Stuart Greenman: The Turn of the Ratchet
After years of writing plays, reading about writing plays, and pondering the writing of plays, I was left with a simple question unanswered: What exactly makes a scene? Besides a bunch of characters entering, talking themselves blue, and exiting, what‘s got to happen for an audience to feel, “Ah, a scene. Satisfying! What’s next?”
I don’t mean French scenes, which change whenever someone blinks, but solid, thumping, regular scenes that end when the stage goes dark or is deserted for a deliberate pause, allowing the audience to take a breath and recenter itself while the set is magically transformed.
There were doubtless many answers out there to the question “What makes a scene?” but they eluded me. And so, gradually, I fashioned my own, one that has served me for many decades as a solid technique for structuring a whole play as well as component scenes. When I taught playwriting, my students found it invaluable. In fact, in the writing workshops I’ve taken, fellow attendees have deemed it surprising and useful. I call it the ratchet method.
The ratchet method complements Stanislavski’s script-analysis system for actors, detailed in An Actor Prepares and in countless subsequent Method-acting manuals. If you’re not conversant with Stanislavski on what an actor needs from a script, do add An Actor Prepares to your reading list. You’ll gain an invaluable skill: how to think like—and write for—actors.
The ratchet method presents another perspective: how to write for an audience.
A ratchet is a gear that can turn in only one direction. When it advances, there’s no going back. The presence of at least one ratchet is what turns a stretch of dialog, however long or short, into a scene. Theatrically, nothing of interest transpires from an audience perspective—however long the characters talk, argue, or shriek at one another, even if they come to blows—until a ratchet clicks forward. However much sound and fury the playwright whips up, the audience remains unfazed until that irreversible moment occurs, because a play is a set of characters impelling themselves toward their fates, one inexorable step—one ratchet click—at a time.
When a ratchet advances, every person in the auditorium registers it at some level. The audience releases a collective “Oh!”.
There are three types of dramatic ratchet:
- An irreversible event occurs
- A character comes to a realization
- The audience has a revelation
Let’s look at each type.
An irreversible event occurs
The event might be startling: a body is found; a character drinks poison and dies onstage. The event might even occur offstage: to take a well-known example from Norway, the protagonist exits and moments later a gunshot rings out. “Oh!” The moment needn’t be violent or sudden: a character slips the only copy of a manuscript—her own or another character’s—from its drawer and pours ink all over it.
The quietest action qualifies if it signals an irreversible event:
[Answers the phone.]
Oh hi, darl—
[His face falls.]
Ah, a lover.
What should I do with your mail?
The character precipitating the ratchet in the preceding example can change her mind later, of course, and return home, but that constitutes another ratchet. Her first action must have a permanent effect, such as the birth of John’s fatal mistrust of her, to be a ratchet. Otherwise, the event is simply a random agitation without dramatic weight.
A character comes to a realization
The realization may be about herself, another character, or about what to do next—a decision. Often, the character labors toward the realization or decision in a monolog, especially a soliloquy. Perhaps we see her arguing with herself. For example, she may: be struggling with a religious vocation that would require her to abandon her partner; be pushing herself to take vengeance on another character, no matter the price; be deciding that she’ll abandon a romantic pursuit to avoid the risk of being rejected.
To function as a ratchet, a monolog must reveal the speaker’s journey from a known state to an unknown one. It cannot merely describe an emotional stasis, no matter how profound or how rich the language it’s painted with.
Let’s look at a famous monologue that seems on its surface to be just such a static piece. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” intones Macbeth, and on he goes, and on, and on. Is he merely philosophizing, making great, sweeping Observations About Life in his bitterness, iterating foregone conclusions? Of course not.
Actors and directors have interpretive latitude, so Macbeth’s speech is open to infinite variations, but it has to function as a psychological ratchet if it is to function at all. Macbeth changes while speaking those lines. He does not merely recite what he knows. Or cue subscriber yawning.
The former Thane of Cawdor is trying to recover from a foundational shock—the news of his wife’s suicide, delivered moments before—and groping toward a vision of life, however bleak, that can accommodate her absence, if barely, in its bleakness. As he speaks, he is discovering that vision, image by image. By soliloquy’s end, he has swallowed down and can coexist with the formerly unthinkable. To maintain some degree of mental balance, he has reached a more profound numbness than he had dreamt was possible. He stands in an unutterable place, alone. The ratchet has turned.
Ian McKellen’s version of the soliloquy, from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth (1979), embodies this interpretation with breathtaking intensity. Both the soliloquy itself and a film of the entire production are available on YouTube.
The audience makes a discovery
A ratchet can advance even when nothing irrevocable takes place onstage if the audience has an epiphany about the persons or the world of the play:
[Susie in her apartment, confronting the door, an open liquor bottle dangling from her hand. A soft scratching comes through the door.]
Who is it?
[The sound continues.]
Who is it?
[The sound continues, more urgent. Now there is a light rapping.]
[The rapping grows louder. Something moves urgently against the door. Susie begins to shake, near tears. The rapping becomes a huge, terrible pounding.]
I’m here, I’m here!
[The door bursts open. Kiki stumbles in. She rushes to embrace Susie, both women excited, laughing, sobbing. They drink.]
Now your turn.
[Susie exits, closes door. Kiki stands in the middle of the room, the liquor bottle dangling from her hand. There is a soft rubbing against the door.]
Who is it?
At scene’s end, the audience realizes they’re watching a game. Nothing in the play has changed but the audience’s understanding of Susie and Kiki. They realize the lengths Susie and Kiki will go to for a thrill. “Oh!”
Ratchets aren’t meant to be shaken onto a play like pepper to liven up the dull stretches but must be judiciously placed, as steppingstones for the audience. Where do you want to lead them? At play’s end, what do you want them to know and feel? What final ratchet will you, the writer, have advanced in their hearts and minds?
Stuart Greenman was born and grew up in Chicago and currently makes his home in Seattle. He began his theatrical career as an actor in Chicago. He also taught speech for actors at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. In Seattle, he taught for a number of years in the University of Washington’s Certificate in Playwriting program and at Freehold Theatre. His play Silence, Cunning, Exile was developed in part at the Sundance Institute’s Playwrights Lab. The play had its premier at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA., and later was produced by the Public Theatre, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and other companies around the country. It was also published in American Theatre Magazine. The Boston Globe named the ART production one of the top five productions of the Boston/New York theatre season that year, and the play was highly praised by John Lahr in The New Yorker. His play What I Tell You in Darkness was workshopped at Seattle Rep with Kevin Tighe in the lead role and was also given a public reading at the Public Theatre. It was produced in Seattle by Golden Fish Theatre. In 2021, his play Coda for a Christmas Carol was presented in a rehearsed reading on Zoom for an invited audience. It was dramaturged and directed by David Ian Lee, co-Artistic Director of the Pipeline Collective, Nashville, TN.