About The Architecture of Story

The Architecture of Story
  • What is this guide and how is it unique?
  • The Architecture of Story is a technical guide for evaluating dramatic stories. It does this by exploring storytelling tools and techniques that other writers have used and presenting this information in a nonlinear, easy-to-use reference book format. Chapters can be read, as needed, in any order any number of times and offer hundreds of questions to help you analyze your own work. While more than 100 dramatic scripts are cited throughout the guide, examples are drawn mainly from three successful contemporary American plays: Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, and The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl.
  • Is this another book on how to write a play?
  • No. While dramatic works through the ages tend to share certain storytelling elements, there is no formula that can successfully dictate what a dramatic story should be. Each comes into the world with a set of characters, plot points, and operating rules that must be defined and developed by the writer with the understanding that what works for one script does not necessarily work for another. To learn how to write a dramatic story is, therefore, a goal that can never be fully realized. To learn how to write a particular dramatic story is a time-honored dream that is both manageable and achievable. This guide builds on these ideas by presenting a menu of possibilities in an approach that is both nonprescriptive and customizable to your unique writing process and needs.
  • How does a critique of someone else’s play help me figure out what my own script needs?
  • The approach of this guide is not to “critique” the three plays chosen nor to assess their social impact or place in theatre history. The approach is rather to dismantle the stories and examine their key components from a technical point of view so that you can approach your own work with a more informed understanding of dramatic architecture and the possibilities it offers. This reflects the concept of analysis as a breaking down of any whole into its parts to learn what they are, what they do, and how they work together. Such information can help you figure out what elements your story needs and to compose them in a way that best supports this story.
  • Do I need to read these three plays to use the guide?
  • You will get the most from the guide if you are familiar with these stories, but it is not necessary to read them in order to use this guide. For each story, the guide includes different levels of synopsis, including a detailed plot summary, as well as background information about the plays and the playwrights. In the end, however, the guide is not about these three plays. It is about the storytelling principles that they reflect and that can be adapted in countless ways to the dramatic stories you develop.
  • For whom is the guide intended?
  • Primarily dramatic writers, but it also may be useful to other theatrical artists and technicians who must understand a script thoroughly in order to bring their talents to it, such as directors, dramaturgs, designers, and actors. In addition, the guide may be of interest to anyone who enjoys reading and thinking about dramatic stories. Fiction writers may find most of the storytelling principles applicable to their stories as well.
  • What criteria was used to select the three plays?
  • First, each would be a play by an American writer that had received its world premiere after the start of the new millennium. Second, each would be a play that had enjoyed widespread critical and commercial success. Third, each would be a play that had moved me personally. In addition, the scripts that met these criteria would have to be significantly different from one another not only in subject matter, but also in their approach to dramatic storytelling.

    The three plays chosen all meet these criteria and provide a broad spectrum of dramatic storytelling. For example, Doubt: A Parable (2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is a realistic drama in one act that focuses on the dramatic journey of a single protagonist. Topdog/Underdog (2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is a tragicomedy that is hyper-realistic in style, structured in two acts, and centered on dual protagonists. The Clean House (2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and 2005 Pulitzer finalist) is a two-act comedy that brings us into a world of magic realism and focuses on a group protagonist.

The Architecture of Story
  • How exactly does one use the guide?
  • That depends entirely on your current needs and dramatic writing exeprience. As the table of contents shows, “story” is broken down technically into more than forty parts, such as “title,” “genre” “character arcs,” and “main event.” Each self-contained chapter focuses on one of these parts, presents brief theory about it, shows how it works in each of the three target plays, and concludes with questions to help you analyze your use of this part in your own story. To facilitate this process, chapters are organized into four sections focusing technical considerations, the story’s big picture, the world of the characters, and the steps of the dramatic journey.
    Because the chapters are self-contained, you can cherry pick them as you need them, just as you would topics in any reference book. Or, if you prefer, you can read through the guide from cover to cover and focus on a comparative analysis of the three plays. Or you can focus on only one play at a time as you move through the guide. Or, after you have become familiar with the guide, you can simply skip to the analytical questions at the end of each chapter.
  • How does this guide complement The Dramatic Writer’s Companion?
  • Both guides are designed to be ongoing resources for dramatic writers. While The Dramatic Writer’s Companion focuses primarily on creating characters, scenes, and stories, however, The Architecture of Story centers more on evaluating work in a draft in progress or in a completed draft awaiting revision. This complementary relationship reflects the idea that both creativity and analysis are necessary to develop a dramatic script. An approach that is only creative may result in a script that has moments of excitement and power, but fails to flesh out a main idea and keep the audience engaged from beginning to end. An approach that is only analytical may result in a script that has a well constructed plot, but fails to move the audience emotionally.
  • How do I get a copy?
  • Through the University of Chicago Press or most major bookstores. The Architecture of Story is available in cloth, paper, and electronic versions. Order here to obtain your copy.