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.
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.
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.
When 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!