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- Writing for Vaudeville - 40/95 -

within these limits. Even today, in the construction of hurried entertainments for club nights at the various actors' club-houses, often only the scenario or general framework of the act is typewritten and handed to the performers who are to take part. All that this tells them is that on some given cue they are to enter and work opposite so-and-so, and are, in turn, to give an agreed-upon cue to bring on such-and-such a performer. In a word, the invaluable part of any dramatic entertainment is the scenario.

One valuable aid to the making of a clear and effective scenario is the use of a diagram of the set in which the act is to be played. Reference to Chapter IV, "The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres," will place in your hands a wide--if not an exhaustive-- range of variations of the commonly found box sets. Within the walls of any one of these diagrams you may carefully mark the exact location of chairs, tables and any other properties your action demands. Then, knowing the precise room in which your characters must work, you can plot the details of their movements exactly from entrances to exits and give to your playlet action a clearness and preciseness it might not otherwise possess.

2. The Scenario not an Unalterable Outline

But there is one point I feel the necessity of emphasizing, whose application each one must determine for himself: While you ought to consider your scenario as directive and as laying down the line that should be followed, you ought not to permit your playlet to become irrevocably fixed merely because you have written your scenario. It is often the sign of a dramatic mind, and of a healthy problem too, that the playlet changes and develops as the theme is carefully considered. To produce the very best work, a scenario must be thought of as clay to be molded, rather than as iron that must be scrapped and melted again to be recast.


This section is so arranged that the elements of writing discussed in the preceding chapters are summarized, and the vital elements which could not be considered before are all given their proper places in a step-by-step scheme of composition. The whole forms a condensed standard for review to refresh your memory before writing, and by which to test your playlet after it is written.

Every playlet must have a beginning, a middle and an ending. The beginning must state the premises of the problem clearly and simply; the middle must develop the problem logically and solve the entanglement in a "big" scene, and the ending must round out the whole satisfyingly--with a surprise, if fitting.

1. Points the Beginning Must Emphasize

Because the total effect of a playlet is complete oneness, there lie in the "big" scene and in the ending certain results of which the beginning must be the beginning or immediate cause. Such causes are what you must show clearly.

(a) _The Causes before the Curtain Rose_. If the causes lie far back in events that occurred before the curtain rose, you must have those events carefully and clearly stated. But while you convey this necessary exposition as dramatically as possible, be sure to make the involved dramatic elements subservient to clearness.

(b) _The Causes that Occur after the Curtain Rises_. If the causes do not lie in the past, but occur after the curtain rises, you must show them as clearly occurring right then and there. They must be as plain as dawn, or the rest of the playlet will be shrouded in the darkness of perplexing doubts.

(c) _The Character Motive from which the Complication Rises_. If the causes lie in character, you must show the motive of the person of the playlet from whose peculiar character the complication rises like a spring from its source. You must expose the point of character plainly.

But in striving to make your premises clear do not make the mistake of being prolix--or you will be tedious. Define character sharply. Tell in quick, searching dialogue the facts that must be told and let your opening scenes on which the following events depend, come with a snap and a perfectly adequate but nevertheless, have-done-with-it feeling.

2. Points that Must Be Brought out in the Middle

In every scene of your playlet you must prepare the minds of your audience to accept gladly what follows--and to look forward to it eagerly. You must not only plainly show what the causes of every action _are_, but you must also make the audience feel what they _imply_. Thus you will create the illusion which is the chief charm of the theatre--a feeling of superiority to the mimic characters which the gods must experience as they look down upon us. This is the inalienable right of an audience.

(a) _The Scenes that Make Suspense_. But while foreshadowing plainly, you must not forestall your effect. One of the most important elements of playlet writing is to let your audience guess _what_ is going to happen--but keep them tensely interested in _how_ it is going to happen. This is what creates the playlet's enthralling power--suspense.

It is so important to secure suspense in a playlet that an experienced writer who feels that he has not created it out of the body of his material, will go back to the beginning and insert some point that will pique the curiosity of the audience, leaving it unexplained until the end. He keeps the audience guessing, but he satisfies their curiosity finely in the finish--this is the obligation such a suspense element carries with it.

(b) _The Points that Balance the Preparation with the Result_. Nothing could be more disastrous than to promise with weighty preparation some event stupendously big with meaning and then to offer a weak little result. And it would be nearly as unfortunate to foreshadow a weak little fulfillment and then to present a tremendous result. Therefore, you must so order your events that you balance the preparation with the result, to the shade of a dramatic hair.

But take care to avoid a too obvious preparation. If you disclose too plainly what you are aiming at your end is defeated in advance, because your audience is bound to lapse into a cynically smiling does-this-fellow-take-us-for-babies? attitude.

The art of the dramatic is the art that conceals art. The middle of your playlet must conceal just enough to keep the stream of suspense flowing eagerly toward the end, which is dimly seen to be inevitably approaching.

(c) _The One Event that Makes the Climax Really Big_. From the first speech, through every speech, and in every action, your playlet has moved toward this one event, and now you must bring it out so prominently that everything else sinks into insignificance. This event is: _The change in the relations of the characters_.

This is the planned-for result of all that has gone before. Bear firmly in mind that you have built up a suspense which this change must _crown_. Keep foremost the fact that what you have hidden before you must now disclose. Lay your cards on the table face up--all except one. This last card takes the final trick, completing the hand you have laid down, and everyone watches with breathless interest while you play:

3. The Single Point of the Finish

If you can make this final event a surprise, all the better. But if you cannot change the whole result in one dramatic disclosure, you must be content to lay down your last card, not as a point in itself surprising, but nevertheless dramatically.

_The Finish must be Complete--and Completely Satisfy_. You have sprung your climax; you have disclosed what it is that changes the relations of your characters; now you must show that those relations _have_ been changed. And at the same time you bring forward the last strand of plot that is loose and weave it into the now complete design. You must account for everything here in the finish, and do it with speed.


Now let us say that you have expanded the first draft of your plastic scenario into a nearly perfect manuscript. But as you read it over, you are not content. You feel that it lacks "punch." What is "punch," and how are you going to add it when it is lacking?

Willard Mack says: "'Punch' is the most abused word I know. The dramatic punch is continually confused with the theatrical trick. Critics said the third act of 'Kick In' [1]--in which the detective is overpowered in a hand-to-hand fight after a hypodermic has been jabbed into his wrist--had a punch. It didn't. What it really had was a theatric trick. But the human punch was in the second act, when the little frightened girl of the slums comes to see her wounded lover--who is really dead. If the needle should suddenly be lost in playing the third act the scene would be destroyed. But the other moment would have its appeal regardless of theatrical detail."

[1] Developed into a long play from the vaudeville act of the same name.

Punch comes only from a certain strong human appeal in the story. Punch is the thing that makes the pulse beat a little quicker, because the heart has been touched. Punch is the precise moment of the dramatic. It is the second in which the revelation flashes upon the audience.

While whatever punch you may be able to add must lie in the heart of your material--which no one but yourself can know--there are three or four ways by which you may go about finding a mislaid punch.

If you have turned the logical order of writing about and let your playlet drag you instead of your driving it, you may find help in asking yourself whether you should keep your secret from the audience.

1. Have You Kept Your Audience in Ignorance Too Long?

While it is possible to write a most enthralling novel of mystery or a detective short-story which suddenly, at the very last moment, may disclose the trick by which it has all been built up, such a thing is not successfully possible in a playlet. You must not conceal the identity of anyone of your characters from the audience.

Writing for Vaudeville - 40/95

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