I once read a quote by one of my favorite playwrights, Beth Henley. She said that, to get a script moving, you take two characters, and you get them into an argument.
A couple of months ago, I was working on a script that had stalled. So, I took Henley’s advice. I put the protagonist and her sister into a fight that had been a long time brewing, and suddenly the protagonist found her voice for the first time. I could hear her in my head exactly the way she would sound! That’s one of those events that a writer hopes will happen in every project.
There’s something about a dramatic exchange motivated by frustration and hurt that removes the inhibitions we subject ourselves to under normative societal expectations, and permits what’s in our souls to pour out…the good, the bad, and the ugly, all of which would likely have been otherwise self-censored. Two people discover exactly what is on the other’s mind, and the elephant in the room is abruptly revealed in those “heated exchanges.” In the script of my life, I hate it when it comes to that point. Karen and I have experienced a few of these “heated exchanges” in our marriage. None of them have been pleasant, and, at least at first, were the result of small things that could have been talked out calmly instead. In more recent times, however, I’ve found these arguments to be catalysts. When you place two lives together, they move on a continuum. Ideally, they move forward together, and make progress. Sometimes, like my script, they stall. I’ve found a profound truth, however, in the fact that you never stay still on a continuum for very long. You either regain momentum, or begin to slide backward.
Karen and I had two ground-breaking discussions recently that have been incredibly healthy for our marriage. They were the result, at least in part, of an argument that occurred because a handful of issues had overheated. Now, ideally, those issues would have been handled individually before they reached that point. Not as dramatic, and it doesn’t make for nearly as good a script, but it’s better for my blood pressure when I’m the one arguing. This recent argument became a catalyst that propelled us forward, restoring momentum when we had began to drift backward.
I suppose that, when two people stall out, you can take them and put them into an argument…
I’m thinking of this tonight as I listen with a heavy heart to the sounds coming through the wall of our apartment. As well-constructed as our building is, you cannot help but hear when someone yells at a certain volume. That particular argument was punctuated by “blah blah blah” and “f***k you.” Not pleasant to hear. I’m aching for the people (I presume a couple) involved. I’m hoping that this serves as a catalyst to restore forward momentum for them, so that they won’t digress backward.
When an actor is preparing a script, two of the first questions that they ask themselves are: what does the character want, and what is keeping him from getting it? That is the motivation for our theatre of life, as well. These moments of friction occur because we are experiencing frustration at an inability to get what we feel we (sometimes desperately) need. Psychology tells us that behaviors are a way of getting what we want, or obtaining a desired result. Theatre calls this conflict, and it is the essence of a story. Without conflict, the plot doesn’t move. How unfortunate that, no matter how hard we endeavor to make it otherwise, we don’t seem to experience the positive until we’ve waded through the negative. As Buechner would have said, we have to experience the tragedy before the comedy, and both before the fairy tale.
I hope that your conflicts…these unfortunate flashpoints that ignite between us and those we love… always move you toward a more positive place.
And now, perhaps I should re-visit that script from a few months ago…