what we might also become if we were dropped into a similar set of circumstances as his own.

This is what truly disturbs us about Guy Haines and his type of story. If not under his set of circumstances then surely it’s only a matter of which set of circumstances would be needed to bring out our darker side. Ultimately, these types of novels are teasing us in a macabre way. They are saying that we might think we would never end up committing such an act, that we might think we know ourselves too well for that outcome, that we might believe we would always come up with an alternative and more virtuous way of dealing with our predicament other than turning our hand to murder, but that in fact we can really only believe such a thing from the comfort zone of our naïve psychological armchairs; and that, finally, if it came down to it, we would quite shock ourselves with the discovery of how willingly we’d run to embrace our darker side – it is only a matter of the right set of circumstances presenting itself in order to achieve that end.

These are the reasons why this type of psychological crime story is more fascinating and entertaining both to read and write than any of the other crime categories.

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You may also like to read Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

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A few thoughts on the inspiration behind character development

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

Character does not arise in some pure form out of the writer’s imagination. The creative mind is influenced by a myriad of sources that gather in quantity and quality over a whole lifetime and arrives on the page either consciously or unconsciously. For instance, sources may make up any combination of the following: a close, casual or one-off acquaintance; the writer’s own personality; fiction such as films, novels and plays; non-fiction such as biographies, historical sources, documentaries and nowadays internet forums. It will certainly be the case that the personal experience of strong character (good or bad) will have impacted upon the writer emotionally as well as intellectually and that these types are the most likely to find themselves filtered on to the creative page at some point.

For the beginner writer, it is probable that the initial source used for character inspiration will not extend beyond the early stages of the story, especially if the character is going to be the protagonist. The reason for this is simple: character will have to change throughout the story due to the circumstances and pressures of the plot, and therefore our original limited inspiration will soon run out of steam. Who doesn’t reconfigure their emotional level and attitude and therefore physical behaviour when undergoing trying circumstances? This happens even in a short story. When the character refuses to grow in a developing plot, the character will feel stubbornly two-dimensional or unrealistic. This, of course, will irritate intelligent readers. The protagonist must not only undergo a physical journey throughout the story, but also an emotional one. There must be some inner change.

There may be one or two exceptions where the original source of ideas for character definition and development provides all the necessary attributes to carry the protagonist through the entire plot. But this can only happen if the original character has gone through all the exact same circumstances of the plot in another medium and the writer has a record of their inner (emotional) journey. An example might be a crime writer planning a novel inspired by a gangster’s autobiography. The writer wants to model his protagonist on the real-life gangster and use some of the big details of the gangster’s life story for his story’s main-plot points. Fine. But few writers will actually stick faithfully to the biographical source, because as creative writers they will be eager to develop some storyline originality in their work. And, once they decide to do this, they have to reach outside of the framework of the autobiography and start to play a guessing game regarding how their fictional character will think, feel and act because the autobiographical character can no longer show them. Of course, they will have to be consistent with the character already partly formed, but now they must also search for inspiration from other sources in order to keep the character growing throughout the plot. This is often something not done consciously, as mentioned earlier, and involves the writer drawing on character attributes from a myriad of sources which are stored in the writer’s memory bank.

However, it may also be done consciously. In our example, though the autobiography will offer the opportunity to take chunks of inspiration for character development up to a point, supposing the writer wants to write a novel about a gangster who attempts to turn over a new leaf but is thwarted at every turn and this takes a considerable detour from the autobiographical line of inspiration? Now the writer may deliberately look for character inspiration from other specific book sources to help him out.

In general, an initial and single source of inspiration is useful for defining a character and giving that character a shove into the body of the story. But as the plot starts to throw up challenge after challenge, the writer starts to realise that what looked like a good bet for a strong character in the inspiration and planning stages of the story now looks a lot less of a sure thing. Soon the writer understands that they simply don’t have enough character to work with; they wonder how the character is going to respond to the next big challenge. Often, they find themselves unable to make their character react in a reasonable and consistent way. They may well have written down lots of physical and emotional descriptions about the character based on the original inspiration, but now they see that this is simply not enough as the growth of the plot is stretching their character beyond the initial usefulness of the notes. The writer must now look elsewhere in order to help develop the character further.

Getting stuck this way isn’t inevitable. The experienced writer is aware of its possibility and so is ready for it. For the beginner writer it often comes as quite a shock to realise that they have no idea how their character will respond emotionally and possibly even physically to the next plot hurdle, and in a way which is consistent to the layer of character already installed in the earlier part of the tale.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that character must all be developed in the planning stage; that what we start off with we must finish with. This is quite a ridiculous idea. Many writers will develop character through draft writing and probably be researching it and certainly searching for inspiration for it continuously. With each draft the character comes into focus that bit clearer and stronger and some of the thought processes and actions allocated to him or her in the previous draft get shunned while fresh ones are encouraged into play. The point to note here is that the beginner writer needs to be aware that the early inspiration will soon run out, and when this happens, they must then be prepared to search farther and wider afield for other sources of inspiration.

Overall, the development of character in a story is a matter of blending. This is really what imagination is doing: it is not creating a totally new character out of thin air but rather gathering and blending various sources of inspiration together to create a plausible character which the reader can relate to and believe in.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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