Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot

In the chapter on the germ idea we saw that the theme or subject of a playlet is a problem that must be solved with complete satisfaction. In this chapter we shall see how the problem–which is the first creeping form of a plot–is developed and expanded by the application of formal elements and made to grow into a plot. At the same time we shall see how the dramatic element of plot–discussed in the preceding chapter–is given form and direction in logical expression.


You will recall that our consideration of the germ idea led us farther afield than a mere consideration of a theme or subject, or even of the problem–as we agreed to call the spark that makes the playlet go. In showing how a playlet writer gets an idea and how his mind works in developing it, we took the problem of “The System” and developed it into a near-plot form. It may have seemed to you at the time that the problem we assumed for the purpose of exposition was worked out very carefully into a plot, but if you will turn back to it now, you will realize how incomplete the elaboration was–it was no more complete than any germ idea should be before you even consider spending time to build it into a playlet.

Let us now determine definitely what a playlet plot is, consider its structural elements and then take one of the fine examples of a playlet in the Appendix and see how its plot is constructed.

The plot of a playlet is its story. It is the general outline, the plan, the skeleton which is covered by the flesh of the characters and clothed by their words. If the theme or problem is the heart that beats with life, then the scenery amid which the animated body moves is its habitation, and the dramatic spirit is the soul that reveals meaning in the whole.

To hazard a definition:

A playlet plot is a sequence of events logically developed out of a theme or problem, into a crisis or entanglement due to a conflict of the characters’ wills, and then logically untangled again, leaving the characters in a different relation to each other–changed in themselves by the crisis.

Note that a mere series of incidents does not make a plot–the presence of crisis is absolutely necessary to plot. If the series of events does not develop a complication that changes the characters in themselves and in their relations to each other, there can be no plot. If this is so, let us now take the sequence of events that compose the story of “The Lollard” [1] and see what constitutes them a plot. I shall not restate its story, only repeat it in the examination of its various points [2].

[1] Edgar Allan Woolf’s fine satirical comedy to be found in the Appendix.

[2] As a side light, you see how a playlet theme differs from a playlet plot. You will recall that in the chapter on “The Germ Idea,” the theme of The Lollard was thus stated in terms of a playlet problem: “A foolish young woman may leave her husband because she has ’found him out,’ yet return to him when she discovers that another man is no better than he is.” Compare this brief statement with the full statement of the plot given hereafter.

The coming of Angela Maxwell to Miss Carey’s door at 2 A.M.–unusual as is the hour–is just an event; the fact that Angela has left her husband, Harry, basic as it is, is but little more than an event; the entrance of the lodger, Fred Saltus, is but another event, and even Harry Maxwell’s coming in search of his wife is merely an event–for if Harry had sat down and argued Angela out of her pique, even though Fred were present, there would have been no complication, save for the cornerstone motive of her having left him. If this sequence of events forms merely a mildly interesting narrative, what, then, is the complication that weaves them into a plot?

The answer is, in Angela’s falling in love with Fred’s broad shoulders, wealth of hair and general good looks–this complication develops the crisis out of Harry’s wanting Angela. If Harry hadn’t cared, there would have been no drama–the drama comes from Harry’s wanting Angela when Angela wants Fred; Angela wants something that runs counter to Harry’s will–there is the clash of wills out of which flashes the dramatic.

But still there would be no plot–and consequently no playlet–if Harry had acknowledged himself beaten after his first futile interview with Angela. The entanglement is there–Harry has to untangle it. He has to win Angela again–and how he does it, on Miss Carey’s tip, you may know from reading the playlet. But, if you have read it, did you realize the dramatic force of the unmasking of Fred–accomplished without (explanatory) words, merely by making Fred run out on the stage and dash back into his room again? There is a fine example of the revealing flash! This incident–made big by the dramatic–is the ironical solvent that loosens the warp of Angela’s will and prepares her for complete surrender. Harry’s entrance in full regimentals–what woman does not love a uniform?– is merely the full rounding out of the plot that ends with Harry’s carrying his little wife home to happiness again.

But, let us pursue this examination further, in the light of the preceding chapter. There would have been no drama if the meaning of these incidents had not–because Angela is a “character” and Harry one, too–been inherent in them. There would have been no plot, nothing of dramatic spirit, if Harry had not been made by those events to realize his mistake and Angela had not been made to see that Harry was “no worse” than another man. It is the change in Harry and the change in Angela that changes their relations to each other–therein lies the essence of the plot. [1]

[1] Unfortunately, the bigger, broader meaning we all read into this satire of life, cannot enter into our consideration of the structure of plot. It lies too deep in the texture of the playwright’s mind and genius to admit of its being plucked out by the roots for critical examination. The bigger meaning is there–we all see it, and recognize that it stamps The Lollard as good drama. Each playwright must work out his own meanings of life for himself and weave them magically into his own playlets; this is something that cannot be added to a man, that cannot be satisfactorily explained when seen, and cannot be taken away from him.

Now, having determined what a plot is, let us take up its structural parts and see how these clearly understood principles make the construction of a playlet plot in a measure a matter of clear thinking.


We must swerve for a moment and cut across lots, that we may touch every one of the big structural elements of plot and relate them with logical closeness to the playlet, summing them all up in the end and tying them closely into–what I hope may be–a helpful definition, on the last page of this chapter.

The first of the structural parts that we must consider before we take up the broader dramatic unities, is the seemingly obvious one that a plot has a beginning, a middle and an ending.

There has been no clearer statement of this element inherent in all plots, than that made by Aristotle in his famous twenty-century old dissection of tragedy; he says:

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action, that is complete and whole, and of a certain magnitude (not trivial). . . . A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity or in the regular course of events, but has nothing to follow it. A middle is that which naturally follows something as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to the type here described.” [1]

[1] Aristotle, Poetics VII.

Let us state the first part of the doctrine in this way:

1. The Beginning Must State the Premises of the Problem Clearly and Simply

Although life knows neither a beginning nor an end–not your life nor mine, but the stream of unseparate events that make up existence–a work of art, like the playlet, must have both. The beginning of any event in real life may lie far back in history; its immediate beginnings, however, start out closely together and distinctly in related causes and become more indistinctly related the farther back they go. Just where you should consider the event that is the crisis of your playlet has its beginning, depends upon how you want to tell it–in other words, it depends upon you. No one can think for you, but there are one or two observations upon the nature of plot-beginnings that may be suggestive.

In the first place, no matter how carefully the dramatic material has been severed from connection with other events, it cannot be considered entirely independent. By the very nature of things, it must have its roots in the past from which it springs, and these roots–the foundations upon which the playlet rises–must be presented to the audience at the very beginning.

If you were introducing a friend of yours and his sister and brother to your family, who had never met them before, you would tell which one was your particular friend, what his sister’s name was, and his brother’s name, too, and their relationship to your friend. And, if the visit were unexpected, you would–naturally and unconsciously–determine how they happened to come and how long you might have the pleasure of entertaining them; in fact, you would fix every fact that would give your family a clear understanding of the event of their presence. In other words, you would very informally and delicately establish their status, by outlining their relations to you and to each other, so that your family might have a clear understanding of the situation they were asked to face.

This is precisely what must be done at the very beginning of a playlet–the friends, who are the author’s characters, must be introduced to his interested family, the audience, with every bit of information that is necessary to a clear understanding of the playlet’s situation. These are the roots from which the playlet springs–the premise of its problem. Precisely as “The Lollard" declares in its opening speeches who Miss Carey is and who Angela Maxwell is, and that Angela is knocking at Miss Carey’s door at two o’clock in the morning because she has left Harry, her husband, after a quarrel the roots of which lie in the past, so every playlet must state in its very first speeches, the “whos” and “whys"–the premises–out of which the playlet logically develops.

The prologue of “The Villain Still Pursued Her” is an excellent illustration of this point. When this very funny travesty was first produced, it did not have a prologue. It began almost precisely as the full-stage scene begins now, and the audience did not know whether to take it seriously or not. The instant he watched the audience at the first performance, the author sensed the problem he had to face. He knew, then, that he would have to tell the next audience and every other that the playlet is a farce, a roaring travesty, to get the full value of laughter that lies in the situations. He pondered the matter and saw that if the announcement in plain type on the billboards and in the program that his playlet was a travesty was not enough, he would have to tell the audience by a plain statement from the stage before his playlet began. So he hit upon the prologue that stamps the act as a travesty in its very first lines, introduces the characters and exposes the roots out of which the action develops so clearly that there cannot possibly be any mistake. And his reward was the making over of an indifferent success into one of the most successful travesties in vaudeville.

This conveying to the audience of the knowledge necessary to enable them to follow the plot is technically known as “exposition.” It is one of the most important parts of the art of construction–indeed, it is a sure test of a playwright’s dexterity. While there are various ways of offering preliminary information in the long drama–that is, it may be presented all at once in the opening scene of the first act, or homeopathically throughout the first act, or some minor bits of necessary information may be postponed even until the opening of the second act–there is only one way of presenting the information necessary to the understanding of the playlet: It must all be compressed into the very first speeches of the opening scene.

The clever playlet writer is advertised by the ease–the simplicity–with which he condenses every bit of the exposition into the opening speeches. You are right in the middle of things before you realize it and it is all done so skillfully that its straightforwardness leaves never a suspicion that the simplicity is not innate but manufactured; it seems artless, yet its artlessness is the height of art. The beginning of a playlet, then, must convey to the audience every bit of information about the characters and their relations to each other that is necessary for clear understanding. Furthermore, it must tell it all compactly and swiftly in the very first speeches, and by the seeming artlessness of its opening events it must state the problem so simply that what follows is foreshadowed and seems not only natural but inevitable.

2. The Middle Must Develop the Problem Logically and Solve the Entanglement in a “Big” Scene

For the purpose of perfect understanding, I would define the “middle” of a playlet as that part which carries the story on from the indispensable introduction to and into the scene of final suspense–the climax–in which the chief character’s will breaks or triumphs and the end is decided. In “The Lollard” this would be from the entrance of Fred Saltus and his talk with Angela, to Miss Carey’s exposure of Fred’s “lollardness,” which breaks down Angela’s determination by showing her that her husband is no worse than Fred and makes it certain that Harry has only to return to his delightful deceptions of dress to carry her off with him home.

(a) The “Exciting Force.” The beginning of the action that we have agreed to call the middle of a playlet, is technically termed “the exciting force.” The substance of the whole matter is this: Remember what your story is and tell it with all the dramatic force with which you are endowed.

Perhaps the most common, and certainly the very best, place to “start the trouble"–to put the exciting force which arouses the characters to conflict–is the very first possible instant after the clear, forceful and foreshadowing introduction. The introduction has started the action of the story, the chief characters have shown what they are and the interest of the audience has been awakened. Now you must clinch that interest by having something happen that is novel, and promises in the division of personal interests which grow out of it to hold a punch that will stir the sympathies legitimately and deeply.

(b) The “Rising Movement.” This exciting force is the beginning of what pundits call “the rising movement"–in simple words, the action which from now on increases in meaning vital to the characters and their destinies. What happens, of course, depends upon the material and the treatment, but there is one point that requires a moment’s discussion here, although closely linked with the ability to seize upon the dramatic–if it is not, itself, the heart of the dramatic. This important point is, that in every story set for the stage, there are certain

(c) Scenes that Must be Shown. From the first dawn of drama until today, when the motion pictures are facing the very same necessity, the problem that has vexed playwrights most is the selection of what scenes must be shown. These all-important scenes are the incidents of the story or the interviews between characters that cannot be recounted by other characters. Call them dramatic scenes, essential scenes, what you will, if they are not shown actually happening, but are described by dialogue–the interest of the audience will lag and each person from the first seat in the orchestra to the last bench in the gallery will be disappointed and dissatisfied. For instance:

If, instead of Fred Saltus’ appearing before the audience and having his humorously thoughtless but nevertheless momentous talk with Angela in which Angela falls in love with him, the interview had been told the audience by Miss Carey, there would have been no playlet. Nearly as important is the prologue of “The Villian Still Pursued Her"; Mr. Denvir found it absolutely necessary to show those characters to the audience, so that they might see them with their own eyes in their farcical relations to each other, before he secured the effect that made his playlet. Turn to “The System” and try to find even one scene there shown that could be replaced by narrative dialogue and you will see once more how important are the “scenes that must be shown.”

One of the all-rules-in-one for writing drama that I have heard, though I cannot now recall what playwright told me, deals with precisely this point. He expressed it this way: “First tell your audience what you are going to do, then show it to them happening, and then tell ’em it has happened!” You will not make a mistake, of course, if you show the audience those events in which the dramatic conflict enters. The soul of a playlet is the clash of the wills of the characters, from which fly the revealing flashes; a playlet, therefore, loses interest for the audience when the scenes in which those wills clash and flash revealingly are not shown.

It is out of such revealing scenes that the rising movement grows, as Freytag says, “with a progressive intensity of interest.” But, not only must the events progress and the climax be brought nearer, but the scenes themselves must broaden with force and revealing power. They must grow until there comes one big scene–"big” in every way–somewhere on the toes of the ending, a scene next to the last or the last itself.

(d) The Climax. Here is where the decisive blow is struck in a moment when the action becomes throbbing and revealing in every word and movement. In “The Lollard” it is when Fred makes his revealing dash through the room–this is the dramatic blow which breaks Angela’s infatuation. It is the crowning point of the crowning scene in which the forces of the playlet culminate, and the “heart wallop"–as Tom Barry calls it [1]–is delivered and the decision is won and made.

[1] Vaudeville Appeal and the “Heart Wallop,” by Tom Barry, author of The Upstart and Brother Fans, an interesting article in The Dramatic Mirror of December 16, 1914. For this and other valuable information I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness and to express my thanks to The Dramatic Mirror and its courteous Vaudeville Editor, Frederick James Smith.

Whatever this decision may be and however it is won and made, the climax must be first of all a real climax–it must be “big,” whether it be a comedy scream or the seldom-seen tragic tear. Big in movement and expression it must be, depending for effect not on words but on the revealing flash; it must be the summit of the action; it must be the event toward which the entire movement has been rising; it must be the fulfillment of what was foreshadowed; it must be keen, quick, perfectly logical and flash the illuminating revelation, as if one would say, “Here, this is what I’ve kept you waiting for–my whole reason for being.” Need I say that such a climax will be worth while?

And now, as the climax is the scene toward which every moment of the playlet–from the first word of the introduction and the first scene-statement of the playlet’s problem–has been motivated, and toward which it has risen and culminated, so also the climax holds within itself the elements from which develops the ending.

3. The Ending Must Round the Whole Out Satisfyingly.

For the purpose of clearness, let me define the ending of a playlet as a scene that lies between the climax or culminating scene–in which the audience has been made to feel the coming-to-an-end effect–and the very last word on which the curtain descends. If you have ever watched a sailor splicing a rope, you will know what I mean when I say that the worker, reaching for the loose ends to finish the job off neatly, is like the playlet writer who reaches here and there for the playlet’s loose ends and gathers them all up into a neat, workmanlike finish. The ending of a playlet must not leave unfulfilled any promises of the premise, but must fulfill them all satisfyingly.

The characteristics of a good playlet ending–besides the completeness with which the problem has been “proved” and the satisfyingness with which it all rounds out–are terseness, speed and “punch." If the climax is a part of the playlet wherein words may not be squandered, the ending is the place where words–you will know what I mean–may not be used at all. Everything that must be explained must be told by means which reach into the spectator’s memory of what has gone before and make it the positive pole of the battery from which flash the wireless messages from the scene of action. As Emerson defined character as that which acts by mere presence without words, let me define the ending of a playlet as that which acts without words by the simple bringing together of the characters in their new relations.

The climax has said to the audience, “Here, this is what I’ve kept you waiting for–my whole reason for being,” therefore the ending cannot dally–it must run swiftly to the final word. There is no excuse for the ending to linger over anything at all–the shot has been fired and the audience waits only for the smoke to clear away, that it may see how the bull’s-eye looks. The swifter you can blow the smoke away, show them that you’ve hit the bull’s-eye dead in the centre, and bow yourself off amid their pleased applause, the better your impression will be.

Take these three examples:

When Fred Saltus dashes revealingly across the stage and back into his room again, “The Lollard’s” climax is reached; and as soon as Angela exclaims “What ’a lollard’ that is!” there’s a ring at the door bell and in comes Harry to win Angela completely with his regimentals and to carry her off and bring the curtain down– in eight very short speeches.

In “The System,” the climax arrives when the honest Inspector orders Dugan arrested and led away. Then he gives “The Eel” and Goldie their freedom and exits with a simple “Good Night"–and the curtain comes down–all in seven speeches.

The climax of “Blackmail” seems to come when Fallon shoots Mohun and Kelly breaks into the room–to the curtain it is seven speeches. But the real climax is reached when Kelly shouts over the telephone “Of course, in self-defense, you fool, of course, in self-defense.” This is–the last speech.

Convincing evidence, is this not, of the speed with which the curtain must follow the climax?

And so we have come, to this most important point–the “finish" or “the curtain,” as vaudeville calls it. The very last thing that must be shown, and the final word that must be said before the curtain comes down, are the last loose ends of the plot which must be spliced into place–the final illuminating word to round out the whole playlet humanly and cleverly. “The Lollard” goes back to Miss Carey’s sleep, which Angela’s knock on the door interrupted: “Now, thank Gawd, I’ll get a little sleep,” says Miss Carey as she puts out the light. A human, an everyday word it is, spoken like a reminiscent thrill–and down comes the curtain amid laughter and applause. A fine way to end.

But not the only way–let us examine “The System.”

“Well, we’re broke again,” says Goldie tearfully. “We can’t go West now, so there’s no use packing.” Now, note the use of business in the ending, and the surprise. The Eel goes stealthily to the window L, looks out, and pulls the dictograph from the wall. Then he comes down stage to Goldie who is sitting on the trunk and has watched him. He taps her on the shoulder, taking Dugan’s red wallet out of his pocket. “Go right ahead and pack,” says The Eel, while Goldie looks astonished and begins to laugh. The audience, too, look astonished and begin to laugh when they see that red wallet. It is a surprise–a surprise so cleverly constructed that it hits the audience hard just above the laughter-and-applause-belt– a surprise that made the act at least twenty-five per cent better than it would have been without it. And from it we may now draw the “rules” for the use of that most helpful and most dangerous element, surprise in the vaudeville finish:

Note first, that it was entirely logical for The Eel to steal the wallet–he is a pickpocket. Second, that the theft of the wallet is not of trivial importance to Goldie’s destiny and to his–they are “broke” and they must get away; the money solves all their problems. And third, note that while The Eel’s possession of the wallet is a surprise, the wallet itself is not a surprise–it has first played a most important part in the tempting of Goldie and has been shown to the audience not once but many times; and its very color–red–makes it instantly recognizable; the spectators know what it contains and what its contents mean to the destinies of both The Eel and Goldie–it is only that The Eel has it, that constitutes the surprise.

Now I must sound a warning against striving too hard after a surprise finish. The very nature of many playlets makes it impossible to give them such a curtain. If you have built up a story which touches the heart and brings tears to the eyes, and then turn it all into a joke, the chances are the audience will feel that their sympathies have been outraged, and so the playlet will fail. For instance, one playlet was ruined because right on top of the big, absorbing climax two of the characters who were then off stage stuck their heads in at the door and shouted at the hero of the tense situation, “April Fool.”

Therefore, the following may be considered as an important “rule"; a playlet that touches the heart should never end with a trick or a surprise. [1]

[1] See Chapter XVIII, section III, par. 4.

Now, let me sum up these four elements of surprise:

A surprise finish must be fitting, logical, vitally important, and revealingly dramatic; if you cannot give a playlet a surprise-finish that shall be all of these four things at once, be content with the simpler ending.

The importance of a playlet’s ending is so well understood in vaudeville that the insistence upon a “great finish” to every playlet has sometimes seemed to be over-insistence, for, important as it is, it is no more important than a “great opening” and “great scenes.” The ending is, of course, the final thing that quickens applause, and, coming last and being freshest in the mind of the audience, it is more likely to carry just a fair act to success than a fine act is likely to win with the handicap of a poor finish. But, discounting this to be a bit under the current valuation of “great finishes,” we still may round out this discussion of the playlet’s three important parts, with this temperate sentence:

A well constructed playlet plot is one whose Beginning states the premises of its problem clearly and simply, whose Middle develops the problem logically and solves the entanglement in a “big” scene, and whose Ending rounds out the whole satisfyingly– with a surprise, if fitting.

But, temperate and helpful as this statement of a well constructed plot may be, there is something lacking in it. And that something lacking is the very highest test of plot–lightly touched on at various times, but which, although it enters into a playwright’s calculations every step of the way, could not be logically considered in this treatise until the structure had been examined as a whole: I mean the formidable-sounding, but really very simple dramatic unities.


Now, but only for a moment, we must return to the straight line of investigation from which we swerved in considering the structural parts of a playlet plot.

At the beginning of this chapter we saw that a simple narrative of events is made a plot by the addition of a crisis or entanglement, and its resolution or untying. Now, the point I wish to present with all the emphasis at my command, is that complication does not mean complexity.

1. Unity of Action

In other words, no matter how many events you place one after another–no matter how you pile incident upon incident–you will not have a plot unless you so inter-relate them that the removal of anyone event will destroy the whole story. Each event must depend on the one preceding it, and in turn form a basis for the one following, and each must depend upon all the others so vitally that if you take one away the whole collapses. [1]

[1] See Aristotle, Poetics, Chapter VIII, and also Poe’s criticism, The American Drama.

(a) Unity of Hero is not Unity of Action. One of the great errors into which the novice is likely to fall, is to believe that because he makes every event which happens happen to the hero, he is observing the rule of unity. Nothing could be farther from the truth–nothing is so detrimental to successful plot construction. [2]

[2] See Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, p. 36.

Aristotle tried to correct this evil, which he saw in the plays of the great Athenian poets, by saying: “The action is the first and most important thing, the characters only second;” and, “The action is not given unity by being made to concern only one person.”

Remember, unity of action means unity of story.

(b) Double-Action is Dangerous to Unity. If you have a scene in which two minor characters come together for a reason vital to the plot, you must be extremely careful not to tell anything more than the facts that are vital. In long plays the use of what is called “double-action “–that is, giving to characters necessary to the plot an interest and a destiny separate from that of the chief characters–is, of course, recognized and productive of fine results. But, even in the five-act play, the use of double-action is dangerous. For instance: Shakespere developed Falstaff so humorously that today we sometimes carelessly think of “Henry IV" as a delightful comedy, when in reality it was designed as a serious drama–and is most serious, when Falstaff’s lines are cut from the reading version to the right proportions for to-day’s stage effect. If Shakespere nodded, it is a nod even the legitimate dramatist of today should take to heart, and the playlet writer–peculiarly restricted as to time–must engrave deeply in his memory.

The only way to secure unity of action is to concentrate upon your problem or theme; to realize that you are telling a story; to remember that each character, even your hero, is only a pawn to advance the story; and to cut away rigorously all non-essential events. If you will bear in mind that a playlet is only as good as its plot, that a plot is a story and that you must give to your story, as has been said, “A completeness–a kind of universal dovetailedness, a sort of general oneness,” you will have little difficulty in observing the one playlet rule that should never be broken–Unity of action.

2. Unity of Time

The second of the classical unities, unity of time, is peculiarly perplexing, if you study to “understand” and not merely to write. Briefly–for I must reiterate that our purpose is practice and not theory–the dramatists of every age since Aristotle have quarreled over the never-to-be-settled problem of what space of time a play should be permitted to represent. Those who take the stand that no play should be allowed to show an action that would require more than twenty-four hours for the occurrences in real life, base their premise on the imitative quality of the stage, rather than upon the selective quality of art. While those who contend that a play may disregard the classical unity of time, if only it preserves the unity of action, base their contention upon the fact that an audience is interested not in time at all–but in story. In other words, a play preserves the only unity worth preserving when it deals with the incidents that cause a crisis and ends by showing its effect, no matter whether the action takes story-years to occur or happens all in a story-hour.

If we were studying the long drama it might be worth our while to consider the various angles of this ancient dispute, but, fortunately, we have a practical and, therefore, better standard by which to state this unity in its application to the playlet. Let us approach the matter in this way:

Vaudeville is variety–it strives to compress into the space of about two hours and a half a great number of different acts which run the gamut of the entertainment forms, and therefore it cannot afford more than an average of twenty minutes to each. This time limit makes it difficult for a playlet to present effectively any story that does not occur in consecutive minutes. It has been found that even the lowering of the curtain for one second to denote the lapse of an hour or a year, has a tendency to distract the minds of the audience from the story and to weaken the singleness of effect without which a playlet is nothing.

On the other hand, this “rule” is not unbreakable: a master craftsman’s genius is above all laws. In “The System” the first scene takes place in the evening; scene two, a little later the same evening; and scene three later that same night. The story is really continuous in time, but the story-time is not equal to the playing-time even though this playlet consumes nearly twice twenty minutes. But, you will note, the scenery changes help to keep the interest of the audience from flagging, and also stamp the lapses of time effectively.

A still greater violation of the “rule"–if it were stated as absolutely rigid–is to be found in Mr. Granville’s later act, “The Yellow Streak,” written in collaboration with James Madison. Here scene two takes place later in the evening of the first scene, and the third scene after a lapse of four months. But these two exceptions, out of many that might be cited, merely prove that dramatic genius can mold even the rigid time of the vaudeville stage to its needs.

Of course, there is the possibility of foreshortening time to meet the exigencies of vaudeville when the scene is not changed. For instance: a character telephones that he will be right over and solve the whole situation on which the punch of the playlet depends, and he enters five actual minutes later–although in real life it would take an hour to make the trip. This is an extreme instance, as time foreshortening goes, because it is one where the audience might grasp the disparity, and is given for its side-light of warning as well as for its suggestive value.

More simple foreshortenings of time are found in many playlets where the effect of an hour-or-more of events is compressed into the average twenty minutes. As an example of this perfectly safe use of shortening, note the quickness with which Harry returns to Miss Carey’s apartment when he goes out to change into his regimentals. And as still safer foreshortenings, note the quickness with which Fred Saltus enters after Miss Carey goes to bed leaving Angela on the couch; and the quickness with which Angela falls in love with him–in fact, the entire compression inherent in the dramatic events which cannot be dissociated from time compression.

A safe attitude for a playlet writer to take, is that all of his action shall mimic time reality as closely as his dramatic moment and the time-allowance of presentation will permit. This is considered in all dramatic art to be the ideal.

A good way to obviate disparaging comparison is to avoid reference to time–either in the dialogue or by the movements of events.

To sum up the whole matter, a vaudeville playlet may be considered as preserving unity of time when its action occurs in continuous minutes of about the length the episode would take to occur in real life.

3. Unity of Place

The commercial element of vaudeville often makes it inadvisable for a playlet to show more than one scene–very often an otherwise acceptable playlet is refused production because the cost of supplying special scenes makes it a bad business venture. [1]

[1] See Chapter III.

Yet it is permissible for a writer to give his playlet more than one place of happening–if he can make his story so compact and gripping that it does not lose in effect by the unavoidable few seconds’ wait necessary to the changing of the scenery. But, even if his playlet is so big and dramatic that it admits of a change of scenes, he must conform it to the obvious vaudeville necessity of scenic alternation. [2] With this scenic “rule” the matter of unity of place in the playlet turns to the question of a playwright’s art, which rules cannot limit.

[2] See Chapter I.

This third and last unity of the playlet may, however, for all save the master-craftsman, be safely stated as follows:

Except in rare instances a playlet should deal with a story that requires but one set of scenery, thus conserving the necessities of commercial vaudeville, aiding the smooth running of a performance, and preserving the dramatic unity of place.

We may now condense the three dramatic unities into a statement peculiarly applicable to the playlet–which would seem as though specially designed to fulfill them all:

A playlet preserves the dramatic unities when it shows one action in one time and in one place.

And now it may be worth while once more to sum up what I have said about the elements of plot–of which the skeleton of every playlet must be made up:

A mere sequence of events is not a plot; to become a plot there must develop a crisis or entanglement due to a conflict of the characters’ wills; the entanglement must be of such importance that when it is untangled the characters will be in a different relation to each other–changed in themselves by the crisis. A plot is divided into three parts: a Beginning, a Middle and an Ending. The Beginning must state the premises of the playlet’s problem clearly and simply; the Middle must develop the problem logically and solve the entanglement in a “big” scene, and the Ending must round out the whole satisfyingly–with a surprise, if fitting. A plot, furthermore, must be so constructed that the removal of anyone of its component parts will be detrimental to the whole. It is told best when its action occurs in continuous time of about the length the episode would take to occur in real life and does not require the changing of scenery. Thus will a playlet be made to give the singleness of effect that is the height of playlet art.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

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Writing for Vaudeville
By Brett Page
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