- Walking on Fire: The Shaping Force of Emotion in Writing Drama by Jim Linnell
Playwright and professor Jim Linnell’s book on the relationship of emotion to dramatic structure is a playwriting guide as well as a contribution to theories of dramaturgy and affect. Linnell’s play analyses and writing exercises are a heady alternative to “how-to” playwriting texts. The author’s premise is that playwrights need to stop worrying about how to write and start focusing on why they write. The book’s key concept, “emotional form,” refers to plot as the “internal emotional structure…the writer gives to a narrative” (28). Such emotion-driven plots are built from characters whose unresolved fears and desires result in onstage actions. Playwrights who craft characters with this interplay of fear and desire at the forefront will write plays in which character drives the action.
Linnell historicizes contemporary dramaturgies by elucidating their connection to Freudian psychoanalysis. Chapter 1, “The Seeds of Emotional Form,” lays out the argument that fuels the method. Inspired by personal experiences, playwrights use and create emotional form through confronting their own and their characters’ moments of crisis, loss, and resulting self-knowledge. Linnell explains: “What we call our character is a skin laced tight to contain the desires and feelings that press against the comfort of our status quo. The writer, understanding emotional form, uses events like a scissors to snip away the laces binding the truth until it cannot be contained” (33). Chapter 2, “The Fire Hose and the Nozzle,” elucidates the relationship between character, conflict, and action, offering a different metaphor to explain the way characters are undone by events that threaten loss; like a fire hose, character contains and expels action through the nozzle of conflict.
Chapter 3, “The End Is Where You Started,” offers useful advice for playwrights struggling with plot, especially in choosing (or, as Linnell would put it, discovering) an ending. This is the author at his clearest, offering practical ways to make decisions about plotting. Although his approach is theoretical, even philosophical, Linnell offers exercises to put his theory of emotional form into [End Page 278] action. These exercises are designed to unearth the writer’s (and thus a character’s) life “below the neck”: “The Writer’s Inventory” is a template for accessing dreams and memories; “Finding Trouble” is an inside-out automatic writing practice designed to let writers discover rather than manufacture dialogue. Other exercises offer methods for making choices about plot: “Ask the Character” and “Atom Smashing” are two ways to generate possibilities for action—by asking characters questions and listening to the answers and by letting the mind wander through an open-ended set of answers to “what-if” questions, respectively.
Chapter 4, “Collaborating with Calamity,” identifies the audience’s role in the creation of emotional form, that is, an approach to the construction of narrative that is driven by characters’ emotions. To alienate or exclude audiences from the process of playwriting is to ignore a key collaborator. The author reminds us of Aristotle’s articulation of what constitutes tragedy, focusing on the audience’s experience of pity and fear, catharsis. Just as Aristotle counts catharsis as a desired result of tragedy, so the audience is an essential component of the creation of emotional action by the playwright. Linnell ties this observation to the Greeks’ vital connection to playwrights and plays of their own time period, in contrast to what he identifies as our own disconnection from living writers and their works. He argues that this is especially true in university theatre programs, spaces that can potentially serve as laboratories for testing new works but that tend instead to choose plays based primarily on their historical significance. This critique of university department season selection processes is not contextualized fully enough to be altogether convincing. Nonetheless, Linnell’s feelings on the subject come from an evident passion for new plays and playwrights. Chapter 5, “The Practice of Fire Walking,” is an afterword that reinforces the book’s major...