Category Archives: Write regardless!

Guess who’s plotting a story?

BATTLE LINES Stanley Kramer's seminal film on equality, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
BATTLE LINES Stanley Kramer’s seminal film on equality, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

WE all know how to write, right? Well, perhaps not. I have been working on a play script for ten (yes, 10) long years and I still don’t have it down.

One of my writing heroes Helene Hanff once declared that after forty years she could write great characters and openings for plays, but she still couldn’t plot to save herself.

Well, having knocked-off about half that number of writing years, I decided to do a bit of research on story arcs, and apparently it doesn’t matter if you’re telling a joke or writing a blockbuster novel, a well told story needs to follow a basic formula.

I decided that the next movie or play I watched would be tested to see if it followed this ‘rule’, and as luck would have it, on television this afternoon the great Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) was screened, with no ads.

I sat down and put this plot (written by William Rose) through its paces. Here’s what I found… beware, there are spoilers.

Exposition – “You may in for the biggest shock of your young life”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

A young couple (Dr John Prentice and Joanna Drayton), canoodle their way through an airport. The world doesn’t seem to give a damn that he is African-American, and she is not, but without doing anything, the couple offends a cab driver; the Drayton’s African-American maid; Joanne’s mother Christine, and her father Matt. Joanne presents as the protagonist, with her blind intention to marry despite anyone’s objections. Her father Matt presents as the antagonist, and objects to the idea of the two marrying at all. The call to action occurs almost by accident, when the couple has no opportunity to tell Joanne’s parents about his racial identity before arriving at their home, posing the big question: Will they get the support of anyone in the world?

Rising Action – “All Hell Done Broke Loose”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

Matt Drayton digs further into his objection, despite his wife’s support for the couple’s happiness; despite John’s declaration that if her parents will not support them, he will not marry Joanna; and despite their good friend Monsignor Ryan blessing the marriage. Joanna invites John’s parents to dinner, and Monsignor Ryan calls his old friend a phoney liberal coming face to face with his principles. Matt is outraged and decides to leave the house.

DYNAMIC DUO Hepburn and Tracy as the Draytons.
DYNAMIC DUO Hepburn and Tracy as the Draytons.

Climax – “We’re in Terrible Trouble”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Outside the comfort of their home, Joanna’s parents come face to face with how the world has changed around them. But a car accident with a young African-American man, and the news that Joanna is planning to leave with John that very night, sends Matt into a spin. He argues with Christine, who tells him she is not on his side in this debate about their daughter’s happiness. He argues with Monsignor Ryan, who tells Matt that he cannot destroy the couple’s happiness. Also out in the world, Joanna meets John’s parents, who show the kind of instant disapproval her father has been trying to warn her about.

Falling Action – “You Don’t Own Me”

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

John’s parents arrive to a sumptuous dinner that nobody seems capable of enjoying, and the party quickly separates into rival loyalties – both mothers (who advocate for trusting the nature of love), and both fathers (who believe the relationship to be an aberration). Joanna announces she may well leave her family for good, and goes to pack, leaving the true protagonist, her fiancée John, to face his father. In the final defeat, John tells his father that he and his whole lousy generation must get off his back. Matt’s firm objections to the marriage are diminished by John’s mother, when she challenges him to accept that he has grown so old he has forgotten what true love is. Ruminating on this, he calls everyone back to the dinner.

Dénouement – “Screw Them All”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

Matt recaps the whole plot so far, reminding us of everyone’s ‘side’ in the debate. Crucially, he tells his daughter, the only one to interrupt him, to “shut-up”, and it becomes clear that he has been reminded, and is reminding them all, that they must put the way they feel above what they think. He compels the young couple to cling to one another against the objections the world will throw at them. Despite lingering unresolved feelings, the newly cemented family sit down to dinner.

PROTAGONIST REVEALED Sydney Poitier as Dr John Prentice, the real protagonist of the movie.
PROTAGONIST REVEALED Sidney Poitier as Dr John Prentice, the real protagonist of the movie.

The Verdict

Of course all rules are meant to be broken, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner breaks them in some interesting ways. We are fooled into thinking that Joanna Drayton is the protagonist, while her fiancée John broods on the situation around him and seems so affable that he might just walk away from her in order to ‘save’ her. But he is and always was the protagonist, hidden because as the ‘coloured man’ he’s ostensibly the lowest status character in the story. Even the film’s title – which asks us to ‘guess who?’ – underlines the theme that this story is a search for which of the main characters is the hero.

WRITE REGARDLESSWhen John confronts his father, he assumes the hero position and shows us who he really is: a man struggling with too much history on his back. And the big question posed in the exposition, about whether the couple will get any acceptance, is well and truly answered.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

M*A*S*H forever

SERVING OF M*A*S*H The cast of the long-running TV sitcom during its 8th season.

A Writer’s first lesson in comic timing.

WHILST participating in a television interview, Cate Blanchett apologised for answering a question about acting using an American accent, explaining that to her, ‘American English’ is the language of comedy, after years of watching M*A*S*H.

Being of exactly the same generation, I can only agree with her.

This long running sitcom, set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War of the 1950s, was my very first ‘adult’ experience of television.

As the child of a nurse, it was considered appropriate viewing for my first years of staying up late.

“It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation.”

The fun-filled yet desperate world the characters inhabited worked its way into the very fabric of my writer’s brain, just as it was in the process of forming.

When I am writing comedy, all the classic scenarios of M*A*S*H spring to mind, because between 1972 and 1983 the writers explored every comic angle they could think of. Thanks to syndication, the series has been playing across the world’s television screens for four times longer than it aired originally, and counting.

The secret of the comedy lay not in what was overtly funny, but rather in what was deadly serious about life for Americans stuck in Korea patching-up the wounded.

It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation. Pathos tempers farce. Sadness frames wit. Laughing in the face of death is always more three-dimensional than laughing or crying alone. The two states are very close in the human experience.

M*A*S*H capitalised on those extremes, from the original book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by ‘Richard Hooker’ (a pseudonym for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz), where the basics of the show’s characters were created, to Robert Altman’s 1970 satirical black comedy feature film M*A*S*H and the series it inspired.

But the TV series had the time and the following to explore the dynamic to its extremes, and evolved from slapstick (think ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan and Frank Burns cavorting, as though no-one knew they were having an affair), to a kind of black comedy that was borderline drama by the time the show took its final curtain call in the feature-length series finale Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (1983).

For me, the array of three-dimensional male characters who joked, sported, laughed, cried, cross-dressed and generally expressed themselves in ways that it was rare to see men behave in the ‘real world’, were beautifully countepointed by one of my all-time acting heroes – Loretta Swit.

MAJOR HERO Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan for the entire run of M*A*S*H.

Stunning, prickly, sympathetic, quick-witted, great at her nursing job, devoted to the army and her country, yet willing to take emotional risks at the drop of a hat, how could you not love Margaret Houlihan, the winning smile that lit up the khaki cloud of Korea?

Swit’s work as Major Houlihan ranks amongst the best-drawn television performances ever, but she had her work cut out for her. Alan Alda (who is the only actor to perform in more M*A*S*H episodes than Swit, as Captain ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce), paid tribute to her achievement in transforming the ‘sex bomb’ tag that the role was originally drawn with, by turning ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan of 1972 into simply, ‘Margaret’, by the show’s end in 1983.

Interestingly, this change coincided with the women’s liberation movement, and remains one of Pop Culture’s best examples of the metamorphosis of a stereotype.

Apart from being the best education in comic timing I can think of, the series is also a great example of time economy in a script. Next time you watch an episode, notice how the half-hour format restricts the use of too much foreshadowing and requires simple, fast set-ups to every laugh.

If you’re re-writing a script and you need to touch-base with how it should be done, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, watch an episode of M*A*S*H.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.