Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tell the story, not the backstory (or, the Iceberg Theory)

Thanks in part to the elucidating teachings of Sheri Wilner in my ESPA Short Forms class this summer, I feel I have discovered a major weakness in the previous drafts of my play: I was too concerned with telling the backstory instead of the current story.  When I went back and re-read the draft from last November's "birthday" reading, I could clearly hear myself as the playwright figuring out what had led these people to the point they were in, and trying to share that information with the audience.

Now, it is very important for me to know what the backstory is.  Crucial, in fact.  All that work was vital.  (And don't get me wrong, I wasn't a complete slouch -- I had learned that you can't just have unmotivated exposition, that the backstory has to come out through conflict.  And almost all of it did, which is why the play was already pretty good).   But my need to make sure I explain that backstory to the audience left the draft feeling a bit ponderous at times, because too much of the conflict was about things that happened in the past, rather than about things that were happening between the people on stage RIGHT NOW. 

So in this draft, I am embracing Hemmingway's Iceberg Theory (or the "theory of omission"), which goes something like this: The bulk of a story lies below the surface, as with an iceberg we only see the tip.  But just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there, quite the contrary.  If the writer knows things, really knows them, the writer may omit them and the reader/audience will know them as if the writer had stated them.  (But if the writer omits things because he doesn't know them, it leaves a hole that the reader notices.)  The more you omit, the more people will understand the story because they are filling in the gaps themselves.  When the audience is trying to figure things out, they are more engaged in the story than when everything is spoonfed.  This only works when you know what you are omitting, so that what you are showing on the surface forms a consistent narrative.  The tip of the iceberg must be consistent with the shape of what is underneath, though different people may imagine that shape differently in their minds.  Make sense?

Therefore, this is the thrust for me in this current draft: to keep the conflict current, on stage, to have every scene have a dramatic action to be resolved, to never have the purpose of a scene be to give a sense of the characters' history.  I am leaving a very faint cookie-crumb trail of information about the backstory, which will hopefully be clear enough for everyone to follow me to the end.  I guess we'll find out!
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