Spectacle and the Art of Blowing Things Out of Proportion by Carey Seward

When I was considering what to write for this blog post, I thought about what superpowers playwriting can share with other writing genres. One major difference between most forms of writing and playwriting is that a play is incomplete on the page. As a novel requires a reader and their imagination to participate in consuming the novel, plays require a production to complete the process. Plays are blueprints, containing three of four art dimensions, yet writing a play also provides a freedom not present in other forms. Once you are done with your poem, it is on the page and presented. Once the play is written, the next team moves in to bring the flat words into the physical world. That is where we come to the most exciting element of playwriting: spectacle.

Aristotle’s basic elements of drama are Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Spectacle and Song. The first four of these elements are common to most forms of writing, as we all hope to have a thrilling plot, distinct characters, a poignant theme, and dialogue that sparkles. Spectacle and Song are not to be forgotten and are necessary to a great night at the theater. Spectacle is defined as something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining especially: an eye-catching or dramatic public display. There are many ways to imbue playwriting with moments of spectacle to liven up any story.

I keep thinking of a moment from “Project Runway” where a struggling seamstress was in her tiny apartment, sewing a very expensive wedding dress. She was hand stitching some white beads onto the nearly finished, sparkling white garment, a dress that would be worth thousands upon delivery. The very large, white dress was filling the screen when she pricked her finger. All of sudden, the blood became the central focus of the story. This drop of blood, although tiny, filled the mind of the seamstress.

If your character’s world is destroyed by that drop of blood, how can we magnify the tiny drop to fill the stage so the audience understands the magnitude? An audience won’t be able to see a tiny drop of blood, but I could write a stage instruction like: “As the drop of blood falls on the dress, the entire dress instantly turns red,” or “the room fills with blood,” or “her whole world is drenched in blood.” What could stage magic do with this moment? Anything! Your talented team of designers will think of a hundred ways to stage that moment so that the audience feels the complete devastation that this drop of blood entails. However, the writer must focus on the important moment, metaphor or image so that everyone knows what to convey.

Another way to pump some spectacle into your story is to set a scene in a fun location. What happens if they have this conversation at the State Fair, at the aquarium, at a birthday party, at the circus, in a mall at Christmas, at recess on the playground, in an airport, underwater, or even in space? What if a class of tap dancers shows up? Or what if we are on a volcano or in a hurricane? With the magic of writing, we can go anywhere so don’t be afraid to explore fun, wacky, or insane set pieces to heighten the drama. Spectacle also includes events that can happen in the play. Weddings, festivals, ceremonies, births, funerals, carnivals, plays, parties, dances, and performances of all kinds happen in real life, so make sure your story includes these heightened moments, too. Think of ways to fill the stage, or the mind’s eye, with big, colorful, thrilling moments that add to your theme.

Aristotle also included Song as an element of drama, and dancing and singing are activities people do with alarming regularity. You can throw a song in at any time, an explosion of dance, or a 6-year old who jumps rope across the stage. Characters can express their emotions and thoughts in all different ways so consider a moment of painting, drawing, sign language, playing an instrument, or reciting a poem. Don’t forget how random and expected life can be when writing about it.

One of my favorite examples of spectacle is from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline when, out of the blue, the bard specifies that “Jupiter descends on an eagle.” What a beautiful spectacle he creates with just a few words, and what an unforgettable stage moment. I trust the theatrical designers to be able to figure out anything, but they need blueprints to start from. Just as a playwright needs to make sure to include all of the elements of drama, so should the writer remember to keep the action coming and not be limited by the dull bounds of reality. In fiction, the imagination is limitless so give your readers something to imagine, whether it be a burning barn, the hot death of the universe, or a tiny drop of blood that will ruin a wedding dress. Add a little spectacle and your newest pages will be spectacular.


Carey Seward is a theatre and music artist who lives and creates in Interior Alaska. You can visit her here.

1 thought on “Spectacle and the Art of Blowing Things Out of Proportion by Carey Seward”

  1. Thanks for remembering Aristotle’s “spectacle,” which some critics/writers ignore these days. Fun to read your ideas!

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