Friday, September 23, 2011

All the World's a Stage

Last time I talked about being a theatre education major during my undergraduate years, even though by that point I knew that I really wanted to be a writer. I've never taught a theatre class in my life, but those years in college were hardly wasted because studying theatre -- and especially acting -- taught me a ton about writing fiction.

Allow me to set the scene for you . . .

A studio classroom in a Midwestern university. Soundproofed walls, carpeted floors, a few chairs lined against the walls. A group of acting students, most in their late teens and early twenties, sit on the floor, dressed in T-shirts, tights or sweats, and leg warmers. I'm one of these students, a sophomore (though I have too much self-respect to wear leg warmers; a man has to draw the line somewhere). This is Dr. Huberman's acting class, and today he tells us we're going to learn about the essence of great drama. He's a tall thin man in his thirties, wearing wireframe glasses, a gray suit, and tie. Standing in the middle of the room like a circus ringmaster, he asks for two volunteers. My friend Doug Blakesly steps forward, as does a woman whose name I've forgotten. Let's call her Katie. Dr. Huberman tells Katie to go stand out in the hall until he comes out to get her. She leaves and shuts the door behind her. Dr. Huberman then gives Doug his instructions.

"We're going to do an improv scene. You're an employee of a company. You've worked there for years. You're wife is very sick, and your insurance won't cover all your medical bills. You've decided to go to your boss and ask for a raise. But you're a proud man, and the one thing you will not do -- under any circumstances -- is tell your boss the real reason you need this raise. You can say anything else you want to say to try to persuade her, but you will not tell her about your wife, and you will not leave her office without getting a raise. Got it?"

Doug nods and Dr. Huberman sends him out in the hall and tells him to send Katie in. She enters and closes the door behind her.

"Katie," Dr. Huberman says, "we're going to do an improv scene. You're a middle-management-level supervisor in a large corporation. Business has been falling off the last year of so, and profits are down significantly. So much so, in fact, that the corporation is in serious jeopardy, though this isn't public knowledge yet. Even most of the company's employees don't know. Because of the current situation, all supervisors have been informed that they cannot grant any raises for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, you're not allowed to discuss the real reason raises are no longer allowed. If someone comes to you and asks for a raise, you can give them any reason you want for turning them down, but the one thing you won't do, under any circumstances, is tell the truth about the company's financial situation. Understand?"

Katie nods. Dr. Huberman goes to the door, opens it, and asks Doug to come in. He then has them pull a couple chairs to the center of the room facing each other, then tells Katie to sit. Doug stands by, ready to enter her imaginary office. Dr. Huberman steps back and gives his customary command for the scene to begin.

"Astonish us!"

The scene begins simply enough. Doug enters and asks if he can speak to Katie. She agrees, he sits and begins making his case for why deserves a raise. He talks about how long he's been with the company, how much time has elapsed since his last raise, and how sales are up in his division because of his leadership. Katie listens, and when Doug is finished, she tells him that while he has been a loyal employee for many years, there are employees with longer tenure who haven't received raises. She goes on to say that while his sales figures are good, others in the company have done better in the last year.

So far, so unremarkable. But then Doug tries again, giving Katie more reasons why he deserves a raise, which she in turn shoots down one by one.

Then something amazing starts to happen. Doug begins to become desperate, and he works harder to convince Katie. And while she clearly sympathizes with Doug, she's beginning to become frustrated with constantly having to rebuff him. The scene goes on like this for several more minutes, with Doug and Katie becoming ever more emotional, to the point where they are close to tears, as are a number of students watching. The atmosphere in the classroom is electric, the air crackling with tension. The scene keeps going -- remember, Dr. Huberman told Doug he can't leave without getting the raise his character so desperately needs, just as he told Katie she can't grant his request. There's no way for the scene to end, not unless one of the actors break the rules. And Doug and Katie refuse to do that. They keep going, keep battling, until they both begin to cry.

Dr. Huberman finally takes pity on them and tells them to stop. Everyone applauds our two emotionally drained classmates, and then Dr. Huberman tells us why what he have just witnessed was so powerful. The essence of good drama is a combination of strongly motivated characters who can not or will not abandon their goals and the conflict that results when those goals are diametrically opposed.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Every basic creative writing text says the same thing, but what I saw that day was that both characters were equally motivated, each just as strongly as the other. And by watching Doug and Katie continually try different approaches to meet their characters' goals, I'd seen an entire dramatic story spun out in front of me from two simple seeds. I learned several vital lessons about writing fiction that day.

  1. All characters in a story need to be strongly and clearly motivated -- not just the main character.

  2. These motivations should in some way conflict with each other.

  3. Characters should not be allowed to abandon their goals, whether because it's in their psychological make-up not to quit or because circumstance won't permit it.

  4. Characters don't believe they're good guys or bad guys. They all do what they do because they truly believe they have to.

  5. During the drafting stage, all fiction writing is improv. Given an initial situation and clear motivations, I could improv scenes and entire stories -- hell, even novels.

  6. Like actors, writers should stay in the moment. During the improv, Doug and Katie didn't know what either of them was going to do next. They had to stay in the moment because they couldn't do otherwise. Each moment of their scene was alive and vital, not rushed through or glossed over. I realized my scenes would be far stronger if I made my characters remain in the moment as well.

  7. Like actors, writers should play the emotion, not the words. Watching Doug and Katie, I realized that while they were speaking, the true scene was taking place beneath their words, in the emotions that they were feeling and struggling to control and conceal. Emotion is where both character and story live. So I decided that when I wrote, I would always consider what emotion underlies a character's every word and action, and I would make sure to "play" each emotion.

  8. It's not what you give characters that makes them interesting; it's what you take away from them. Dr. Huberman took away several options from Doug and Katie, and because of this, their characters couldn't take the easy way out of their situation. They couldn't quit, and they had to keep coming up with new tactics to try to achieve their goals. In addition, they each held on to secrets they wouldn't share. All of this forced their scene into ever more intense and powerful directions. I learned to use the power of "can't" when I write, and it's turned out to be one of the most powerful weapons in my creative arsenal.

So the next time you sit down to write, wait for the house lights to dim, for the curtain to rise, and let the show begin.

Department of Shameless Promotion

Ghost Trackers, the novel I wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the TV show Ghost Hunters, should be out in both trade and mass-market paperback any day now. My horror novel Like Death is going to be released from Apex Book Company in a new edition before too long. I recently wrote a three-part blog about writing Like Death, and you can find it at the Apex site: Just scroll down to find my posts.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Long Hard Road to Becoming Yourself

Let me tell you a story.

I was nineteen years old, a freshman in college. I'd started out as an acting major, but by this time I'd switched to theatre education. I'd already decided that I was going to devote my life to writing, but I figured I needed a job while I was cranking out those first million practice words. I was interested in teaching, and my degree included a concentration in English, so I figured I'd teach high school while I wrote on the side, until I became rich and famous and could retire from teaching to write full time. (However, when I finally did my student teaching my last quarter in college and saw what working in a high school was really like, I lost no time applying for graduate school so I could teach at the college level -- but I digress.)

The best teacher I ever had was Dr. Jeffrey Huberman, the professor who taught my acting class. We all hated him at first because he was strict and demanding, and we were lazy middle-class kids used to vegging out in front of the TV in those pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-video game days (unless you count Space Invaders and Asteroids). But most of all, we hated Dr. Huberman because he refused to accept anything less than great work from us. He repeatedly told us that we all were capable of greatness. We just needed to believe it, reach down deep inside ourselves, and never give anything less than our absolute best. But he didn't do this in a rah-rah cheerleader kind of way. No, his way was absolutely terrifying. He acted as if our potential was a simple fact, no more remarkable than 1+1=2. Whenever we performed a scene in class, instead of saying, "Begin," Dr. Huberman repeated the famous challenge Sergei Diaghilev gave to Jean Cocteau: "Astonish me."

At first we resisted trying to live up to what he believed we could do, but then -- little by little --the scenes we performed in class became electric, alive with tension and passion. Drama in the truest, best sense of the word.

At the time I'd already written a couple unpublishable novels, a dozen or more unpublishable stories, and a couple unpublishable plays. Like a lot of college kids in Dayton, Ohio, I hung out at the weekly midnight Saturday showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Little Art Theatre, and since I'd loved horror all my life, I figured I'd try my hand at crafting a horror musical. So I wrote the script and lyrics for songs. No music, though. I figured I'd need a collaborator for that. You know, someone with actual musical ability. And when I was finished writing, I took everything to Dr. Huberman and -- nervously -- asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. I honestly didn't expect him to do it, figured he was too busy, but he agreed, and a week later he told me to come to his office to talk about my play.

The first thing he did was point to portion of a scenery description I'd written that said " . . . standard horror shit." It had only been a note to myself, and I was embarrassed that I'd forgotten to change it to more professional language. I started to explain that I wouldn't use the word "shit" in the final product, but Dr. Huberman cut me off. It wasn't the expletive that bothered him. It was the word "standard." He said that while there was some fun stuff in my play, most of it was nothing but a rehash of well-worn horror tropes. Why would I choose to write standard anything? After all, I was capable of so much more. He knew it. And, after having been in his acting class for a while at that point, so did I.

So I trashed that version of the play -- though I kept the awful title, Dementia Praecox -- and wrote a brand-new, much more original, and far better version. Which of course still wasn't good enough to be produced, but it was a hell of lot closer.

Dr. Huberman taught me never to settle. Unfortunately, it's a hard lesson to pass on to beginning writers. We all live in a world where the lowest common denominator is king, and mass media is about serving the audience whatever will bring in the most profit as quickly as possible . We watch TV shows and movies that are copies of copies of copies, and just like a degraded Xerox image, resolution is lost with each succeeding generation until the image becomes a meaningless blob. We learn that imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it's one of our culture's most cherished values. And what happens when an original work of art finally comes along? If it becomes popular and makes money -- let the copying and mass production begin!

But the coin of the realm isn't always money. Sometimes it's praise or critical approval. Literary writers are just as capable and guilty of playing the copying game as entertainment-focused writers, even if they often only get paid in exposure (and if they're academics, having something to put on their tenure applications). How many clones of Raymond Carver have their been over the last thirty years? How many short stories dealt with AIDs in the eighties? With cancer in the nineties? With middle-aged children struggling to take care of infirm parents now? Want to write a serious, important literary story? You have to tackle whatever serious subject matter is currently in vogue.

So, whether you write genre fiction or literary fiction, or some blend of both, how do you go about becoming original? Here are some tips.

  1. Read a hell of a lot. You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but far too many beginners want to write without having done much reading. (How and why this occurs is unfathomable to me, and o every other professional writer I've ever spoken with about it. My theory is these beginners would rather be making movies, but that's too much work, involves too many other people , and requires wads of cash, equipment, and technical training, so they settle for trying to write fiction.) The more you read, in and out of your chosen genre, the more you'll come to realize that maybe the world doesn't need any more stories like "The last man and woman to survive the nuclear holocaust are really Adam and Eve!" or "Oh my gosh! The narrator dies in the end and he's really a ghost!" Knowing what's come before will keep you from reinventing the wheel.

  2. Be careful of jumping on bandwagons. Like zombie stories? Want to write a zombie story because they're popular right now and you think you'll have a better chance of selling one? Maybe. But every other eager writer out there is thinking the same damned thing, and they're all writing the same zombie story you are. If you must write a zombie story, try to pursue an angle you haven't seen before. I once had a student write about a man whose dog had become a zombie, and how the man tried to deny what had happened and pretend the dog -- his only friend in the zombie-decimated world -- was still normal. Nothing standard about that.

  3. Don't go with your first idea. Or even your second. And be suspicious of your third one. No matter how hard we all try, the first ideas we come up with are often retreads of something we've seen or read before -- without our realizing it. Toss out your first few ideas or at least keep massaging them until they're no longer run-of-the-mill.

  4. Examine your idea from every angle. This goes back to the zombie dog story. Whenever I come up with an idea, I imagine it as a physical object that I can pick up and literally examine from all angles. Want to write about space explorers? Every heard of a little TV show called Star Trek? Try a different angle. What if instead of exploring, the space travelers in your story work to keep other races from inventing space travel -- perhaps for these races' own safety? Or what if, instead of finding all sorts of cool and interesting species and phenomena in space, your explorers -- maybe after centuries of searching -- haven't found anything of particular interest in the galactic void. Would would they do then? Quit? Or try to create a more interesting universe to explore? And then perhaps erase all knowledge that they did so from their minds, so that they would then have something unknown to encounter, something they would have no idea they were responsible for making.

  5. Begin with the end. Many beginners save their best idea for the end of their story. You should begin with your best idea and make the story even more awesome as you go. An example I always use is the horror story cliche of the disembodied hand. At the end of this story the (gasp!) living hand grabs hold of the throat of the person who killed the hand's owner and the rampaging appendage exacts righteous retribution. (Cue scary music, roll credits.) In "The Body Politic" Clive Barker begins with the notion that not only is one hand possessed of life separate from the body, but all of our hands possess separate intelligence, and they're sick of doing our constant bidding and being our slaves. They're waiting for a messiah to appear and lead them in a revolution, where they will finally escape the "tyranny the body" and be free to forge their own destiny. In this story, Barker takes the end of the cliched story -- the hand is alive! -- begins with it, expands it, then runs with it.

  6. Rub two ideas together and see what happens. Take two unconnected ideas -- say, a firefighter experiences panic attacks whenever he or she tries to enter a burning building, and a child has terrible nightmares each night about a clown that stands at the foot of the bed, giggling softly. How do you make a single story out of these ideas? Damned if I know. I just made them up a couple moments ago. But I'd begin by exploring connections between them. Are the firefighter and the child related? Is the firefighter the child all grown up? Could the clown be connected with fire somehow? Maybe the child, terrified, tried to burn the clown one night and ended up burning down the house? Maybe now the adult firefighter is starting to hear a clown giggling whenever he/she tries to enter a burning building. I could keep going from here. Maybe I'd change the clown into something else since scary clowns are a cliche. Or maybe I'd have the clown be an image the child projected over the reality of an abusive father. I don't know. I'm not getting paid to work on this story, so I'm dropping it here. Any of you who want to steal it and run with, feel free. If you do, just name the kid Timmy, okay?

  7. Write what you -- and only you -- know. Instead of drawing your ideas from the bottomless well of pop culture detritus we all have within us, try drawing ideas from your own experiences and observations. The more you can be aware of the things you see, think, and feel, the more you can develop stories only you can tell. For example, a year ago a group of workers from Florida moved into the apartment above mine for a (thankfully) temporary stay. Five very sketchy-looking guys who were drunk every night and who exhibited some, shall we say, less-than-normal behavior. Eventually they moved, but the experience of my wondering just what the hell they were doing up there every night, gave me the idea for my upcoming small-press novella The Men Upstairs. I know the story is original, because a good part of it really happened, and it happened to me and only me out of all the people on the planet. (Well, technically, most of it happened above me, I suppose, but you get the point.) And just as I turned that experience into a horror story, you can take your experiences and, with a little imagination, turn them into ideas for mystery, romance, thriller, fantasy, science fiction stories.

So, to wrap it up, don't settle, try to astonish us. And in the process, you just might end up astonishing yourself.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

My novel Ghost Trackers, written in collaboration with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show on the SyFy Channel, is out this month. Not only would it make a great read for Halloween, you can buy several dozen and hand them out to all the trick-or-treaters who knock on your door. But you might want to look through the peephole first before you open the door, just in case there's a clown standing on your porch, smelling faintly of smoke, and giggling softly. . .