This is my summary of the Writing for Performance workshop (at Geneva Writers’ Conference) with Shaun McCarthy
Shaun addressed a small workshop group of fourteen people for two hours. He spent the first section talking about three things an audience expects, whether it is theatre, television or film. We may not do this consciously, but our conditioned knowledge of storytelling makes us expert at assessing what works.
“It might be the first play/film/TV episode you’ve ever written, but it’s certainly not the first story your audience has ever been told.”
Shaun began with three key questions.
Plausibility: do we believe this could happen? Whether in reality or this fictional world? Is the action driven by character motivation as opposed to puppets serving plot? Does the piece raise questions, make us think about themes, incite us to argue over its message?
Coherence: where it starts and ends, the gaps filled in, the backstory and momentum from one scene to the next, is this logical? Is chronologically the best way to reveal the experience? Can the audience predict what comes next and could that be subverted?
Convention: The poster, title, image, strapline and marketing sets up a certain kind of expectation – viewers have an expectation of how they will feel at the end. Yet there is also an expectation of originality within the form. The space between satisfying preconceived ideas and challenging thought is an exciting area.
To illustrate the above, we watched the opening of Peaky Blinders and discussed what genres it referenced and what promises it set up.
Next, we explored the five act structure.
(Pick a play/film/TV series you know well and identify these for yourself. It’s a useful exercise.)
Establish the world of the play and then turn things around. Something must happen to challenge the normality of this environment and trigger a desire in our protagonist. This is the INCITING INCIDENT.
Followed by Advances and Setbacks. One step forward, one back, with increasing threat and/or greater glory, the hero/ine progresses to a point where everything rests on one choice.
CRISIS. The action, the decision, the risk-it-all leap, which must be propelled by character or the changes s/he has undergone.
CLIMAX. Will he or won’t she? Do we or don’t they? This is where the protagonist wins or loses and creates a new play/film/ world order. Whether it’s a home run, a kiss or the jury’s verdict, nothing will ever be the same again.
RESOLUTION: The success or failure of the choice in crisis now spool outwards, resolving all those lead-up moments for better/worse. This is where the tension is released.
Shaun split us into groups to write our own outline of a Five-Act Structure, entitled The Legacy. The formula proved a helpful framework, within which Shaun helped us see where we needed extra characters, thematic underpinning and shortcuts to tension.
Finally, one member of the group asked about turning a family member’s experience into a screenplay. Shaun’s reply:
Real life is often a great story. But usually a rotten script.
Further reference material
Shaun McCarthy: Hooligan Theatre
Robert McKee: Story
Lajos Egri: The Art of Dramatic Writing