Yves Lavandier (2005)
Writing Drama. A Comprehensive guide for playwrights and scriptwriters
Cergy Cedex, Le Clown & l’Enfant.

Review: © Patrick Cattrysse (13-09-2007)

Yves Lavandier’s Writing Drama presents an updated English translation of its 2004 La Dramaturgie, a play- and screenwriting manual that had already previous editions in the 1990’s. There is even a website to indicate that clearly, this is a continuous work in progress: http://www.clown-enfant.com/leclown/eng/drama/index.htm. Still, this 2005 version offers an extensive account (595 pages!) as well as a detailed and thorough treatment of play- and screenwriting.

Writing Drama presents four parts: the first one deals with what the writer calls “the synthetic model” and it is structured around four chapters. The first chapter deals the usual basic dramatic mechanisms: conflict, protagonist and obstacles to which Lavandier adds elements and techniques of characterisation. The second chapter explains structural mechanisms such as the three act structure, types of narrative units, different types of causality, several techniques for suspense such as announcing, foreshadowing, dramatic irony, etc. down to writing the scene. Chapter three deals with some “local mechanisms”: exposition, action versus dialogue, punctual uses of specific images and sounds. The last chapter analyses two narratives: L’Ecole des Femmes (The School for Wives) and North by Northwest.

Part two deals with methodology, that is: how to go about writing a narrative? Here, Lavandier deviates somewhat from the usual anglo-saxon termi­no­logy: instead of the usual synopsis, Lavandier proposes what he calls a “framework”, and he also reverses the usual order of treatment and step outline by putting the latter in front of the former. Whereas step outline is used in its common sense, ‑ breaking up the narrative into scenes without dialogue ‑, the term treatment becomes somewhat vague and useless. The questions raised at this stage are questions that are usually resolved either in the step outline or in the dialogued screenplay.

Finally, Lavandier’s book concludes with a number of interesting appendices dealing with drama and literature, writing for children, short films, documentaries, workshop exer­cises, and play or script analysis. Unlike most screenwriting manuals, Writing Drama supports its argument with a useful glossary and an extensive bibliography at the end of the book.

While the debate goes on whether writing is an art (you can not learn) or a craft (you can learn), experts offer all kinds of advice: from the well-known “no one knows anything” type of advice (cf. William Goldman) to the oversimplifying secret Hollywood formula H(K2>K1)+Pr=P5 (cf. Ruven-Batavier 2007). In between those two extremes, Lavandier keeps the middle, although Writing Drama is much more nuanced and much less mechanic than most screenwriting manuals. Lavandier’s explanations show that complex problems do not have simple one-sentenced solutions. On the one hand, there are narrative practices and helping tools; on the other, there are the many ways to apply them in one concrete narrative. At first sight, the titles of paragraphs may suggest old news being repeated again, ‑ protagonist, dramatic goal, obstacles, three act structure, etc. ‑, but reading the paragraphs reveals new material as well as old topics dealt with in much more detail than usual. Next to the classical application of devices, ‑ such as the three act structure for example ‑, Lavandier also discusses deviant applications – such as acts changing protagonists for example ‑, and explains the potential implications of these deviant applications. Talking about obstacles, Lavandier explains that the distinction between the external and internal obstacles is not always clear. Besides being interesting, some statements and points of view remain controversial; but then how could it be otherwise. A good case in point is the paragraph on conflict: Lavandier explains the well-known adagio: ‘drama is conflict’. The author argues that conflict is essential for viewer interest: “the spectator will logically take more interest in a character who experiences conflict than one who does not (cf. Lavandier 2005:43). The argument may be based on the observation that even when characters try to achieve something morally reprehensible, ‑ like robbing a safe in Hitchcock’s Marnie ‑, the conflict or obstacle turns the dramatic objective into a challenge that becomes dramatically interesting for the viewer: will character succeed in whatever s/he is trying to do? However, this observation challenges at the same time the relevance of another basic dramatic component, namely what Root (1979:51) calls the “or else”-factor: what happens if protagonist does not achieve her/his dramatic goal? The “or else”-factor may help the writer think about why the dramatic objective would be important to the protagonist, because if the dramatic goal is crucial to the main character, there are more chances that the audience will feel inte­rested too. If even the protagonist is not (really) interested in achieving the dramatic goal, the writer will have to come up with other good reasons why the audience would be interested in the protagonist trying to achieve her or his dramatic goal. Lavandier (2005:61ff.) of course also mentions the importance of what is at stake when dealing with the dramatic goal, but does not develop the implications of his interesting remark concerning the intrin­sic dramatic power of conflict and obstacles on the one hand and the use and impor­tance of the “or else”-factor on the other. One question that does come close to this one is: “what comes first, the dramatic goal or the obstacle?” (cf. Lavandier 2005:52). However, there is probably more than one answer to that question.

Because the truth is not presented as monolytic and singular, ‑ different analyses are possible about the act structure and the position of plotpoints in North by Northwest as in many if not most other narratives ‑, and because concepts are not explained in black and white terms, it becomes clear that storytelling still leaves many mysteries unsolved. The search for a workable definition of the protagonist goes on and remains problematical of course: is it the person acting the most? Or suffering the most conflict? Is it the person the audience empathises with the most? Or a combination of? Some of the definitions suggest a relation with the insufficiently advanced research on another fascinating aspect: audience involvement, empathy and the workings of similar and/or related psychological mecha­nisms of viewer interest. However, it is not because we do not know everything (yet) that we have to let go and say like Goldman that we do not know anything.

Writing Drama has many more positive features: examples are taken not only from cinema but also from theatre, and even literature and the graphic novel. Sometimes, the lists of examples are so long that reading may become somewhat tedious. Also, the fact that movie titles have been translated into English can make it harder for the non UK readers to know what movie Lavandier is talking about. Readers can always turn to the back of the book of course and find a list with the original titles. Also, because all training programs and manuals can only explain one thing at the time whereas writing does everything (or almost) at the same time, structuring items remains an ongoing challenge.