by C. Elizabeth Peters
“Writing Drama: a Comprehensive Guide for Playwrights and Scriptwriters,” by French writer/director/teacher Yves Lavandier, is an exhaustively thorough text (almost 600 pages) that leaves no stone unturned. The fact that plays and screenplays are two different mediums, governed by different structural and aesthetic rules, does not matter here, because the principles that Lavandier discusses transcends both and gets to the heart of truly great storytelling. This is a fascinating and incredibly in-depth book that is academic in nature, full of systems and definitions. It’s “Gray’s Anatomy” for plays and screenplays, taking every kind of dramatic system apart so that writers can see how it all fits together.
Lavandier begins with the basics; he discusses at length how to create conflict, emotion, and obstacles that are effective to keep the story interesting. He then moves on to the finer points of structure. The book also includes analysis of a play (Moliere’s “The School for Wives”) and a screenplay (Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”), numerous appendices such as Documentaries, Short films, and Writing for Children, as well as writing workshop exercises. Lavandier follows each defined concept with a long list of examples – everything from Shakespeare to “The Simpsons,” contemporary movies and plays as well as classics.
Although his range of referenced works is impressive (1,400 works are referenced!) Lavandier sometimes lets his opinion of certain work be what matters most, and occasionally dismisses works that have seen box office and critical success if they do not employ all of his theories. Some of the works that don’t work, according to Lavandier, are “Rain Man,” “Titanic,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Vertigo.” Meanwhile, listed among works that “work” are names of movies that are not very well known, at least in the U.S.
But make no mistake: opinionated or not, Lavandier knows what he is talking about, and his examples prove to be excellent illustrations of his concepts. I’m unaware of another book that devotes an entire chapter to the correct and effective use of dramatic irony and another chapter to symbolism! It’s refreshing to see an author go the extra mile instead of stopping at “you need a character with a goal, and obstacles to that goal.” There is so much more going on in works of drama, and this book clearly demonstrates as such. Give this book time, and slowly Lavandier’s analyses of so many different works coalesce into a thorough understanding of, well, writing drama. And for screenwriters, that is invaluable.
A caveat to readers in the United States, especially those living in Los Angeles and immersed in the belly of the beast: Lavandier is European, and his book often makes snide references to American cinema as childish and overindulgent in violence and spectacle. Let that go and focus on the concepts behind what he is saying. Lavandier’s book truly is a comprehensive guide, and any screenwriter (or playwright) that applies the principles set forth in “Writing Drama” to their work will create results that are well above average. Recommended!
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