Posted by: Glenn Pettit | June 11, 2014

Lessons hopefully learned

I always hope that I have learned from what I’ve read and seen, and that I will remember the good stuff and won’t repeat the bad stuff. For example, while I have enjoyed the work of the late Michael Crichton, I found that his exposition concerning characters tended to be a bit long. In fact, a couple of times while reading Crichton’s books, I zoned out as I was reading two pages of backstory on a newly-introduced character, only to find later in the story that out of those several paragraphs of biography, one sentence really did matter. Another example is JRR Tolkien’s works, wherein the greater part of the story is travelogue, while the heroes spend surprisingly little time actually fighting the villains. Sorry, but as much as I enjoyed those stories, I can’t write that way. It pays to know one’s limitations.

I have trained as an actor and director, and so I am very critical of many films I see—and, conversely, very appreciative of good acting. I remember in particular a scene from the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, and watching Simon Callow as he watched a friend’s wedding: how he subtly showed us what he was going through as the events unfolded, rather than telling us. The best actors say very little. When I am reading, I am quite conscious of that same idea: I want authors to tell me what a character is doing, so I can work out their emotions, rather than them telling me that a character was saddened or happy. Actions really do speak louder than words.

I am a very visual person. Like most people, when I see words on a page, I cannot help but picture the scene in my mind. And so when I write, I write what I see and hear in my mind: sounds, smells, sentences/conversations, scenery. Plus, I am acutely conscious of how a scene plays out. Scenes should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Conversations have a flow to them that isn’t just sentence-and-response. Characters have motivations that begin before they enter the scene and often aren’t resolved until the end of the whole story.

I remember reading some letters between the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and his brother, and in one he wrote that you don’t put something onstage or in the scene that you don’t intend to use later. A good example is in his play The Sea Gull. In his stage notes for the first scene, he describes the room with an eye to detail, including a shotgun hanging on the wall. That gun is completely ignored until the final act, when we finally become aware of why it was there. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say, it was an important bit of set dressing. I just hope I have such an eye to details and yet an economy of words.

So, I hope I have learned from what I’ve read and seen. There are many more things that come to mind, but I don’t need to cover them all here. In short, I’m not writing a screenplay, but I hope that what I am writing plays out like a movie I would like to see, complete with great acting and just the right mix of exposition, description, and dialogue–and with none of the bad stuff I wouldn’t enjoy seeing.

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