-- Lee Blessing
Available Now: Playwriting Seminars 2.0
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One of 10 new diagrams in the paperback and e-book editions to help in understanding dramatic structure.
Plays don't begin at the beginning. It's only a slight overstatement to say that plays begin at the end.
The point of attack is that first thing the audience will see or hear as the play begins. It's the first decision that can make or break a great idea for a play.
In James Michener’s Hawaii, that famous novel begins with steam bubbling up out of a crack in the ocean floor as the first volcanic island begins to form miles below the surface of the Pacific. That's a point of attack at the very beginning of a story if there ever was one. Unlike novelists, successful playwrights know never to start a play at the beginning of the story. Novels have the luxury of unlimited time – there’s no clock running over the novelist’s keyboard. Plays don't have that luxury of time that allows you to begin at the beginning. In thinking about where the point of attack should be, keep in mind that every story and its characters has a history. The problem is to decide where in that history to begin telling the tale.
Plays need conflict to fuel their dramatic action, so from a technical standpoint this “fuel” needs to catch fire a few pages after the point of attack – and this tells you where the point of attack should be in the history of the story. Since contemporary playwrights use a very late point of attack, their plays cover only the last few hours or days of the story's history prior to the climax of the major conflict generated by that history. Robert Schenkkan may have covered 200 years from point of attack to resolution in one of his plays, but he’s at the end of a very short line of playwrights who’ve tried that.
Plays typically begin at a point just before the primary conflict erupts out of the history of the story.
1. Opus. Michael Hollinger’s play begins shortly before the members of the string quartet are invited to perform at the White House and before one of their founding members is fired for erratic behavior. The point of attack comes several decades after the members of this now internationally famous quartet met and then began playing together.
2. ‘night, Mother. Marsha Norman's play begins as Jessie puts in motion her plan to commit suicide in her mother's house 90 minutes later. The point of attack comes about 40 years into Jessie's history and that of her relationship with Mama.
3. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rajiv Joseph’s play begins a few minutes before the tiger is killed. The point of attack comes two days after the lions escaped from the zoo and were killed, and soon after the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. While actual events following the invasion are included in the play (the tiger and lions, the killing of Saddam’s sons), the timeline of the real history of the story is compressed and rearranged to enhance the play’s conflict.
4. The Mountaintop. Katori Hall’s play about Martin Luther King, Jr. begins as he comes into his motel room after having given his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in Memphis the evening before he is assassinated. The point of attack comes 13 years after King came to national attention following his first major civil rights action.
5. Death and the Maiden. Ariel Dorfman's play begins at the moment the lights of the car carrying Paulina's husband and the doctor who may have tortured her flash through the living room windows. The point of attack comes about 17 years after Paulina was arrested for political activity, then tortured and released. The point of attack is also the day the first democratically elected president of this Latin American country has offered her husband the position of chair of its new Human Rights Commission with the charge of resolving the past issues of torturer and tortured in this unnamed nation.
6. Crimes of the Heart. Beth Henley's play begins a day or so after one of the three Magrath sisters failed at murdering her husband. The point of attack comes years after the other "crimes of the heart" committed by her two sisters.
7. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tennessee Williams’ play begins the evening Big Daddy realizes he must decide which of his two sons should be the heir to his 40,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile. The point of attack is 65 years into Big Daddy's history, 49 years after he got the plantation, and 5 years after his favorite son Brick's rocky – and still childless – marriage to Maggie.
8. August: Osage County. Tracy Letts’ play begins several days before the patriarch of the Weston family disappears, a disappearance that finally triggers revelations of the family’s dark secrets. The point of attack comes about 38 years after an event that’s the darkest of those secrets, the revelation of which comes at the climax of the play.
The complexity or richness of a story may sometimes demand development through as much as 10 or more pages of the script before the major conflict of the play can be introduced in a clear enough way to hold the attention of audiences. A teaser or false point of attack can hold the audience's attention while you gradually draw them into the background of the conflict that will eventually erupt. These borrowed scenes are false or teaser points of attack because the following scenes cover portions of the story’s history prior to the teaser’s actual place in that story. They're a technical trick to hold the audience's attention while the years or days prior to the onset of the play’s real conflict are filled in. This can also be done effectively using a strong visual image in place of dialogue.
Playwrights who use a teaser point of attack still keep that moment where it belongs in the play’s chronological history, giving audiences a sense of revelation when they finally discover how that teaser moment fits into the overall story of the play.
1. Borrow a small part of the climax. This can be the actual moment of the play's climax from the end of Act II. When a teaser borrows from the climax, playwrights do this sparingly, usually taking such a small portion that audiences are still surprised when that excerpt from the climax arrives in its proper context.
2. Excerpt a short section having considerable tension. But well before the climax. This is particularly effective when drawn from the last scene or curtain line of Act I and avoids the problem of giving away the climax at the beginning of the play.
3. Use a narrator. For narrators to provide the teaser, they need to speak directly to the audience at the opening of the play. As they talk to us, they hint at the conflict to come in a way that generates enough suspense to keep the audience engaged until the central conflict builds sufficiently to support the play. (See Chapter 23 in the new edition on Using Narrators.)
A teaser point of attack usually requires that the play be structured in a series of formal scenes. Formal scenes are necessary because the use of a teaser means you’re actually altering the time structure of the play with what is technically a flash-forward: After the teaser is over, the play drops back in time to a period prior to the teaser.
Currently, the majority of playwrights prefer linear structures over using a teaser, even though some great plays exploit the device.
1. M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang's play begins with the French diplomat addressing the audience from his prison cell where he finds himself as a result of the history of the story related in the rest of the play. After this teaser point of attack monologue and a following scene occurring at roughly the same time, the play drops back to the true point of attack 41 years earlier. What follows are scenes from the diplomat's history prior to his talking to us from his jail cell.
2. The Heidi Chronicles. Wendy Wasserstein's play begins with Heidi's end-of-term lecture to her art history students delivered complete with slides to the audience in the theatre. The true point of attack comes in the following scene when Heidi was in high school, 24 years before the lecture we've just seen.
3. A Soldier’s Play. Charles Fuller's play opens with the murder of Sergeant Vernon Waters in 1944, a scene that won't make sense to us until we see it again in context at the play's climax. This teaser draws the audience along through the initial subdued reaction of his platoon to the killing and the early stages of the murder investigation. The investigating officer is the play’s narrator. Fuller could have had his narrator tell us about the murder as the teaser, but in this case showing us the teaser is far more effective in capturing the audience’s attention.
4. Equus. Peter Shaffer's play begins with the psychiatrist (as narrator) drawing our attention to a teenage boy embracing a stylized horse, saying he must start at the beginning for us to understand the story. The image of the boy and the horse won't make sense until we see it again in context at the end of Act I. (It won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play.)
These playwrights concluded during the writing of their plays that the stories would not hold audience attention if they began them at the real point of attack. The resulting plays using a teaser point of attack were great successes in the theatre and all were subsequently adapted for film versions.