No idea, I tell you!!!
Hey there, Internet. I know, I know. I’m the worst.
So maybe I’ve settled into more of a biweekly bloggering schedule than the weekly one I initially imagined, back when I was young and bursting with life and the world still glistened with hope. And maybe that biweeklyness even includes the laziest of blog entries, re-blogs. And maybe the only reason for this decrease in productivity is that I am a bitter old man now, and wish to be left alone with my thoughts, and my gruel.
Blah blah blah, excuses. Really I’m just prioritizing my writing time to focus more on writing the actual book series I keep plugging here. But I’m back now, wearing my blogging cap, ready to FINISH WHAT I STARTED. Now where was I? Ah yes, saying witty, urbane, insightful things. Allow me to resume!
The wonderful thing about writing novels is that you’re writer, director, actor and designer all rolled into one. For someone like myself, who got tired of collaborating with other – ugh – humans, this is utterly freeing. But it also adds layers of complexity to the work. What makes being a director so demanding and also so interesting is that you have to wear so many very different hats. Top hats and safari hats and baseball caps and that hat Sherlock Holmes wears (Deerkiller? Deerslayer? Kingslayer? I’m pretty sure it’s kingslayer).
Actors get to claim the title of “triple threat” if they’re equally adept at acting, singing and dancing. But as storyteller-in-chief, you need an equally diverse bag of tricks. Being able to artfully stage a musical number or a massive fight scene has exactly nothing to do with the psychological version of Minecraft you have to constantly play with the actors’ brains, which in turn has exactly nothing to do with the art of decoding a play’s BIG THEMES and then activating them in ways that are clear without being heavy-handed. Some directors are purely visual (Zach Snyder, latter-day George Lucas). At the other extreme are the ones who really only care about the intimate psychological stuff (you will know them by their inability to shut up about Chekhov). Some are art designers at heart (Wes Anderson, Tim Burton). Some are concept-driven eggheads (Terrence Malick, whoever runs your local professional theater), and some are just choreographers pretending to be directors (Rob Marshall, whoever runs your local community theater).
As a writer, you have to be all these things and more: you’re also designing the set, the costumes, the sound, the lighting, the special effects, etc. All of which is to say that I’m not sure why, in retrospect, I thought I could limit this topic to just five posts. But for me, here’s what it ultimately comes down to: the most fun I have as a writer is when I’m revising, and the reason it’s so fun is because it allows me to utilize the one skill that all good directors need to have more than any other. Namely, the ability to look at something and know immediately what’s wrong with it and how to make it not suck quite so hard.
So here I go: these are the kind of things I think about after I’ve completed my first terrible draft of a book, when I’m ready to stand back and level upon it the cold, penetrating gaze of a director.*
* Will this post run long? Yes. But you’ll have two weeks to read it!
1. Boil it down.
To shamelessly plagiarize Mike Nichols, there are only three types of scenes: negotiations, seductions and fights. Honestly, I could just stop here. This advice is that good. It’s the Grand Unification Theory of storytelling, the most succinct and practical way anyone has ever managed to combine the two major things that drive drama: motivation and tactics. Who’s driving the bus in this scene? What are the competing needs and agendas? And, equally important: what’s at stake? Because if I know that if I can’t communicate that the stakes are insanely high for the characters, the reader won’t feel like there’s any reason to keep reading.
2. Secrets and lies are better than no secrets and lies.
Is everyone being too damn straightforward? Would it be more dramatically interesting if a character actually wasn’t being honest after all, or had an ulterior motive I never considered? Look, not every book has to be GAME OF THRONES, but what makes those stories so compelling is that George RR Martin isn’t afraid to make every character at least a little bit weird and creepy. (Note: weird and creepy is infinitely better than boring). Every scene is a treasure box of tiny possibilities, a Choose Your Own Adventure book where there’s a new choice every three sentences, the ramifications of which will Butterfly-Effect the crap out of the rest of the manuscript. And there’s almost always a more dramatically interesting choice to be made than whatever you’ve already written.
3. You wanna be on top?
Want to know the secret ingredient of good drama? The one thing that really good actors and directors think about constantly? One word: status. Who is using high-status behaviors – intimidation, directness, deliberate slowness, boasting/humblebragging – to get one they want, and who is using low-status behaviors – obsequiousness, yielding, pity-seeking, constantly posting selfies in a desperate bid for validation?
4. Stupid glyphs.
Try to think of each scene in metaphorical terms. What kind of animal would it be? What color is it? What does it taste or smell like? I once worked with a director whose entire concept for a production of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR was the image of a child being sexually assaulted. Note: this never happens in that play. But this was, for him, what the play was. And this led to interesting choices in terms of how he blocked it and coached the actors, and it guided the designers’ choices too. Would I ever recommend that someone take on a project with nothing more than a simple reductive glyph to guide them? No, that guy was crazy. (Although I’ve read that some pretty famous directors work exactly this way).
5. Cry face.
There is a lot of confusion out there on the topic of emotion. Ask yourself this: when do you cry during a movie, and when does a movie’s attempt to make you cry make you reach for the popcorn? There’s not necessarily a universal answer for this, and your goal isn’t necessarily to elicit tears from your reader, but here’s a fun thing to keep in mind: audiences tend to respond emotionally when they see a character fighting back tears, because they want to cry for the character. When characters on screen or stage start blubbering, it generally just makes viewers feel awkward. And giving the characters an emotional catharsis can be dangerous for another reason: it signals that their story is kind of over.
6. Feel the flow.
The very last thing I think about – as both a director and, I’ve found to my surprise, as a writer – is the all-important question of pacing and rhythm. It’s a little trickier with books because readers will read at their own pace – you can’t really control that – but there are still ways to modulate a scene’s flow, the almost musical way that it moves. I read it and read it and read it again, looking for stubborn little nuggets that trip up the eye and slow things down, like overly tedious bits of visual description or moments where I’m just trying too hard. At other times, a scene may feel like it’s flowing too fast, making characters appear hasty and thoughtless.
7. Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laaaaugh.
Well, here it is: the single most important thing, and that’s final. No argument. There are always, always, almost always opportunity for humor in a scene. Humor that’s bright or absurd or witty or obnoxious or ugly. Humor that springs forth from the characters: who they are, and what they need, and how freaking badly they need it, and how they express that. Humor that springs forth from your own meta understanding of the ridiculousness of the world you’re creating. Humor that shows the audience that your characters are able, somewhere, somehow, to derive joy form the world. There’s a reason why the Marvel movies have utterly and completely taken over the box office (other than just the obvious reason, NONSTOP AWESOME). It’s the same reason why Pixar has outshone all its competition for years and years and years. There’s a reason why these movies succeed and thrive via the power of word-of-mouth. If you can make an audience laugh early on, you have got them. You have their attention. They are clay in your hands. They will stay till the end, even if your story is riddled with plot holes and all manner of nonsense, and even if it goes to incredibly dark places. They will stay till the end because you have made them feel that you, as a storyteller, are intelligent, and trustworthy, and that your story is going to be worth their time. This is the power of funny. If your story is relentlessly serious-minded and earnest, you will be testing your audience’s patience. And you risk losing them forever.
Did I leave anything out? Yes, so much. I cut an entire section on Blocking, because you sometimes have to kill your darlings in this line of work. Should I be focusing more on my actual job that I’m getting paid for? Only Suspicious Anna can answer that.
Are there specific directors or filmmakers that influence your creative process? Let me know using the little Reply button down below!
5 thoughts on “Stuff I Learned About Writing from Directing Theater or Something Like That PART FIVE: Think like a director, because writers have no idea what they’re doing.”
Love all of this advice! There’s so much good stuff here that I can’t even comment on it all individually. Although I will say, the “negotiations, seductions and fights” line is super interesting and I’m bookmarking that into the back of my brain. I’ve also heard that all scenes should either progress the plot or establish character, but who says you can’t establish character with two people brawling or banging? 😛
That’s exactly right! I think all plot and character needs to be established through some kind of action, otherwise it gets really “telly” instead of “showy.” I can’t think of any better ways to do it that aren’t (literally or figuratively) brawling or banging!!
Love all of this even if it blatantly screams that you care nothing for hard earned luaus!
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Your points about the cry face and making ’em laugh hit home. It does seem like regardless of the quality of the film/TV show/book, as long as there’s something in it that inspires crying or laughter, the work gets redeemed in some way. I think humour is harder to execute successfully than crying. There’s a host of universally depressing and unfortunate events, but inspiring laughter within the context of the book is harder to do.
This explains why I hold the works that get me to laugh, regardless of genre, in much higher regard than the ones that make me cry (with the exception of Blade Runner, which, truth be told, is an exception in a lot of categories).
Great article and insights! Looking forward to your new posts, whenever you have time.
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Thanks! An acting teacher told me once that most people spent 90% of their lives on the verge of tears. It’s not super hard to get audiences or readers to cry, because they so badly want the catharsis. But yeah, humor is the tactical nuclear warhead of good storytelling. So hard but so worth it!
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