Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Conflict (rising tension)
High point and darkest moment
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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