Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Grebanier's Proposition

If you've ever considered writing a novel, a play, or a film script, you will almost certainly have read one or more how-to books. Of which there are many thousands. So here, just to help you to sort out the wheat from the chaff, is a short piece about one useful mechanism for analysing and improving the plot of your masterpiece: Grebanier's Proposition.

Round about the middle of the last century, it became obvious that writing for the theatre was a remarkably effective way (at least in principle) of becoming rich and famous, with all the attendant benefits. And so any number of clever men (they were usually men) sat down and tried to figure out the secret of how to write plays which would be smash hits -- every single time.

A German chap called Freytag was, I believe, among the first. Unlike many theorists of the drama who followed him, Freytag had actually written some successful plays, such as The Bridal Journey, a comedy of 1844; he was also a novelist. In 1863 Freytag produced a book called The Technique of the Drama; and in 1894 an English translation became available.

Freytag was followed by literally hundreds of others, most of them out to make a quick buck. And they have their successors today, of course -- although, as the stage has dwindled into a minor art form, most modern theorists tend to concentrate on writing for the movies and television.

At one time in my life -- for several decades in fact -- I made it my practice to read all these books, as and when they appeared, and to research into the older ones too. Not many people, I suggest, have on their shelves a copy of How's Your Second Act?, published in New York in 1918. But I've got one; and a lot more besides.

I could go on for hours, but let us stick to the point: Grebanier's Proposition.

Bernard Grebanier was evidently a professor of English at Brooklyn College, and he wrote a number of scholarly books. In 1961 he produced Playwriting: How to Write for the Theater; and it's still in print. Grebanier's book is, I suggest, not only one of the most valuable how-to books if you're thinking of writing drama (for any medium), but it is also a useful source of ideas for novelists. And the most useful practical tool in it is what Grebanier calls the Proposition: it's a device to assist you with plotting.

Like every other theorist of drama or the novel, Grebanier was much preoccupied with plot. Each and every one of the early theorists was concerned to find the magic formula: to identify the key elements of the successful plot, and so to provide a way to ensure that whoever slotted all those elements into his story would inevitably and invariably produce a sure-fire hit. Sadly, no one has managed it so far.

Also like every other theorist, Grebanier built on the ideas of those who had gone before. And in his case he was particularly impressed by a man called William T. Price (1846-1920). Price had laboured for years to find a logical equation (or the logical equation) in which any sound plot might be stated. Price sought to develop a way of describing a plot with the simplicity of the syllogism of formal logic. So here is an example of a syllogism, which is in three parts:
  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Hence, Socrates is mortal.
And it was Price who developed the first version of the Proposition, which Grebanier describes as 'the most significant contribution to the science of playwriting since Aristotle's Poetics.'

Let's cut to the chase. Grebanier revised and developed Price's work, and in the course of his book he argues that a sound plot -- i.e. one which will hold the attention of an audience -- can be stated as a three part Proposition. Here is the plot of Romeo and Juliet, expressed in Grebanier's terms:
  • Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love with her.
  • He marries her.
  • Will he find happiness with her?
And the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest:
  • Jack asks Lady Bracknell's consent to marry Gwendolen.
  • Jack is forbidden, by Lady Bracknell, to marry Gwendolen unless he can acquire parents.
  • Will Jack succeed in acquiring parents?
A number of points are immediately obvious. First, Grebanier believes that a plot is essentially a question. Will Romeo and Juliet live happily together for the next fifty years? Well we all know the answer to that one, I hope. Will Jack somehow be able to produce a family history and make himself sufficiently respectable to gain Lady B's consent?

This is not the place to reprint the whole of Grebanier's argument. But it is important to note, for instance, that he argues that the three stages of his Proposition have a logic and an inevitability about them. There are also certain fixed principles, such as that the third stage always takes the form of a question; and stages one and two always involve the same two characters, the central character and the second character. Romeo and Jack are central characters; Juliet and Gwendolen are second characters. (The identification of these first and second characters is by no means always obvious.)

Perhaps you are unimpressed. However, I can only say that in fifty years of reading both crude and vulgar how-to books on the one hand, and learned scholarly tomes on the other, this is the best I can offer you by way of a good working tool.

Personally, I have found it thoroughly advantageous to consider the plot of anything -- stage play, short story, novel -- in terms of Grebanier's Proposition. Once I have accumulated a certain amount of story material, I find that I then need to sit back and ask myself what on earth this story is all about. What kind of book is it? Which genre does it fit in? What emotion am I intending to create in the reader?

As a part of that process I ask myself which of my various characters is the main character, in Grebanier's terms; which is the second character; and what is the question which the story might be said to be answering.

Of course the only way for you to find out whether this exercise is going to be of the slightest value to you is to read the book for yourself.

If you do so, you will soon find that Grebanier experienced the same problems as everyone else who has sought to analyse great dramas of the past and to isolate their key components -- namely that he sometimes has to force the material to fit his template.

Never mind. Even if he did not find the complete and infallible answer to everything, he did produce a stimulus to useful thought. Which is more than can be said for many.

Coming soon to a blog near you: Grebanier's Climax. (Not nearly as racy as it sounds.)


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting post, Michael. There seem to be paralels between this three-part syllogism and the three-act structure of most(non-literary) modern fiction. Even though it's not straightforward to see if G's proposition is very different from, say, Robert McKee's nomenclature, it can only be a good thing to read what intelligent people have to say about story structure.

(McKee's 'Story' is available from Amazon. I also recommend 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces' by Campbell.)

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I only drew a miserable 63 Percent in our Trinity this side of the ocean. So what do I know of Greek philosophy, except that it seems to begin with a trio of propositions, one of which was cited in your blog.
But how that trio could have been skewed by a sophist. Socrates was a man. Socrates was wise. Therefore, all men are wise.
Now we have Grebanier's proposition.
I am extremely interested in his how-to book on playwriting etc.
But if I meet one more of Carson
McCullers' giraffes countering all that the zebra has said--I'll have to decide that it's just all Greek.

R Koenig said...

Bernard Grebanier was a very brilliant man--The Heart of Hamlet is the most sensible and useful book I know on the interpretation of the hero--but forgive me if this great proposition seems no different from that expounded by Ben Hecht in his play and movie whose title is the first line of the following syllogism.
1. Boy meets girl.
2. Boy loses girl.
3. Boy gets girl.
In other words: Exposition, Conflict, Resolution.

serpitch said...


I too subscribe to Grebanier. Ii is so sensible.

Another theory that I like ia the one that goes:

A loves B madly


he is afraid to tell her because his nose is too long


he uses a friend to pose as the lover

but [etc]

I can't remember who came up with this layout. Do you know/

Thank you.

Frank Bugbee

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Josh said...

Let me second the recommendation of The Heart of Hamlet. Also there's some wonderful biographical information on Grebanier in Alan Wald's Exiles from a Future Time: he was quite a colorful character.

—Josh Lukin

janet grayson said...

It's been years since the last comment on Bernard Grebanier. Is anyone out there? I was a student at Brooklyn College during Grebanier's reign. He was a riveting lecturer, stuck to the text, explicating with asides all the way through. Earnest, adoring students filled the large lecture hall when he took the stage. Shakespeare came alive in Grebanier's hands. How many academics can claim as much staying power? I'm glad to add my note and hope it's read by others of my vintage who had the pleasure of knowing Shakespeare through him.