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The Drama of Story

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a world premier of a play at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It was staged in a tiny little theater in the round – just 250 seats, with no seat more than 5 rows from the stage – and the premise of the play is that it takes place during a semi-final tennis match at the US Open.

Think about that for a minute – a tennis match, played on a tiny stage with audience members on every side. How on earth could that even work?

The Last Match by Anne Zeigler not only worked, it was riveting and moving – and it was a master-class in what stories are really about and what it takes to tell a good one.

Here are four key lessons reinforced by the play:

1. There are two levels to every story.

The first level is plot – in this case, the tennis match. This is what happens, what transpires, what we see at first glance. If someone were to ask me what The Last Match was about, I would probably say, “A tennis match.” That was the frame of the piece – the shape of it. I would, however, be missing the whole point, and if you are writing a memoir or a novel (and in many cases a self-help/how-to book) and you are only focusing on the plot you would be missing the whole point, too.

The second level is the real story – the why underneath the what of the plot. Why do the characters do what they do, why do they care about what is happening, why does it matter to them – and why, by extension, should we (the reader/viewer) care? This is where the true power of story lies. Zeigler clearly knows this in her bones – because on the stage made to look like a tennis court, she brought to life all the desire and rage and fear and yearning of two tennis stars who both want to win.

Why they each want to win is what it was all about.

2. We bring our past selves onto the stage of every story.

It’s so easy to think of any narrative as chronological – a straightforward shot from here to there – but that is, again, to only focus on the plot and to miss the heart of the thing.

Story – which as we just saw, unfolds on a different level – is often not chronological in the least. Since story is about a character’s inner struggle to  make meaning of certain events, it naturally involves their entire past, and it often loops around on itself and back again like a Mobius strip.

In The Last Match, Zeigler made this truth manifest.

One tennis star, Russian phenom Sergei Sergeyev, is a young upstart trying to fulfill the destiny of his great promise by beating the man who had been his idol as a child. He was battling the demons of insomnia and abandonment – things that had plagued him since his parents died in a car crash on the way to see him play. He was battling a demanding girlfriend who we couldn’t quite understand why anyone would bother with (why, why, why?) until we saw exactly why he would.

The other tennis star was the aging legend Tim Porter, thinking about when  to call it quits, trying to hang onto his glory, trying to quell the fear he knows he will feel if he gives up his identity as a tennis star. He was battling the demons of expectation and responsibility, now that he was (after a painful journey of infertility and loss) a new father – expectations of himself, of his son, and of his wife, and responsibility for his family’s financial and spiritual wellbeing.

So much hung in the balance for these two tennis players, and because we were let inside the consequences of the match, the audience came to care for both of them immensely.

All of this was done through some brilliant staging – the two men’s significant others marching, leaping, and slouching onto the tennis court/set to re-enact key scenes from their lives, to bring key questions and answers into the players’ minds.

This is exactly the way memory works – intruding, arriving unbidden, flashing across the stage of our lives.

Yes, the plot moves forward in time, but the story spins around it as it goes.

 3. Nothing is neutral

One of the most powerful elements of The Last Match was the way that Zeigler had the two tennis players literally playing off each other, like improvisers – where one actor starts a conversation and another picks it up and runs with it, crafting their own tale from the raw material he was given.

Tim Porter would be in the midst of a memory and Sergei Sergeyev would be sitting on a chair on the “sidelines” with his head bent and covered by a towel until that part of the story was done -- UNLESS a Tim Porter memory triggered something in Sergei, either literally, because they shared the same memory, or conceptually. If this happened, Sergei would leap up and take over, telling his own tale. It was a little like a relay race, with the baton being handed back and forth between the players, and it was dazzling as the audience was taken deeper and deeper into each man’s story.

Similarly, events in the tennis match itself triggered thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. These events included interactions with the crowd, the referee, and the other player, glances at the women in the stands (who sat in the theater aisles as if the players’ boxes), a wrenched back, a won point, a lost game.

So you had these two actors who on one level looked as though they were playing a simple game of tennis, but who on another level, were being plunged into darkness, lifted to heights of joy, and made to struggle with the most seminal moments of their lives.

The key concept for all of us here who are trying to write good books is triggered.

Things in a life (if you are writing memoir) or a novel (if you are writing fiction) or an argument (if you are writing non-fiction) trigger thoughts, ideas, opinions and memories. And by things, I mean events in the plot, other characters, dialogue, decisions – everything. Nothing is neutral to you or mein our real lives – so why should things be neutral in the books we write?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. Everything has the potential to trigger a deeper dive into a character’s life, into your own life, or into the argument you are trying to make to your reader.

Writers often struggle mightily with how to fold flashbacks and backstory into their work. They think of it as a separate thing – something you stop the story to drop in. Backstory and flashbacks, however, are the story. They are the heart of the story. They are how we get to the why that we (the reader) are desperately tracking as the plot unfolds.

If you think about flashbacks and backstory exactly the way I am describing the playwright did – as opportunities to add meaning and power to your story – you will find that they have a place on every page, in small and large ways.

4. Lessons about story are everywhere.

I learn so much about story every day – by reading the newspaper (okay, three of them), reading books, reading blogs, going to the movies, going to plays. It's all a chance to understand story better – to feel how it works, to know how to wield its power. And every once and awhile, you come away absolutely dazzled – which is what happened to me with this play.

Make sure you are consuming stories while you are trying to write them. It makes you a good literary citizen, for one thing, and it will teach you so much of what you need to know.