Taking your hero from start to finish of his quest should never look like an easy journey. How boring to have to sit through scenarios on stage in which the path is relatively devoid of speed bumps, competent adversaries or past scars that fill the protagonist with self-doubt! In concert, these obstacles are critical in addressing a common mistake new playwrights make in crafting plausible conflicts—specifically, if the “problem” can be solved in one conversation or task, it’s not deep enough to sustain a full-length production.
For your characters’ collision with destiny to be as credible as it is compelling, the trick is to show that what they want isn’t always commensurate with what they still need to learn.
Layers of complication
Theatrical history is replete with star-crossed romances, mistaken identities and cunning one-upmanship in which players seek to take advantage of one another’s confidence or ignorance. What makes these plots entertaining, of course, are the successive layers of complication stemming from two coexisting objectives that may or may not be compatible.
The primary objective, the “A” line, is the protagonist’s central quest. For instance, the title characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet want to get married in spite of their respective parents’ wishes to the contrary. The secondary, “B” line goal is their desire to keep both families happy. If it were as simple as the Montagues and the Capulets sitting down at the same table and being told by their offspring that the marriage would proceed with or without their blessing, it would make for a much shorter play. Instead, the forbidden romance forces the enlistment of confederates to keep their trysts secret, a condition that fuels an already volatile equation and results in the lovers’ tragic demise.
In Arthur Miller’s timeless Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman’s “A” expectation is that his decades of loyalty to his employer will finally result in an in-town job. The play’s “B” thread, however, centers on ageism and the phasing out of older workers in favor of younger ones (or, in a more modern context, the advent of technology). Loman’s wishes run counter to the larger picture of society’s indifference toward his welfare and that of his family.
Coming-of-age angst takes center stage in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. Gawky tween Frankie’s primary “A” quest is for the world—or at least her immediate family—to pay more attention to her. In this play, the parallel “B” track is her inevitable transition to young womanhood, a segue that Frankie herself is unaware of until it actually happens and fulfills her need for validation.
Layers of collision
The layers of collision inherent in any given plot will also dictate the appropriate length necessary to resolve the “A” and “B” clash. One-act plays, for instance, can be likened to the format of half-hour TV sitcoms. In this venue, the lack of any below-the-surface (“B”) journey or self-realization reduces the outcome to a simple yes or no. For example:
- Will Joey and Chandler find the lost baby before Ross gets home? (“Friends”)
- Will Jeannie’s evil twin sister steal Major Nelson’s heart before the wedding? (“I Dream of Jeannie”)
- Will Raymond pull off a surprise birthday party for Debra? (“Everybody Loves Raymond”)
In each of these scenarios, there’s neither enough substance to stretch the material out for longer than 22 minutes nor enough tangential opposition to even achieve a balanced fight. Let’s say that your theatrical plot is about a man and woman—former college lovers—who find themselves sitting next to each other on the same flight to L.A. With feelings of affection suddenly rekindled and the absence of external encumbrances such as spouses, life-threatening illnesses or incompatible careers, there’s no reason they can’t get together. There’s also no reason for us to watch them for longer than one act because we’ve already figured out that they’re perfect for each other.
What if we complicate the mix, though, with the fact that (1) she’s the sister of his current wife, (2) her corporation is taking over his, (3) her teenage son just came out of the closet and (4) his latest health check-up revealed he has a heart condition and needs to avoid stress. Much as we may want them to take a second chance on love, their respective emotional baggage will now take more than one conversation to offload.
Furthermore, the plot’s unpredictability is the result of their personal objectives being opposed, not necessarily opposite. The true resolution resides in the “B” level of their collision; specifically, whether they’ll be able to put their hearts’ desire above the expectations of those around them or be forced to part company because the level of jeopardy is too great.
Layers of character
The final component of your collision course is the question of how many characters in your plot are aware of the truth, secret or underlying risk. The ease with which the mystery is eventually revealed is dependent on the author’s skill at keeping the right combinations from getting together and comparing notes. The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde), Charley’s Aunt (Brandon Thomas), Lend Me a Tenor (Ken Ludwig) and Twelfth Night (Shakespeare) excel at these machinations, further supporting the fact that the more players involved in the duplicity, the longer time it will take to achieve an “A” and “B” alliance and tie up all the loose ends.
The defeat or triumph of a character in conflict isn’t what ultimately resonates with your audience; it’s the believability of the battle itself that forges a common ground.