David Ball’s BACKWARDS & FORWARDS: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, is one of the best books on writing and analyzing drama that I’ve ever read. It’s certainly my favorite. First published in 1983, BACKWARDS & FORWARDS was out of print for a while, so I hoarded several copies. It seems to have been rediscovered recently, and you, Gentle Reader, should rejoice. Even if you’re not a writer, director, producer, creative director, set designer, or actor–the more this book proliferates, the more long, painful nights at the theater or movies it’s bound to spare you.
Ball breaks down the mechanics of drama and action. It sounds deceptively simple. In truth, it is. Though not always easy. Okay, not ever. If it were easy, every film and play would be riveting. We’d all wear catheters to the theater because running out to use the restroom would be unthinkable.
BACKWARDS & FORWARDS is foremost a manual for technical dramatic analysis–a critical skill for all entertainment professionals. The critical skill. Actors must not only understand what their character wants but how every action they take leads to getting it. An actor who does this will never be worried about what to do with their hands. Directors, producers, creative directors, and agents must have the means to understand whether a story functions, from beginning to end, in order to find great scripts. And let’s face it: Most don’t. They use myriad arbitrary criteria when looking for scripts that often camouflage their defects. Sometimes they get lucky. Set designers must understand the engine of the story so they can create an organic design rather than merely decorate.
As a writer, where it’s helpful when conceiving of a story, BACKWARDS & FORWARDS proves most useful with rewrites. To discover if the events in the story are dramatic or merely sequential. Do the characters’ actions and choices live up to their legend–or do they simply react passively? Do they do anything? How are their actions defining them and driving the story? How do you know if a character is actually “strong?” Drill down to analyze what they do and cause to happen. What are the results of their choices? Ball offers a simple methodology to get to the physics of the play or screenplay.
Throughout the book, Ball refers to Hamlet to illustrate his points. He recommends re-reading (or watching a film or production of) the play before diving into his book. If the prospect of revisiting Hamlet sounds like a banger of an evening to you, you’ll dig BACKWARDS & FORWARDS.