The Art of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri); also, games

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.00.45 PMThe Art of Dramatic Writing is a book from the 1940s about how to write drama, preferably drama with a tragic bent. It’s also a book much referred-to in Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is the reason I write about it now.

Egri has one central thesis that animates all his observations about craft, structure, and execution. This is appropriate, because his central thesis… is that a play should have a central thesis.

(Egri uses the word “premise” rather than thesis, but what he means is what we tend to call a thesis statement now, rather than a sitcom-style premise about starting conditions.)

These premises tend to be simple statements about cause and effect, and many of the examples he analyzes are demonstrating those effects in tragic form. For example:

Sacrificial love conquers hopelessness.

Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Escape from reality leads to a day of reckoning.

He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

He adds,

You can arrive at your premise [or thesis] in any of a great many ways. You may start with an idea which you at once convert to a premise, or you may develop a situation first and see that it has potentialities which need only the right premise to give them meaning and suggest an end. (22, in the edition linked above)

Essentially everything else in the book is analysis and application of this idea. Characters should be constructed so as to make them proof-cases for the thesis. The environment of the story must set a stage for a conflict that will show the thesis playing out. Situations, plot, causality must all serve the thesis.

At first blush this might not seem particularly useful grounding for 21st-century interactive storytelling. That’s partly because of the time it comes from: its examples are all stage plays and all old; its ideas about characterization partake of the sexism, racism, and classism of its era. But also there are the structural considerations. Egri’s book emphasizes an idea of inevitability, a story construction in which everything works toward the main character making a decision that executes the thesis. On a naive reading, that might seem to be at odds with the whole concept of interactive story. From another perspective, Egri is describing the underpinnings of procedural rhetoric.

Egri’s imagined playwright is responsible for coming up with a situation where a particular outcome cannot be avoided, and setting up the scenes so that the audience believes that every choice is an inevitable consequence of character and environment. In interactive space, we can offer multiple options but show how they all lead to the same thesis conclusion.

One possibility is full-on persuasive games territory, where the whole mechanic of the game has been developed to make a point about the consequences of a particular system or set of parameters in the world. For instance:

Modern capitalism and fast food industry leads to environmental abuses.”

Or (optimistically, and funded by an energy company) “The various challenges of pollution and energy production can easily be resolved by sensible management and require no major lifestyle changes.”

Or: “A depressed mind is not able to recognize and pursue options that would be open to a non-depressed person.

Or: “For a person with a certain kind of inexperience, it is impossible to avoid hurting your partner in a relationship, and yourself as well.

These are all examples where the thesis was anticipated and baked into the systems design and mechanics of the game. But Egri has also said that it is possible to arrive at a premise through reflection; and indeed I’ve often found that I arrived at the thematic conclusion of a work as part of the process of writing it, rather than at the beginning.

Counterfeit Monkey is almost entirely a puzzle game. While it’s not terribly linear — in the sense that you’re free to wander around and try various things — for the first 90+% of the story, there is no real narrative branching resulting from what you do.

The first moment of real choice comes when the protagonists — two people sharing a body, for reasons explained earlier in the game — disagree about what to do next. Both are emotionally invested in the choice, and committed to their own outcomes. The player can side with one or the other, or commit a pointless act of self-sacrifice that ends the game, but there is no “good” solution that satisfies everyone.

Moreover, the choice, which means that one protagonist wins at the expense of the other, has permanent metaphysical effects on the pair of them. This was a personal representation of a problem elsewhere illustrated in other ways in the story: that in a democracy, the collective will sometimes violates individual conscience, so that it’s possible to wind up with partial responsibility for an outcome that one finds deeply abhorrent.

Several players indicated to me that they wished this problem could be resolved; that there was some “right” solution to this puzzle that would make everything happy and easy again.

But that would have completely undermined the point of the sequence. You are free to pick whichever side you like, but the thematic point of the sequence is served either way: that democracy makes us complicit, that it removes the possibility of innocence. (This is not, incidentally, an argument against democracy. The other options are also bad.)

In some of my earlier work, I took a different approach to deploying choice and multiple endings.

One of my friends has described my personal genre as “Witch in Prison” stories, and if you define witches and prisons broadly enough, that is often fairly accurate. Metamorphoses‘ thesis is (arguably) that a difficult, persistent, and even painful pursuit of knowledge will eventually set you free. That is why there are something like twelve possible endings and it is narratively pretty inconsequential which one you pick, because the whole point is that you’ve struggled through to where you get to pick in the first place. You could trace something like that theme again in other work of mine, even stuff that might on the surface seem to be a very different story — like BEE. But perhaps it’s natural that I would come back to this point:

We are taking it for granted that if you choose the above premise, “Great love defies even death,” you believe in it. You should believe in it, since you are to prove it. You must show conclusively that life is worthless without the loved one. And if you do not sincerely believe that this is so, you will have a very hard time trying to provide the emotional intensity of Nora, in A Doll’s House, or of Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet. (15)

An Egrian approach to choice in games, therefore, might say something like this: the climactic choice should occur only when the conclusion is in some sense foregone, and the thematic outcome inevitable. The outcomes of the choice may be different, but they must all reflect the part of the theme that is inevitable, and is the message of the work.

Do I share Egri’s conviction that a thesis is mandatory? I’m not sure I do; I’ve read, and tried to write, some works that identify a problem but do not posit a solution or conclusion. Floatpoint is one (though perhaps that is why many people have found it less satisfying than some of my other things).

But the thesis-focused approach does provide a way of thinking about (especially) what climax choices should do. They should be difficult, yes. They should be balanced. There should be no easy right and easy wrong. But more than that, as an organizing principle, the different endings should support some common meaning.

11 thoughts on “The Art of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri); also, games”

  1. Thanks, this is very interesting even though it’s exactly opposite to my line of thinking!

    I’m really interested in IF works that undermine this structure as much as possible. A lot of static fiction is built to prove a thesis, to make both the final result and its interpretation (ideological or otherwise) seem inevitable, and even to make that inevitability seem natural and not artificial or rhetorical. In fact, A lot of authors, like this Egri, say that’s the only way to write well.

    Against that, I imagine IF where the story has wildly different outcomes that can’t possibly be interpreted in the same way, undermining the whole idea of proving a thesis and exposing how such a proof works, by showing you where and how the stories diverge. This sounds to me like something that only IF can do.

  2. This is exactly why I found ‘The Baron’ so deeply unsatisfying: it had no thesis, and asked me to supply my own. Other people really liked it, though, which means that thesis-having is not necessarily important to some readers. But it was to me.

    IF also provides the option of providing a new class of theses, namely, ‘you are right, dear reader’ (all narrative outcomes are positive), and ‘you are wrong, dear reader’ (all narrative outcomes are negative, cf ‘The Walking Dead’, where a design goal was literally ‘how can we make the player feed bad about their choices?’).

  3. I love this. The veins of this theory are thick and lead right to the arteries of storytelling, IMO. Stories all have a thesis, even if the thesis is that there is no definitive conclusion that can be reached about a topic. So-called ambiguity in a story still implies a finite (but controlled!) set of possible theses and invites the audience to participate in the decision-making process. So does nonlinear storytelling.

    I’m so in love with this idea that it’s become central to my thinking about stories over the last decade. It’s exciting to hear about a book that promotes it. Thank you! The only point where I draw a harder line than Egri is the one you raise when you say you have “arrived at the thematic conclusion of a work as part of the process of writing it.” Shouldn’t that always be the way it works? It’s so much more interesting if creative writing is an explorative act than if it’s merely a method of delivering information and opinion. That’s why it’s creative! If you already know what you want to say before you write something, why not just write an essay? I guess that’s a little specious, since there are good reasons for illustrating complex messages by example, but it’s only specious in the vein of Samuel Goldwyn’s classic quip, “if you’ve got a message, send a telegram.”

    Let me humbly echo Flannery O’Connor. “I write to discover what I know.”

    1. “If you already know what you want to say before you write something, why not just write an essay?” — Because I already know that I want to *tell a story* before I write something. And because I did the exploration beforehand, while coming up with the idea for the story.

      To clarify, I think of “writing” as the part where I’m stringing words together to form sentences that I expect a reader will actually end up seeing (after some editing and revision, of course). Before that is “coming up with an idea”, which for me can take weeks, months, even years of daydreaming and exploration, running scenes in my mind again and again, coming up with “what ifs”, being surprised by my own ideas, and occasionally stumbling across a narrative that feels complete and satisfying and thematically consistent and worth writing down. This exploration part is in flux, because it mostly doesn’t get written down (read: pinned in place) until after it is complete. Once I discover what I want to say, I can spend all of my writing time applying effort and craft to support the complete idea in the most effective way I can think of.

      The thought of starting writing before I have a complete idea feels like an excellent way to give myself writer’s block, combined with a creeping sense of dread that I’ll have to throw away most of what I do end up writing because it won’t work with what I eventually figure out I want to be saying. This doesn’t seem to me like a great way to foster creativity. I’d rather daydream beforehand.

  4. I haven’t read around this subject in quite some time, but I always understood the “premise” (not meaning that in the sitcom-style sense either) of a story to be a very different – and deliberately separate – thing from a “moral” or indeed a “thesis”, just as much as it’s a separate thing from a “storyline” or “narrative”.

    It’s not like you’re setting out to prove your premise in writing a story, more that it’s an incontrovertible thing that’s at the very root of it – a fact of the universe from which the story cannot help but follow. That sounds like quite a fuzzy distinction as I’ve phrased it there, and I wish I could find the source where I remember reading it.

  5. I didn’t know about this book at all…
    Is the theory behind it somehow close to the Fatum notion in greek tragedy ? Because you evoke “a particular outcome (that) cannot be avoided” and this seems different from the contemporary hero scheme who (presumably) got the keys to fix a situation (even if he needs to reveal it).
    Anyways, I’ll read it.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, it’s always nice to read your articles :)

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