Storytelling Lessons from Unexpected Places #1: The Ballet

Last night, my friend and I went to go see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Neither of us is really familiar with the traditional Swan Lake, but this version was incredible. The dancers were amazing and the combination of modern setting and traditional music was incredible – if you’re at all familiar with ballet, you know the theme from Swan Lake. Now, imagine that playing while the prince is sitting outside of a club, dejected, with a neon sign reading “Swank Bar” glowing above him.

But one of the things that interested me most as a writer was seeing the way various issues I have with writing came to life onstage. There was always something to watch, and often you needed to be able to pay attention to multiple things at once. There was a beautiful moment where the prince, the queen, the girlfriend, and the queen’s aide/secretary/whatever were watching a more traditional ballet. The ballet itself was beautiful, but the story is in the box with the four characters. The girlfriend cannot do anything right: she cannot sit at the correct time, she cannot be still, she cannot keep her purse in her lap. Often I’d be so distracted by the ballet the characters were watching that I’d miss the character development happening onstage. But the dancers managed it so carefully, if I did watch the main characters, I could see exactly how their relationships were developing.

As writers, it’s a bit easier to force a reader to shift focus since sentences (and writing in general) is much more linear than dance, but it’s a challenge many of us need to face up to. In our scenes, we need the reader to be interested in everything going on, but all scenes need to develop character/further plot. It does not need to be the focus of the scene, but nothing can exist simply because we want it there. Everything needs to do work. We can write a beautifully crafted scene – and we should! – but it also needs to be a point at which something happens for the story. Scene and plot are not separate, they are parts of a larger whole, and if we forget that, we cheat the reader out of an important connection.

That said, if we restricted a story to just the main characters, we would have a very dull book. We are all immersed in a world where the people around us have their own lives, their own goals, and sometimes they help us achieve ours and other times they hinder us. Things happen simultaneously, and some people are happy and some are not. Swan Lake handled this well – in every group scene, each dancer and each group of dancers knew their story, and every move they made furthered it. Anywhere you looked onstage, something was happening. Relationships were forming and crumbling all over the place, and all of it echoed the struggle the prince was going through. Scene and secondary (and tertiary) characters brought emotional resonance to the prince’s plight by showing the audience everything he could not have, and showing us exactly why he wanted it.

Was my brain working in overdrive last night? Definitely. But it was doing so because I was so enthralled by what I was watching, I couldn’t help but try to learn from it, to take some of its beauty and some of its genius home with me and hope to find a way to let it impact my writing. And that’s the best thing the arts can do, I think – give us something to make our day-to-day lives more beautiful and more exciting than they would be otherwise.

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