Writing & Theatre Thoughts

The Ancient Tradition – Before movies, before books, before plays – from the earliest times humans have always been storytellers.
Around the campfire our ancestors shared myths of monsters and heroes, tales of good and evil, told directly, simply and without the need of special effects and symphonic scores.
In ancient amphitheatres, with no scenery to set the story, narrators evoked other times and distant places through words alone.
That is the tradition writers aspire to.
To connect directly with the audience.
To tell a story.

With Forgiveness – Many of the characters in Black Bottle Man make the gravest mistakes of their lives because of a mistaken belief in the righteousness of their own actions and motives.

In my life, I’ve learned how wrong I can be – and that with forgiveness, there’s always hope.

Utter Believability – My drama teacher for five years was the amazing Nancy Drake. One of the lessons she drilled into us was this: “Acting is a specific reaction to a particular set of circumstances in which you believe utterly.”
Break that down:
“A specific reaction” – general, vague reactions like “I’m annoyed” are out. No small emotions. Show us only specific recognizable and strong reactions to what your character sees and knows.
“to a particular set of circumstances” – It is this moment in time that you care about.
“in which you believe utterly.” – If you don’t believe, then why should the audience?
The application of this type of theatre principle to writing a novel is obvious. Writing must be specific.
Each character must react to the particular circumstances.
Each character must be able to believe in what is happening, and the actions they are taking in response.
If you ever catch yourself writing “Tom knew he shouldn’t be doing this, but…” think again. The circumstances, his needs, must COMPEL Tom to do what he is doing.

Poetics – Elements of Drama – In Poetics by Aristotle the six elements of drama are outlined. It is the first three which are most relevant to the novelist.
First Element – Thought/Theme/Ideas
What the play means as opposed to what happens (the plot). The abstract issues and feelings that grow out of the dramatic action.
Second Element – Action/Plot
The events of a play; the story as opposed to the theme; what happens rather than what it means.
In the plot characters are involved in conflict that has a pattern of movement. The action and movement begins from the initial entanglement, through rising action, climax, and falling action to resolution.
Third Element – Characters
These are the people presented in the play that are involved in the perusing plot. It is essential that each character should have their own distinct personality, age, appearance, beliefs, background and language.
Over 2,000 years later, he still knows what he’s talking about.

The Short Prologue – 106 words – out of over 25,000 words – that’s the prologue to Romeo and Juliet – written at a time when even a letter would have a lengthy prologue of flowery greetings.

(Note – Each of the following author’s works are deserving of rich praise. I am simply using their works as examples because these books are so well known.)

Compare that with:

  • The Da Vinci Code – with a relatively brief prologue – three pages – eight times as many words.
  • Water for Elephants– a mere four pages.
  • Stephen King’s It – over 100 pages.
  • The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan – from book six onwards usually 50+ pages.
  • Michael Crichton’s State of Fear – one third of the book.

Why is this is so? Perhaps, the perceived demand for longer books, so that readers get “their money’s worth”? Is it something some forms are more prone to?

Emotional Truth – Grief is Simple & Direct – One thing that Shakespeare can teach us is how emotions affect the language a character uses.

Read aloud these lines from the scene in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet has faked her death.
CAPULET – “O child! O child!
my soul, and not my child!
Dead art thou!
Alack! my child is dead;
And with my child my joys are buried.”

We have 26 words – five are “child” and five are “my”. At the same time as Capulet speaks, her Nurse says this:

NURSE – “O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!
Most lamentable day, most woeful day,
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woeful day, O woeful day!”

In 44 words we have “O” seven times, “woeful” six times, and “day” ten times.
Shakespeare’s lesson is this – Immediate grief makes our speech patterns simple and direct.


Why theatre matters to modern writers – Why should I look to theatre for ideas about writing a novel or short story?
Contrast this wonderful quote by Hugh MacLennan who won five Canadian Governor General’s Awards

“A novel must be exceptionally good to live as long as the average cat.”

with the fact that people have been performing the best plays for hundreds of years (400 for Shakespeare) and thousands of years (for the Greeks).
Hugh MacLennon books: Two Solitudes, The Watch That Ends the Night, Barometer Rising, Each Man’s Son, Voices in Time, Return of the Sphinx, The Precipice.

Overlapping Lines – In real life we are often able to see where things are going in a conversation.  So we may start responding before the other person is done speaking.
This is overlapping. We do it all the time.
In theatre performance there are many places where overlapping lines can give the scene an energy and urgency that is tremendously appealing to the audience.
But there isn’t really an equivalent format for this in novels or short story writing. The closest we can get to this as writers is the interruption.

Three Juliets and One Romeo – In my 2010 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet I asked three female actors to share the stage simultaneously as three aspects of a single character.
They were Juliet: Innocent child – rebellious teen – passionate woman.
Crossing the thresholds of a young adult life together, those three actors gave us new insights into a complex and intriguing character.
The strength and subtly of Juliet’s relationships:
with her Nurse, with her father and mother, Lord & Lady Capulet, and of course, with her first and only love, Romeo
– is one of the true tests of this play.
Many modern interpretations of Romeo and Juliet place the main emphasis on the romantic theme of first love, forgetting that in Shakespeare’s time, this was a cautionary tale. The lives of everyone connected to this young couple are profoundly affected by their secret love and untimely deaths. Passion has ruled and ruined many lives. Four hundred years after it was written Romeo and Juliet still has truths to tell us.

Building an Alliance with the Reader – Many writers use the unreliable first-person narrator.
Their story is told from a single viewpoint and you can’t be sure if the narrator’s interpretation of events is accurate.
That was an important development in modern literature, but with Black Bottle Man I wanted my readers to be my allies in this story.
The only way for that to happen is for them to implicitly trust that they are being told the truth.
When a story is told by a variety of characters and all their versions match, the level of trust between reader and writer grows and the reader can lower his guard, connecting on a more emotional level.

The Three Norns of Our Town – In 2008 I directed a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
These are my director’s notes from the program.

“No curtain. No scenery.” These four opening words in the stage directions for Our Town by Thornton Wilder tell you that something different is coming.
Our Town is a radical play. When first produced in 1938 it broke many long-respected dramatic conventions.
By shifting time and place at the wave of a hand; by allowing characters to talk openly and directly to the audience; by eschewing complex sets & scenery and by allowing the audience’s imagination full rein to create the world of small town America, Our Town threw the theatre critics for a loop. And audiences loved it.

These things; breaking the fourth wall – time shifting to tell a character’s back story, and so on, are so much a part of our visual media today, television and movies, that we can’t imagine a day when plays and books and films were all linear. Who could create a TV show like Lost without flashbacks? Who could imagine Boston Legal or Arrested Development without characters who speak directly to the viewer?
So I have taken Mr. Wilder’s affinity to breaking with convention as an invitation to do so ourselves.
If you have seen Our Town before, you will know that as written, the play calls for a single narrator – a man – called “The Stage Manager”. His role in many ways harkens back to the ancient Greek chorus – intended to help set the scene and move the narrative along. But this leaves the Stage Manager outside of the world and robs him of any serious dramatic conflict.
So instead, in homage to the Greek chorus that spawned him, for our production this single male character has been multiplied and expanded into a trio of women – the Maid, the Mother and the Crone, who, like the mythical Norns watch over humanity – and spin, measure and cut the threads of Fate. This trio opens a doorway in the play to conflict, humour and drama.
Similarly, I have ignored Mr. Wilder’s admonition to downplay the humour. For the Third Act to achieve its fullest impact, I believe that we as an audience must come to love these families. And shared laughter is the first step to love.