Lajos Egri (1888-1967) wrote The Art of Dramatic Writing back in the ’40s.
The book is not about writing film but theatre. Still, it’s considered chronologically as the first “how-to“ work ever made about screenwriting -even if the author didn’t know.
Many concepts in this book will be an eye-opener for aspiring scriptwriters that read about the subject for the first time. More than half a century old, in many aspects, this book looks like written just yesterday. It’s a fantastic piece of work. I go back to this book all the time to remind me of how fiction really functions.
Let’s unveil the ideas in its core.
THERE ARE RULES
To begin with, Lajos, a Hungarian that moved to the States, makes it clear that, in writing fiction, rules exist:
Some go so far as to claim that there can be no rules whatsoever. This is the strangest view of all. We know there are rules for eating, walking, and breathing; we know there are rules for painting, music, dancing, flying, and bridge building; we know there are rules for every manifestation of life and nature -why; then, should writing be the sole exception? Obviously; it is not.
KEY GENERAL CONCEPTS
You must have a premise – a premise which will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach. A premise can be called thesis, theme, central idea, goal, aim, subject… Your pick. It’s what the story is trying to say
Life is change. So plays, and scripts, are about change.
A character stands revealed through conflict.
A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist. There is no sport if there is no competition; there is no play if there is no conflict. Without counterpoint there’s no harmony. The dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.
Character creates plot, not vice-versa.
Some would rally against this idea, but Egri uses it to fight back those who think, following Aristotle’s writings, that only plot rules. These days, it’s generally accepted that plot and character can be balanced in many ways. Usually, good commercial films favour plot but take care of characters too; independent films tend to favour characters but take care of plot too. It’s a bit like cooking, you and only you decide what’s the right mix of elements to make a successful dish.
The pivotal character is the protagonist.
Without a pivotal character, there is no play. The pivotal character is the one who creates conflict and makes the play move forward. The pivotal character knows what he wants. Without him, the story flounders… in fact, there is no story.
A pivotal character must not merely desire something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal.
There must always be something a person wants more than anything else in life if he is to be a good pivotal character; revenge, honour, ambition, etc.
A good pivotal character must have something very vital at stake.
A pivotal character is a driving force, not because he decided to be one. He becomes what he is for the simple reason that some inner or outer necessity forces him to act; there is something at stake for him, honour, health, money, protection, vengeance, or mighty passion.
As we see, a pivotal character never becomes a pivotal character because he wants to. He is really forced by circumstances within him and outside of him to become what he is.
Anyone who opposes a pivotal character necessarily becomes the opponent or the antagonist. The antagonist is the one who holds back the ruthlessly onrushing protagonist. He is the one against whom the ruthless character exerts all his strength, all his cunning, all the resources of his inventive power.
If for any good reason the antagonist cannot put up a protracted fight, you might as well look for another character who will.
The antagonist in any play is necessarily as strong and, in time, as ruthless as the pivotal! character. A fight is interesting only if the fighters are evenly matched.
Or how to organise the mix of characters:
Good orchestration is one of the reasons for rising conflict in any play.
It is possible to choose two liars, two prostitutes, two thieves for one play, but they’ll be different in temper, philosophy and speech.
Orchestration demands well-defined and uncompromising characters in opposition, moving from one pole toward another through conflict.
Conflict is sustained through growth. The naïve virgin may become wiser. She may teach a lesson, in marriage, to Casanova, who becomes unsure of himself. The professor may become care less ith his speech, while the other man turns into an eloquent speaker. Remember what growth did to Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. (…) Without growth, you’ll lose whatever contrast you had at the beginning of the play. The absence of growth signals the lack of conflict; and the lack of conflict indicates that your characters were not well orchestrated.
UNITY OF OPPOSITES
Even assuming a play is well-orchestrated, what assurance have we that the antagonists won’t make a truce in the middle and call it quits? The answer to this question is to be found in the “unity of opposites”.
The real unity of opposites is one in which compromise is impossible.
One has to be destroyed so that the other may live.
In a real unity of opposites, compromise is impossible.
The intensity of the conflict will be determined by the strength of will of the three-dimensional individual who is the protagonist.
Conflict is the heartbeat of all writing. No conflict ever existed without first foreshadowing itself. Conflict is that titanic atomic energy whereby one explosion creates a chain of explosions.
Foreshadowing is really promising; in our case, conflict.
POINT OF ATTACK
What makes a character start a chain of events which might destroy him or help him to succeed? There is only one answer: necessity. There must be something at stake – something pressingly important.
A play might start exactly at the point where a conflict will lead up to a crisis.
A play might start with a decision which will precipitate conflict.
A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of a play.
(…) the curtain rises when at least one character has reached a turning point in his life.
And here it comes one of the statements that so many writers find hard, sometimes impossible to follow:
A play should start with the first line uttered. The characters involved will expose their natures in the course of conflict. It is bad play writing first to marshal your evidences, drawing in the background, creating an atmosphere, before you begin the conflict.
Whatever your premise, whatever the makeup of your characters, the first line spoken should start the conflict and the inevitable drive toward the proving of the premise.
Great truth, but easier said than done.
CRISIS, CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION
In birth pains, there is a crisis, and the birth itself, which is the climax. The outcome, whether it is death or life, will be the resolution.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo goes to the hated Capulets’ home disguised with a mask, to catch a glimpse of Rosalind, his love. There he discovers another young girl so beautiful, so enchanting, that he falls madly in love with her (crisis). With dismay he finds that Juliet is the heiress of the Capulets (clímax), the bitterest enemy of his family Tybalt, nephew of Lady Caplet, discovering Romeo, attempts to kill him (resolution).
Meanwhile, Juliet also learns Romeo’s identity and tells her sorrows to the moon and stars. Romeo, driven by his incomparable love for Juliet, returns and hears her (crisis). They decide to get married (clímax). The next day, in the cell of Friar Lawrence, a friend of Romeo, they do get married (resolution).
In every act, crisis, climax, and resolution follow each other as day follows night.
As we see, crisis and climax follow each other, the last one always on a higher plane than the one before.
A single scene must contain the exposition of the premise for that particular scene, exposition of character, conflict, transition, crisis, climax and conclusion. This procedure should be repeated as many times as there are scenes in your play, in ascending scale.
And here comes one of my all-time favourites:
The opening is not the beginning of a conflict, but the culmination of one.
The play should start with a conflict, which rises steadily until it reaches the climax.
Another unmissable pearl:
The dialogue must stem from the character, not from the author.
GENERAL FINAL THOUGHTS
A writer is supposed to catch people in crises.
And, to finish, maybe the most important piece of advice that Egri can give you:
You must feel your story deeply – in fact, should be a conviction of yours.
If you are into scripts, do yourself a favour: read The Art of Dramatic Writing.
More on Screenwriting? Check Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREEN WRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING, How TOY STORY 3 Was Written, How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, How Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written and For Screenwriters: Endings, amongst many other posts!