I’m just going to go ahead and claim prescience for writing a play about a guy named Paul who leaves the Internet. (We can also rack up a few serendipity points for the fact that the actor playing Paul this summer is the one who pointed this article out to me.) It’s fascinating to see someone dealing in real life with a lot of the themes that made me tackled this subject in the first place, and real-life Paul crystalizes some of the ideas that character-Paul, and everyone else in Paper City Phoenix, give voice to throughout the play. The whole thing’s worth a read, but this stood out:
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
Would Miller’s experiment have been different if nobody else had the Internet, either? Probably. But people who talk about its “detrimental” effect on society often miss that one, central fact: it’s not a thing that we all use from time to time. It’s a whole part of us, by now. It is connection. It is an interface. It’s not just something that disseminates or engages with culture: it is the culture. And so to leave it all behind also means, in many ways, leaving society. Is that scary? Maybe. But no more than saying the same thing about, say, public transportation, or phone service. The Internet isn’t making us become anything; it’s allowing us to become who we’re generally predisposed to be, and also helping us share that person with the world. And that seems like a sum positive, to me.
Last night I wrote a scene for a play that I’d been thinking about in one form or another for around a year now. It was a moment that occurred to me right after having the idea for the play that it’s in, and in the initial research (i.e. walking around listening to music/staring off into space) phases of the process, it was the one that I could see most clearly, and that I returned to the most. When I sat down to start writing I figured that it wouldn’t be the first scene, but it’d be close to the beginning; maybe the start of Scene Two, Scene Three at the latest. But as I kept writing, the moment kept moving; always just a little bit later, just a little bit further ahead. “Oh, that can’t happen yet,” I’d say to myself. “This other thing needs to get established first.” Or, “It doesn’t fit here, but the next big beat that arrives will be good for it.” I constantly had this moment dangling in front of me, and like a carrot on a stick it kept hanging there, juuuust close enough to picture but not yet right for the scene.
And then, finally, last night, I cornered it. I’d written my way to a place that I knew needed this moment, deeply, desperately. There was no better moment for this moment than now. It was time. It was happening. The scene I’d been loving in my head for a year had arrived…
And I froze.
I got up from the computer. I got a drink. I went to Twitter. I finally got yelled at by Annie, because she’s on to my tricks, and only then, only then, did I sit down and write it. And it worked! It was wonderful. It was exactly where it needed to be, and it was fun. I got to forge onward, happy, knowing that I had delayed my gratification until just the right time, even though I’d been wanting to write the scene from even before I was writing the play.
Or had I?
This kind of moment occurs a lot when I’m writing, and I think it tends to be for two main reasons. The first is the obvious one, and was captured perfectly by another awesome writer, as she yelled at me over Twitter. (I got yelled at a lot last night.) It was, as she put it, performance anxiety. All that build-up, all that excitement, I’d put this moment up on a pedestal and now that I’d gotten to it I was terrified that I’d mess it up. It’s always better in our heads, after all, and so of course it was scary to finally try to translate what’s in our heads on the page.
But I think there’s another reason, too, and I think it relates to why I almost always wind up cutting my favorite lines when I revise. These are lines I love, deeply: funny jokes, touching sentiments, asides that hit just the right tone…and yet nine times out of ten, they’re the lines that I end up cutting when I’m going through and tightening the play as a whole. I think that as writers, we build up these Favorite Things as sorts of totems: little inspirational encapsulations of everything that we love about the plays that we’re writing. We cram all that information in there, and then we keep it in our minds as an impetus, or a primer, so that we can think about them and remind us why we love the scene we’re working on, or the character who’s voice we’re looking for at the moment. The scene I wrote last night had a little of everything that’s in my play in it, and by constantly keeping it in my mind I made it easier to picture what I liked about all the other scenes and moments I was writing, even when they were staunchly refusing to go anywhere.
That moment from last night was like the primary-stage of the space shuttle launch; it gave me the energy I needed for lift-off, and now that the play is off the ground there’s a very good chance that it’ll be jettisoned for weight, so that the mission can be completed. I won’t know whether that’s the case or not until I get into the second draft process, but I won’t be sad if it does, because even if it gets cut, the moment fulfilled its purpose. And it feels great to have written not just that moment, but the entire play that surrounds it, as well.
As a lot of people who know me could tell you, I’m kind of obsessed with the perils and pitfalls of world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. It’s an endless topic of fascination to me, and so I was pleased as punch when the AV Club did a discussion between editors Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson about just that subject, and the way it pertains to dystopian society books. (Which are also a thing that I have occasional opinions about.)
At the heart of the article is a question: when we read about dystopian societies, do we need to know where they came from? And the answer, after much very interesting back-and-forth that you should go read, turns out to be a resounding…maybe. Yes, sometimes. Some of the time definitely, others not so much.
Keith: [Tasha,] you listed a lot of instances of books and movies that succeeded in part because they filled in the details of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds in which they were set. I’ll co-sign that if you agree that Metropolis wouldn’t be any more powerful if Fritz Lang provided a detailed history of how the class divisions of his film’s world widened. Or that Blade Runner wouldn’t work better if we were given more information about the off-world colonies, or we knew what those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate were, or who revived Pan Am and put up all those neon signs. Or that Sleeper would be funnier if we had a better sense of what happened in the 200 years Woody Allen spent in hibernation. Deal?
I think I’m pretty much with Keith on this one. Tasha is of the mind that most dystopian society stories would be improved if we could see the clear logic of their existence, but I tend to be in the camp that says that’s only necessary if it’s the story you’re telling. The Hunger Games is not the story of a nation’s rise, just as The Lord of the Rings is not about the dawn of Middle Earth. They are each, in their own ways, about the end of the worlds they’ve constructed, and expecting authors to interweave the equivalent of The Silmarillion into their books and still make it interesting just isn’t going to result in a compelling story.
People are weird, and we are never weirder than when we’re trying to talk about what we want. Because we’re wrong, most of the time. We say we want naturalism in theatre, but we also want the living room on stage to only have three walls so we can see what’s going on. We say we want to see our lives reflected back to us, but we often connect more to stories about talking toys or fish. And we say that we want to know the details and history of the worlds that we read about, but then we all skip the Star Wars prequels when they’re on television and watch A New Hope every damn time.
People want as much information as they can get, but as writers it is our job to give it to them in a way that feels like active discovery. We need to make our audiences participate in the uncovering of our worlds. And, at the end of the day, we need to leave them wanting more. Otherwise, how will we ever make any money off of the sequels?
So, word has it that The Hunger Games is a little bit popular these days. Which is great! They’re great books and well-written and, thanks to certain knowledgeable parties, I got them forcefully pushed on to my reading list back before most other folks had even heard of them, and am thus officially cool and hip and cutting-edge. But they’re in the zeitgeist now, and that means two things: an increase in post-apocalyptic YA novels, and the proportional increase in editorials and literary articles wondering what it all MEANS that there are so many post-apocalyptic female teenagers running around.
Over at the American Prospect, Abby McGanney Nolan has an article that cuts through a bit of the psychodrama fat and highlights what I personally think has the most to do with the books’ popularity among readers: agency.
Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker, critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to the oppressive world of high-school students, who are constantly monitored and hassled and forced to compete.
Neither theory quite pins down the appeal of the new damsels in distress: They’re not waiting for someone else to save them or the world.
Nobody likes being a victim. Nobody likes being powerless. Nobody likes feeling like things are just happening to them, and that they exist only to be happened upon. And, lo and behold, people have a hard time connecting to characters who don’t exist with any agenda outside of the characters around them.
Easiest way to avoid that? Don’t victimize your characters. Oh, sure, be mean to them. Put them through the wringer. Let awful things come their way that they have to deal with. But then make sure that they actually do deal with it, and attempt to overcome it, all the way up to the end. Even if they don’t end up winning, they should at least go down fighting.
When a character of any gender or ethnicity curls up in a ball, the drama stops. The scene’s over. Nothing is in question any more, because they’ve lost, and if you keep the scene going for much time after that point, you’re just subjecting your audience to a lot of boring spectacle devoid of meaning. With this in mind, of course books like The Hunger Games are compelling; they’re about characters not giving up in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s exciting!
It’s a shame that the gender of those characters is still so worth note these days, but there you have it. The trick to writing compelling female characters, or male characters, or minority characters, or characters of whatever descriptor doesn’t apply to you? De-victimize them. Give them an agenda, and respect that agenda, and make them struggle to achieve it no matter what. Because otherwise you might as well just replace them with a big scarecrow with the words “PLOT POINT” written on its chest.
There’s a New York Times article making the rounds (I got to it admittedly late, via Art Hennessey), detailing one of Paula Vogel’s recent “Boot Camp” exercises at Second Stage. And while the Boot Camps themselves are fantastic courses for writers, and I highly encourage anything that gives them more exposure, the quote that has really gotten everybody’s hackles up comes courtesy of “Young Theatre Director” Nicholas Gray, who didn’t like Vogel saying that stage directions can be used to provide different types of moments in plays:
Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.
“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.
Young Master Gray is being, at best, incredibly reductive, and at worst, to use a technical term, a huge haughty jerk. But one thing that I haven’t seen being discussed yet is what led to the attitude Gray and those like him espouse, and what we as playwrights can do to avoid it. In short: we need to make sure our stage directions belong in our plays in the first place.
One of the most common issues that I encounter when I’m teaching playwriting is the idea of Playwright As Director, attempting to dictate the exact pace, location, blocking, and tone of every moment being constructed. It’s a natural inclination: we all have an imaginary stage in our head on which all of our plays are performed by an imaginary ensemble of perfect actors. There are two problems with this, though:
This is not to say that stage directions aren’t useful. They’re immensely useful, but only as a part of the overall experience. Paula Vogel advocates for stage directions that open doors, and play a part in the tone, spirit and approach of your play. Directions that, when you hand them to directors, designers and actors, actually get them excited about the further possibilities provided. Stage directions like “A fuzzy pause,” or “Uh oh,” or “Everything starts changing,” or “The space begins opening,” or, hell, “An angel bursts in through the bedroom ceiling.” These are stage directions as challenges, as collaboration: it’s you saying “Hey, fellow artists, I want something that kinda feels like this, and I know we can all come up with a solution together, so let’s do this thing! Go team!” Even a pause or a beat, properly placed, tells your artistic team more about a moment than a direction that tries to fill that same moment with a specific action. It’s up to the team to figure out how to fill the pause; all you know is that it has to be there. (But, seriously. Make sure it does have to be there.)
Your script is a skeleton that your collaborators build the meat on to, and stage directions are just additional bones in that skeleton. What they are not is an instruction manual on where all the organs and muscles go, and how sarcastically the heart beats. But, of course, it’s hard to let go of that kind of control, and trust your collaborators, and so a lot of writers try to dictate everything and bring their imaginary productions to life on the page. And that leads to Young Theatre Directors who decide that, y’know what? Fuck it. No stage directions for everyone. To prevent further angst in this regard, I propose the following list of Four Types of Stage Directions That Nobody Would Miss And You Should Probably Avoid When Writing:
Really, all these points boil down to one major thought: stage directions shouldn’t be used to tell people how to do their jobs. They’re a part of your toolbox, and your job is to use them to evoke, inspire, and challenge your collaborators. So have fun with them! Obviously every rule I’ve just stated is made to be broken, but recognize that, if you’re not breaking it for a really really good reason, you’re just giving more ammo to every Young Theatre Director out there who wants to justify their laziness by cutting all directions they see.