Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Third Quarter

One of the many eccentricities of my high school education was the emphasis it placed on memorizing and reciting poems and other classic texts. Just about the first thing we did in freshman English was to memorize the school's official Bible chapter, I Corinthians 13, in the King James translation. (Adding to the eccentricity: it was a secular school in every other respect.) I have always had a good memory and I had been acting in plays since I was 6 years old, so I did not have much trouble with the memorization, but many other students struggled. At that point, my teacher offered us a tip. "The hardest part of anything to memorize," she said, "is the third quarter of it, the part between 50 and 75 percent. So start memorizing halfway through and then work your way around to the beginning."

This has stuck with me, not as my preferred trick to use when memorizing something, but because I've discovered that this rule, this "the third quarter is the most difficult part" principle, holds true for other situations. In particular, for playwriting. With all of my full-length plays, the most difficult part to write has been the third quarter -- the beginning of Act Two. If you aren't a playwright, you might assume that the most difficult scenes to write are the most emotionally intense ones, at the end. But those are relatively easy to write (especially if, like me, you have a streak of melodrama in you). And of course, the exposition scenes at the beginning of Act One present their own challenges. But, in general, once you've gotten past the hurdle of laying out your exposition without being boring or inane, you can quite easily finish the rest of Act One.

And then you get to the beginning of Act Two, and you think you'll never manage to finish it. It's tricky, delicate work, like being a demolitions expert on a secret mission. You have to set up all of the elements of your play (the characters and their motivations) so that they explode just right at the climax. You are dealing with volatile material and you have to be careful that it doesn't explode too soon, or fizzle out anticlimactically and too late. You have to set all of the bombs in place without it being obvious that that's what you're doing, or else no one will be surprised when they go off. But at the same time, you want to offer little hints of foreshadowing, to flatter the audience's intelligence and get them on your side. The audience should want the bombs to detonate, should want the building to explode in a fireball, when the climax occurs. You shouldn't lure the audience into a trap and then give them a load of shrapnel to the face. You should make them your accomplices on your mission.

(The above may be the most violent metaphor I have ever constructed and I hope it doesn't get me in trouble with the authorities. But playwriting is dangerous work, folks.)

"Second-act problems" are a proverbial part of playwriting, but I propose that we could also call them "third-quarter problems." When people say "second-act problems," they don't mean that the very end of the second act sucked (when that happens, they just say "the ending sucked") -- they mean that the playwright had trouble getting through the second act, managing the climax without bungling it. Maybe the playwright meandered for a good portion of Act II and then the climax came out of nowhere -- that's one of the most common second-act, third-quarter problems.

I was talking to my roommate about my theory of "third-quarter problems" and she told me that she ran track in high school, the 400-meter dash, and always found the third quarter of the race (meters 200 to 300) the hardest part. I think that it is human nature to plateau during the third quarter of anything. You've been running hard and you know you've accomplished something sizable. (If you were competing in the 200 meters -- or if you were writing a one-act play -- you'd be done by now!) The finish line is in sight, but still far off, and you feel like you deserve to slow down and catch your breath and marshal your strength for the finale. But that doesn't work if you want to be an all-star sprinter, and it doesn't work if you want to be an all-star playwright. Plays can't plateau during their third quarter. The action has to keep rising up, up, up until the end.

A few weeks ago, my Pleiades script had some major third-quarter problems that I felt like I would never resolve. But as October began and the third quarter of 2011 drew to an end, I managed to work hard, push through the problems, and come up with a draft of the script that I am satisfied to hear aloud in public. I invite you to join us for our reading on October 22 -- which, I note, is on the third weekend of our four-weekend festival.

Playwrights have been having second-act or third-quarter problems since our profession existed -- frankly, you could even make the case that Hamlet has third-quarter problems, what with Hamlet being sent to England, captured by offstage pirates, etc. And human beings, too, have always had third-quarter problems; indeed, isn't a "midlife crisis" the archetypal "third-quarter problem"? Third-quarter problems -- the plateau, the struggle, the eventual breakthrough -- are common to most people and most narratives. So, despite everything, they bring us together. So, despite everything, they're problems I love to have.

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