Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Make it recognizable!”

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David Mamet

I’ve mentioned before how David Mamet’s little book On Directing Film rocked my world at a time when I thought I’d already figured out storytelling to my own satisfaction. It provides the best set of tools for constructing a plot I’ve ever seen, and to the extent that I can call any book a writer’s secret weapon, this is it. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the moment when I realized how powerful Mamet’s advice really is. The first section of the book is largely given over to a transcript of one of the author’s seminars at Columbia, in which the class breaks down the beats of a simple short film: a student approaches a teacher to request a revised grade. The crucial prop in the scene, which is told entirely without dialogue, is the student’s notebook, its contents unknown—and, as Mamet points out repeatedly, unimportant. Then he asks:

Mamet: What answer do we give to the prop person who says “what’s the notebook look like?” What are you going to say?

The students respond with a number of suggestions: put a label on it, make it look like a book report, make it look “prepared.” Mamet shoots them down one by one, saying that they’re things that the audience can’t be expected to care about, if they aren’t intrinsically impossible:

Mamet: No, you can’t make the book look prepared. You can make it look neat. That might be nice, but that’s not the most important thing for your answer to the prop person…To make it prepared, to make it neat, to make it convincing, the audience ain’t going to notice. What are they doing to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: So what’s your answer to the prop person?
Student: Make it recognizable.
Mamet: Exactly so! Good. You’ve got to be able to recognize it. That is the most important thing about this report. This is how you use the principle of throughline to answer questions about the set and to answer questions about the costumes.

A recognizable notebook

Now, this might seem like a small thing, but to me, this was an unforgettable moment: it was a powerful illustration of how close attention to the spine of the plot—the actions and images you use to convey the protagonist’s sequence of objectives—can result in immediate, practical answers to seemingly minor story problems, as long as you’re willing to rigorously apply the rules. “Make it recognizable,” in particular, is a rule whose true value I’ve only recently begun to understand. In writing a story, regardless of the medium, you only have a finite number of details that you can emphasize, so it doesn’t hurt to focus on ones that will help the reader recognize and remember important elements—a character, a prop, an idea—when they recur over the course of the narrative. Mamet notes that you can’t expect a viewer to read signs or labels designed to explain what isn’t clear in the action, and it took me a long time to see that this is equally true of the building blocks of fiction: if the reader needs to pause to remember who a character is or where a certain object has appeared before, you haven’t done your job as well as you could.

And like the instructions a director gives to the prop department, this rule translates into specific, concrete actions that a writer can take to keep the reader oriented. It’s why I try to give my characters names that can be readily distinguished from one another, to the point where I’ll often try to give each major player a name that begins with a different letter. This isn’t true to life, where, as James Wood points out, we’re likely to know three people named John and three more named Elizabeth, but it’s a useful courtesy to the reader. The same applies to other entities within the story: it can be difficult to keep track of the alliances in a novel like Dune, but Frank Herbert helps us tremendously by giving the families distinctive names like House Atreides and House Harkonnen. (Try to guess which house contains all the bad guys.) This is also why it’s useful to give minor characters some small characteristic to lock them in the reader’s mind: we may not remember that we’ve met Robert in Chapter 3 when he returns in Chapter 50, but we’ll recall his bristling eyebrows. Nearly every choice a writer makes should be geared toward making these moments of recognition as painless as possible, without the need for labels. As Mamet says: “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” And to be told a story.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2013 at 9:02 am

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