Thursday, June 7, 2012

JAN BROGAN: Please welcome MARGARET MCLEAN today. An attorney, former prosecutor, and adjunct law professor at Boston College's Carroll School Management, she is the author of the legal thrillers  Under Fire and Under Oath (Forge/MacMillan).   She has co-written a dramatic courtroom play, based on Under Oath, which is in development with the Playwrights and Directors Unit at the Actor's Studio in New York City. 
McLean is the host of the popular radio show, "It's A Crime" on NBC News Radio KCAA in the Los Angeles area where she dishes on  law and crime. Check it out on  She also co-hosts another radio show," The Business of Life" with Coach Ron Tunick in the Los Angeles area - and as if that doesn't keep her busy enough, she is also the  president of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

MARGARET MCLEAN: Last weekend I watched the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, starring Dick York, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly.  Why did I hush my friend when he asked if I wanted a piece of chocolate cake?  That’s not normal for me, but I didn’t care about the cake.  I cared about the characters and what was at stake.  After the movie I read the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and wished I could simply stuff all that drama into a genie’s bottle and uncork it as needed for my books.  Writing is never that easy.  In the alternative, I’m going to read classic plays this summer and stuff all that good writing into a journal.  I can do this.  It only takes a day or two to read a play, and I’ve kicked off the summer with a good one. 
            Inherit the Wind is based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee where the defendant is tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a public school.  It was a courtroom battle between the creationists and the evolutionists; Clarence Darrow verses Williams Jennings Byran.   The play is a reflection of the times for it was first performed in 1955 during the anti-intellectual red scare of the McCarthy era.  I enjoyed the history, but a good play should withstand the test of time.
            Inherit the Wind opens with a crisis or turning point for the town and the characters involved.  The trial is about to begin. There is something big at stake and the audience knows it from the beginning.  It drew me in.  Throughout the play, the trial consumes everyone.  The set includes large windows where the town square can be seen from inside the courtroom, so the town is a character too.   The lawyers create high drama as they battle each other in the sweltering, packed courtroom.  The townspeople know each other, and so do the lawyers—all are connected.  The playwrights create rising conflict between characters who share a long history and care about each other.  They don’t make characters argue for the sake of creating conflict.  When characters care for each other and fight, it increases the stakes.   This rising conflict reveals how each character grows and changes through all three acts.
Crisp dialogue is used to drive the plot and define the characters and setting.  A playwright doesn’t have the luxury of explaining in prose what a character is thinking at any given time.  There are neither wasted words nor filler in this play.  The stage forces the author to show and not tell.  In describing the lawyer who is coming to prosecute the big case, Meeker says: “I seen him once.  At a Chautauqua meeting in Chattanooga.  The tent-poles shook!  Who’s gonna be your lawyer, son?”  I loved those lines.  The audience knows this guy is going to be a loud, boisterous orator, a force to contend with.
As I embark on this summer of plays, I’ll be entertained by the masters and will hopefully come away with some tips on how to write dialogue, conflict, and create characters that an audience will care about.  My daughter Sarah just gave me the complete works of William Shakespeare for my birthday.   I’m thrilled.  Join me and we’ll pick the next play. 


  1. I, too, love to read and study plays. If you haven't tried him yet, may I recommend Harold Pinter. He writes emotional plays with stunning dialogue.

  2. Hi Margaret,
    Great to have you here (and happy birthday, again!)Inherit the Wind is one of my all-time favorite movies and the Spencer Tracy/Frederic March version is the best. The language is incredible. Not a wasted word and as you point out even the secondary characters come to life with just a few sentences. ("My wife works on the religion, I just work at the feed store.") It's so good to be reminded of that when we sometimes feel the need to give every physical detail of a character in order to describe him.

  3. Margaret, so many things I learned about you today! You never told us about writing plays and hosting radio shows--fascinating.

    We did INHERIT THE WIND in high school--not our usual light musical and not quite Spencer tracy either:). Would love to hear more about the process of writing a play--and your new book!

  4. I love reading plays, too -- and of course they are great lessons in dialogue.

    But write one? I am in awe. It seems like the HARDEST of all the formats. You've got no setting or viewpoint to prop up your story; that dialogue is just naked on the page.

    Hope the Under Fire catches fire for you...

  5. Jack,
    I'm going to check out Harold Pinter!

    The thing about plays, I think, is they consolidate the drama into relationship conflict - and at a real peak moment.

    I love going to community theatre productions of plays (not musicals) in the summer - where can get a seat up close and just get lost in the material.


  6. Welcome, Margaret! I'm putting UNDER FIRE on my TBR list. I love good courtroom drama and legal thrillers. (Probably from my years as an administrator at a law school.)

    I, too, love to read good plays to learn from them. When I wrote my play, it was one of the hardest and most exhilarating things to do, and when it was produced, working with the actors and director was great fun--and sometimes frustrating. When we write books, we keep control, but plays and films are communal businesses. You have to make room for other people's interpretations, even if they differ from what you intended.

    I think the only thing better to read to learn concision is poetry, but plays also are fantastic for learning the bones of dramatic scenes and conflict.

    What I want to know is how Margaret works in New York and hosts radio shows in LA? Special powers? I'd like some of those, please.

  7. Oh, how wonderful! My favorite play--let's see.Besides Shakespeare..I'd say Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

    Brilliant dialogue, brilliant story, brilliant theme. I cried for WEEKS. And I bet I still think about it every week.

    Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead , also a Stoppard, is fantastically clever. He's amazing.

    I do love Inherit the Wind.. too. How bout Witness for the Prosecution? Or--Compulsion! (Was that a play before it was a movie?)

  8. Love that movie! Brilliantly written, directed, and cast.

    And a summer of playreading -- how excellent. Anyone who can write a play -- or a screenplay -- clearly has superpowers.

  9. I love that movie too. And I think it helps most fiction writers to think of their books as a series of visual scenes, imagining their characters interacting on stage--where they stand and how they stand in relationship to each other.
    I started life writing radio and TV plays and this has definitely helped me.

  10. Hi Margaret--I haven't seen the movie since I was a child--didn't remember that Gene Kelly was in it! Going on my list, though, and I love the idea of reading plays. I get a lot of inspiration from watching good British television for the same reasons. Such wonderful, clever language, used so economically.

    I've never read Pinter, Jack, or Stoppard. But I will.

    Good luck with Under Fire, Margaret! That's going on my list, too!

  11. Thank you for all the insightful comments! I now have Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard on my summer reading list. The process of writing a play is tedious and takes years. I have a co-author for the play Under Oath, Avram Ludwig. In fact, his dad was in the original Inherit the Wind in 1955 at the Lyceum Theater in NYC. We work together on Skype to make changes and then see it performed at the Actors Studio where we get critiqued. We've had approximately 6 performed readings. We're also in a play writing group every Monday afternoon at the studio and we workshop various scenes with our cast. It's so much fun to work with the actors.

  12. Sam Shepard's got some good plays, too. And, who wrote "Equus"? That play: wow.

    This blog post gets me thinking that I need to watch more classic movies! Maybe that should be one of my summer goals. :-)

  13. Lisa: Peter Shaffer wrote "Equus . . . ."
    Some productions that were particularly thought-provoking or just plain really good theatre: Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Peter Nichols's "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," "Jimmy Shine," and "The Fantastiks."

  14. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY - great dialoging play... And there's something about the presence of theatre that lifts the words to more than thoughts... yup. Harold Pinter. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Jean-Claude van Itallie. Yup. Words alive.

  15. Lisa... Sam Shepard, yes of course... what did you think of Icarus' Mother? I was too young when I worked on it... staged reading, I think... Theatre Company of Boston at the old Hotel Touraine... long time ago. Whew. I had no idea what it was about, but I was still a teenager.

  16. Hi Reine. Funny you should mention that because I remember his one-acts from my high school drama days. As I recall, I didn't get Icarus' Mother either. I remember assuming that since I didn't get it, the play must be really deep and intellectual indeed. :-)

  17. Lisa.... aahhhhahahahaaahaha. Sam Shepard was deep, but he didn't talk much. Maybe that's why I thought he was deep. Haven't seen him since, except in the movies.