Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The prop master

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

2 Responses

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  1. What a great way to look at the objects in a story. I’ve made a note to come back to this post when I’m revising; I’m sure I can use it to create that more cohesive world you mention. Thanks.

    Celia Reaves

    July 6, 2015 at 12:49 pm

  2. Glad it helped! It’s something I plan on doing for every project I write in the future.

    nevalalee

    July 19, 2015 at 9:51 pm


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