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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Obstacles. Those bits in the middle.

We've all had issues with obstacles--those pesky road blocks that all protagonists have to navigate successfully in order to achieve their goals. Every play needs 'em. But some playwrights have trouble finding them.
I almost always know the beginnings and endings of my plays. Can't start unless I do. I usually also know of some first-act cliffhanger or Momentously Dramatic Moment I need to have happen.
Some folks road map their projects, using index cards or spreadsheets. I think I envy that technique, but I also wonder if by the time I've drawn out the entire plot I may have lost the urge to write it. I say this because I tried it. I spent more time trying to arrange the cards so I could see them all at once, but half of them fell off the wall and behind my desk and they are still back there, presumably talking amongst themselves and the dust bunnies. 
I tried again with the string-path thing, sticking things on the wall and running strings between relevant items. Although that was a complete disaster (it made me dizzy), I did end up with a ten-minute play set in a spider web and about a dozen new political conspiracy theories so it wasn't a complete loss.
In any event, how do we negotiate the ascent up the shark fin (see diagram)? What gauntlets do we design for our protagonists to bravely fight through? What are the individual obstacles? How do we playwrights find them?

I usually take a look at the world of the play itself and see what difficulties it may provide organically.
Assuming I have my basic characters and a general idea of the world of the play, I start to think about some of the following things. Let's start with the basics:
- What does the protagonist want?
- Why does he/she want it?
- Is the protagonist good, evil, or complex?
- Why does the antagonist try to foil the protagonist's efforts?
- Is the antagonist good, evil, or complex?
- Where are the ethical limits/moral boundaries for both protagonist and antagonist?
- What actions do I initially envision the protagonist taking? What would be the results of those?
- What would be the next logical step?
- What would be the next illogical step?
- What dramatic moments do I imagine taking place within the play?
- What are the breaking points for the protagonist/antagonist?
- What are the protagonist's flaws and how does he/she work against him/herself?
Next, let's look at the world of the play in all of its aspects.
Is the world “real” as we know it, hard-wired and limited by our current reality, or is set within magical realism? If not real, what rules apply that don't in the real world (because even in magical realism there have to be rules) and how do these exceptions affect the characters? What limitations or freedoms does that world impose or allow?
Politics: What are the political aspects and boundaries? Are the characters discriminated against? Do they discriminate? Are they endowed with political power or under political restraint? What are their views? Are they active or passive? What form does the government take? Democratic? Authoritarian? Absent?
Sexual/gender: What natural empowerments or liabilities do the sexual/gender aspects of each character impose? What views of life? What past experiences? What possibilities for the future? What ways of creating joy in a relationship? What ways of destroying a reputation? Are they out or closeted? Are they bigoted or welcoming? Is it against the law to be anything but straight...or gay?
Geographical: How does the physical world of the play affect the characters' actions? Is it oppressively hot or freezingly cold? Is it dangerous? Is it unremarkable? Is it lush? Destroyed? Post-apocalyptic or Garden of Eden? In what settings does the world of the play take place: a bar, bowling alley, a castle, a resort, a tenement, a living room, a detention center? What aspects of your setting can be used to challenge a character?
Physical/Medical: Look at the physical traits of your characters and see how they relate to the world around them? What aspects make it easier/more difficult for them to interact? Are they too good looking? Shunned for disabilities? Comely/plain? Sick? Contagious? Can they speak/hear/see?
Other things to think about:
- Time/date/era of the work
- Technological: age of the plow/industrial revolution/computerization/cybernetics?
- Psychological: are there any neuroses/phobias/past events that may inhibit action?
And: Is the protagonist's goal actually reachable? Or are they doomed to failure?
I examine all the elements of the world my characters inhabit and I look to see how they can either aid or work against them. Every particular in the world of your play may serve as an organic problem or a tool used by another character to trouble your protagonist.

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