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The Wicker Man! Don't get on his bad side.

What is psychodrama?

According to the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, psychodrama is “a therapeutic discipline which uses action methods, sociometry, role training, and group dynamics to facilitate constructive change in the lives of participants.” So, well, in short, psychodrama is a therapeutic method where other people act out part of a person’s life with them.
But psychodrama can also be thought of as a specific type of plot dynamic that gets played out in books and films and television. We’ve all seen or read it. It’s the twist where the main character learns that a part of their life has been purposely staged, and that events or relationships they thought were real, are, in fact, not.
Duh, duh, duh….
The word “purposely,” is key here. The psychodrama isn’t just a “reality isn’t what I thought” type of twist. It involves deliberate deception for a particular purpose. M. Night. Shyamalan’s The Village would qualify, for example, but not The Sixth Sense.
I’ll admit I love these kinds of stories. They’re dramatic, they’re angsty, they blur the line between fate and free will, reality vs fantasy. But, like most “gotcha!” plot twists, they are also incredibly hard to pull off without making a reader/viewer feel cheated.
So here are a few psychodrama plot tips I’ve gleaned over the years. I hate being spoilery, especially with books, so when I give examples, I’m going to use famous movies where the psychodrama is so brilliantly executed, that even if you know there’s a twist, it shouldn’t change your enjoyment of the film at all.
  1. Inevitability: when the big plot twist is revealed, the reader needs to have that moment of awareness where they realize that nothing else could actually be the truth. No other alternative makes sense. The 1973 film, The Wicker Man, is an excellent example. When the end comes, you realize that every step, every scene, every action was leading up to one inevitable fate.
  2. No secrets: If secrets are being kept from the main character, the main character cannot keep secrets from readers. This makes everyone cranky. If the key point to understanding what’s going on hinges on the fact that the main character stepped on the antagonist’s pet turtle in fourth grade, that needs to be revealed up front, not in the final chapter.
  3. No such thing as luck: this is sort of tied to inevitability, but speaks more in-depth to the logistics of how the psychodrama is played out. None of the details of the deception should hinge on coincidence. Actions must be deliberate and consequences need to flow naturally from those actions.
  4. No Scooby Doo explanations: well, this always goes without saying, but if the big reveal requires a long monologue or extended explanation, it probably hasn’t been successful. However, I think this can be seen more as a symptom than the actual, underlying problem: that is, the presence of a Scooby Doo explanation is most likely due to a failure in tips (1) – (3).
  5. What are you trying to say? Sometimes it seems like psychodramas are created just for the sake of having a surprise ending (ahem, thevillage, ahem). But really, psychodrama can be thought of as just one of many tools writers can use to explore all sorts of themes and ideas. It doesn’t have to be an end in and of itself. A good film example of this is Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo. Here the “reveal” comes about halfway into the film. It’s not the end of the film, because ultimately the story is not about trickery, it’s about human frailty.
So I’d love to hear from you…what do you think of the ‘psychodrama’ plot twist? Love it? Hate it? Do you have any secrets for making this type of story successful?
Bad case in point: “WB Superstar” was an “American Idol” type reality show where the worst singers were picked, told that they were good, and then were swayed into performing in front of a fake audience that cheered for them. Mean!
Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Great post, Steph!

    I very disliked the "twist" in The Village, but I think it could have been brilliant if executed differently. But I do think this kind of twist is so cool, when done well.

  2. Twist are cool, especially if they catch you off gaurd. Some you can see a mile away and it makes the book tedious.

  3. I think you nailed my love for the psychodrama twist with the whole blurring the line of fate and free will. It gives me the shivers just to think about it. One of those things that terrifies me, but I can't help but be captivated BECAUSE it scares me sort of things.

    That video. D=

  4. It's all about execution. Delivered the right way, psychodrama is that extra zing in a story.

  5. Thanks all!

    Kaitlin, I was disappointed by The Village, too. But lots of people I know loved it. Maybe expectations play into whether it comes together or not?

    Leah: Yes, I feel the same way. It is terrifying to think about!

    Angela: exactly! So true.

  6. GREAT post.

    but off-topic: the burning man effigy burned the day you posted this. was the wicker man pic a coincidence, or deliberate??? because it's sorta tripping me out, man.

  7. It’s really a great and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Kirsten: total coincidence! But maybe the Wicker Man knew something I didn't!


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Item Reviewed: Psychodrama! Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn