Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Moss Hart

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

Moss Hart’s train scene, or the importance of slowing things down

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

In his famous theatrical memoir Act One, Moss Hart talks about the quiet scene that saved an entire play. The work was Once in a Lifetime, the first of his eight collaborations with George S. Kaufman, and although it was a classic comedy loaded with gags and funny lines, it died on the stage: at every performance, he could sense the audience growing more restless, and he ended up with three days left before opening night with no idea of how to fix it. Finally, Sam Harris, the producer, delivered a verdict: “It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around.” Harris continued:

Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other…It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. I can almost feel them begin to get tired all around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up.

Rocked by this advice, Hart went for a long, solitary walk through the moonlit night, and at four in the morning, the answer hit him. All it would require was one new scene, using an existing set—a train—where two of the characters could talk over what had happened in the plot so far. It would give the audience a breather, as well as a chance to consolidate the story, and it wouldn’t cost anything to stage, although it would require throwing away another set that had been built at great expense. Hart went to Kaufman with the idea the next day, and although it took some convincing, they finally went ahead with it. And on opening night, not only did the scene work wonderfully as a pause in the action, but it got an enormous reaction in its own right. Jokes got huge laughs; even straight lines seemed funny; and the rest of the play sped along on the resulting momentum, all thanks to one scene in which the audience, for once, had been given a chance to process what had happened and anticipate what came next. Hart concludes: “The vital scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as they are by the actors on stage.”

Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There are a lot of lessons to be unpacked here, which is why I’ve devoted so much space to this story. (I owe my knowledge of it, incidentally, to a rather unlikely souce: Al Jean’s commentary track on the fifteenth season of The Simpsons, in which he notes that Hart’s story taught him to insert a quiet scene with Homer and Marge in bed, just talking over the plot, whenever an episode wasn’t working. It’s for insights like this that I continue to buy and listen to the box sets for later seasons, even after I’ve mostly lost interest in the episodes themselves.) The first is the obvious point that a movie, book, or play can’t consist of one manic high point after another: if a story is too exhausting, or too “noisy,” it’s only going to wear out the audience. So many action movies, for instance, consist of nothing but one big set piece after another, as if they’re terrified of allowing the viewer’s attention to stray for a second. The result is usually the opposite: the audience wearily regards every gunfight or car chase as more of the same. A break in the action allows us to decide how we feel about the story so far, instead of just reacting to one development after another, and by including moments of quiet, the high points can stand out, rather than degenerating into a blur of activity.

And this is about more than just giving the audience a physical breather. The best works of art appeal to multiple parts of the brain, and there’s a sense of relief when a narrative that has been operating on an immediate, visceral level slows down to allow our more contemplative selves to join in on the fun. One of my favorite examples is the little scene between Indy and his father on the blimp in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which gives us some wonderful character moments—”I respected your privacy. And I taught you self-reliance“—as well as a briefing on where we’ve been and where we’re going, just before the chase begins anew. (It’s telling that both Hart’s train scene and Indy’s blimp scene take place on modes of transportation, as the characters find themselves in transit from one plot point to another. That’s shrewd story construction, since it reassures the audience that we’re still heading somewhere even as the plot applies the brakes.) And it’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply to my own fiction, which otherwise threatens to consist of one damned thing after another. If you’ve done it properly, everything else seems to play at a higher level. As Mahler says: “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower, not faster.”

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

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