Saturday, March 28, 2015

Beats Me

Neither the document for stage play nor the text of a filmed drama is meant to be read the same way the text for a novel or short story is intended to be read.  True enough, a wide variety of specialists read stage plays, for the most part with intentions of causing the text to be performed.

In relation to the number of short stories and novels you've read, the ratio of stage and screen plays is on the short side of a seventy-thirty split. which includes some plays you enjoy well enough to reread them and which further includes plays you've enjoyed reading but never seen performed.

Such documents, because they are meant to be performed rather than read, are expressed in the present tense.  John enters.  Mary exits.  Phil begins to read a newspaper.  And of course there are stage directions of another sort, defining how certain of the dialogue is to be spoken.  JOHN:  I'm afraid--(a pause)  MARY:  You're afraid what?  John:  I'm afraid this is not going to work.

In some cases, the writer will substitute for that stage direction in parentheses, the word "beat" for the word "pause."  JOHN:  I'm afraid--(a two-beat pause)--

This is dramatic biology; the beat is the basic unit of drama.  The cellular unit is the scene.  An infinite number of beats compose a scene.  One or more scenes comprise a larger unit, the act.  Not all that long ago, there was a measure of comparison between the three-act play and the novel, the one-act play and the short story.  Things change.  Some plays from Shakespeare's time were five acts.  

Now, as your faculty mate from USC, Lee Wochner, pointed out, the three-act play is the two-act play.  But the short story and one-act play remain close equivalents.  To complete the picture, you remember discussing Sophie's Choice with its creator, William Styron.  "Transforming my novel into a film,"  he observed, "meant they were essentially cutting a three-act play into a one-act play.  I liked the movie, but I loved the book."

Although things do change--evolve is a better word--the shape of story remains the same.  Try to think of story as a progression of beats.  Not a succession, because a succession means anyone can jump in line, skewing the dramatic orbit.  Story progresses, beat by beat.

Stories, whether plays or narrative, are written to present beats, the actions, movements, and thoughts of the characters.  Even a simple stage direction such as JOHN EXITS requires some form of interpretation.  How does John exit?  Is he slouching, skipping, dragging?  Is he in high spirits?  Is he projecting gloom or worry?

In a real sense, all dramatic information is best presented through one or more beats.  The downside extreme is a succession of characters as talking heads, droning rather than speaking their lines, giving no hint of the inner feelings going on behind them

True enough, narrative and drama often compress time.  Chapter two can be a year or so after Chapter one.  Act two can be "Two years later."  Without the beats.  You, the reader or viewer, provide the beats.

When we get into actual actions, we experience a moment-by-moment simulacrum of reality.  Reader and writer alike depend on every element in a story, gaining new insights with each reread or rewatching.  Beats are the vital life of story; they convey the things that stick in memory, trigger highly personal insights, and reveal the short cuts and secret passageways of the personality.

It becomes difficult not to think of the concept of "in the moment" when you consider beats.  This is how you draw the moment out of its wrapping and any sense of artifice or newness. It is a new garment you are wearing for the first time, and everyone who sees you in it will comment on it in ways reflective of their own personality.  "Great shirt."  "Is that a good color for you?"   You do not explain story; you break it down to the precise place where its elements reside in that shimmering limbo between individual seconds ticking away and the representation of a day, an hour, a tangible event.

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