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THE PLAY’S THE THING: Part I By Dale Griffiths Stamos

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THE PLAY’S THE THING

Part I: Prewriting

The Five Questions

By Dale Griffiths Stamos

November 2009

Authorlink welcomes award-winning playwright Dale Griffiths Stamos as a regular monthly columnist.

"Early in the prewriting stage, you should ask yourself five questions:"
—Stamos

Early in the prewriting stage, you should ask yourself five questions:

Who is the play about?  In other words, who is the protagonist? What does the protagonist want or need? (consciously or unconsciously) What gets in the protagonist’s way? (antagonistic forces) Does the protagonist succeed or fail? (resolution) How does the protagonist change?

Let’s take each of these in turn:

Who is it about?

Who your story is about, your protagonist, is the character with whom the audience most engages and whose problem they want most to see resolved.  This does not mean the other characters won’t be fully developed, with problems and conflicts of their own, but having a central character is what helps focus the play both for author and audience.   Think of that character as the voice of the play.

What does the protagonist want?

"The protagonist must have a compelling need that drives him or her throughout the story."
—Stamos

The protagonist must have a compelling need that drives him or her throughout the story.  This need is usually established by an inciting incident at the beginning of the play.   The inciting incident is an event that throws the character out of his or her status quo condition by introducing a problem.   It is the protagonist’s need to resolve this problem that drives the action forward.

The protagonist’s need can either be external or internal, conscious or  unconscious.  Sometimes there is both a conscious need and a conflicting unconscious need operating within the protagonist.  In this case, one need is usually resolved at the expense of the other.

What is in the protagonist’s way?

The obstacles in the protagonist’s path are called antagonistic forces.  These can be a person or persons, a situation, the protagonist’s own inner conflict, an institution, society, even the weather!  The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is they have to equal the effort and will put forth by the protagonist, otherwise not enough energy is generated in the play.  It is also important to remember an antagonist is not always a “bad guy” but simply what thwarts the character’s want or need.  You can write interesting, nuanced plays where your protagonist and antagonist have equally compelling actions and motivations.  But again, your protagonist is the one we are the most “invested” in.

Does the protagonist succeed or fail?

A question is posed when a story begins:  Will the boy get the girl?, will the man gain fame and fortune?, will the woman overcome her prejudices?  By the end of the story, in the resolution, you must answer the question, with a Yes, or with a No. 

"Protagonists do not have to succeed for the story to resolve. . ."
—Stamos

Protagonists do not have to succeed for the story to resolve.  Sometimes they will gain something by not getting what they want.

How does the protagonist change?

An essential element of story is that the protagonist, by the end of the play, changes or evolves in some way.  Think of story as a crucible.  Like metal transforms under the application of high heat, so the protagonist transforms through the challenges and obstacles s/he faces in struggling to resolve his or her problem.  Depending on the story, this transformation can be subtle or dramatic, but it must be there.  

Although many of these questions will, of course, also evolve during the drafting of your play,   mapping them out in the prewriting phase helps you establish your story’s bone structure, which will guide you through the entire writing process.

About the Author Dale Griffiths Stamos is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced and published in the United States and abroad.  She has been on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Dale is currently teaching a class in “Finding Your Story” workshop at Cal Arts in the fall.  For more information, go to www.dalegriffithsstamos.com