Thoughts About Genre Forms
So, I was updating my website the other day — The Chris Braak Website Experience — to include some new short story work, and to make the scripts of my plays available. The depressing awareness that I’m going to turn 30 in five months and I haven’t made my fortune as a literary genius yet was offset, slightly, by the realization that, with the exception of two short stories, I’ve written everything — two novels, thirteen short stories, four full-length plays, six short plays — in the last three years. The Translated Man was finished on January 27, 2007; practically everything else was subsequent to that.
So, that made me feel okay. But! Anyway. Jefferson Robbins suggested that I write something about the difference between writing regular prose and writing for the stage. I responded LIKE A JERK by pretending I didn’t realize that there was a difference. But of course there is a difference, and I am aware of it.
So, in the first place, I’m not going to talk about screenplays. Not because I don’t have opinions about them — because I do! I have opinions about everything! — but because I’ve only written two screenplays, and no one has bought or read them, so I have no idea whether or not my approach is correct.
In any case, there’s a kind of a debate in the theatrical world about just how much you’re supposed to write in the stage directions. Eugene O’Neill writes pretty famously dense descriptions, so if you want to be faithful to his script, you’ve got to make that house in Long Day’s Journey Into Night look EXACTLY the way he says it does.
On the other hand, Shakespeare’s stage directions are rarely more complex than “enter”, “fight”, “exit”, “exit pursued by bear”. Part of this is the form that they’re writing in — because Shakespeare is working in a high text-density form, his plays have a lower scene-density (basically: the more words on the page, the less stuff on the stage).
Anyway, the debate is: how much of what the play LOOKS like, as opposed to what people say and what happens, is the playwright supposed to decide on? How much of a say should the playwright have in general?
I prefer my plays to be rigorously punctuated — because I believe that this lends insight into the thoughts and thought processes that yield those sentences — all the way down to the “uhms” and “ahs”; but I also put very little in the way of stage description in. The Life of John Henry had a lot, but only because it had a very particular, thematically relevant set.
This can be problematic; I think that directors generally read scripts with an eye towards what they want to do with it — plays are unique in the sense that they are not complete works of art, but blueprints for works of art that demand an equal amount of creative effort on the reader. Actors, though, don’t read plays the same way that directors do; a number of the actresses I worked with on Empress of the Moon told me that they hated the script when they first read it — thinking it bizarre and incomprehensible.
Generally, I think that’s right. A play script isn’t a whole play — the things that make it good are the things that it’s going to do onstage, so, almost by definition, it should look weird and not particularly appealing as a script. And, so, once we got Empress on its feet, everyone basically changed their minds. This is because while I can say, “the narrator is relating a scene that happened earlier in the middle of this other scene,” but that’s not going to register quite as well as actually seeing the scene.
This scene-to-text ratio enjoys an interesting transformation when you move into the novel because, obviously, there is no scene. Here everything has to be descriptive, and it leads me to one of my pet peeves, kind of, about ESPECIALLY genre books. I just finished reading Jim Butcher’s First Lord’s Fury, which is all-in-all a very entertaining book, and which I’ll be reviewing professionally at some point. But one of the drawbacks to it is that it doesn’t really convey a sense of place at all — Butcher, in a way that I think is similar to David Eddings — relies very heavily on dialog the occurences of the plot, without devoting altogether that much wordspace to imagery.
Of course, I, like most people, do tend to skim a little when I get to big blocks of description, but when you compared Butcher to, for instance, M. Jon Harrison’s Light – a novel whose descriptive passages sometimes made me (almost) cry — it becomes apparent that it’s the quality of the description that causes it to get skipped, not the fact of the description. In any case, a lot of modern genre books are so spare in terms of their description that the abiding images I have of them are either the picture that was on the cover, or else an image of black text on white pages.
The desire for that sense of place actually presented a couple interesting challenges in Mr. Stitch, incidentally — there are chapters that are from Skinner’s perspective, and she’s blind. It became an interesting exercise to try to convey place and description essentially with my eyes closed.
One of the other interesting questions that you run into when you throw a novel up against a play is just exactly how important is the “sound” of the prose? Obviously, a play is meant to be read, and modern plays usually reflect that: musicality is often important, as well as syntactic simplicity. Interesting point on that one, too: the idea that things spoken aloud should have a simpler grammar than things read is a feature of our increasingly literate society. Nowadays, it’s easier for us to keep track of complex ideas and arguments when they’re written down, but substantially harder to parse extremely complex spoken language. This is the reverse from, say, the Elizabethan era, and it’s why the language that Shakespeare uses is so much more complex: everyone in those days was illiterate, so they had a lot more practice understanding complicated oratory.
But what about the novel? Is the musicality of language particularly important? If you’re reading at pace (that is, reading quickly, as opposed to quietly “sounding out” each word as you go) then you’re not really hearing the words, anyway. The step of “what does this sound like” is an additional and unnecessary intermediary step between “what does this look like” and “what does this mean.”
So, ostensibly, the sound of writing in prose shouldn’t matter at all. I still tend to think it does, though, even if people aren’t realizing it, or even sounding the words out consciously. I know that I can tell the difference between that “transparent” modern prose style that’s meant to convey information as quickly as possible with a minimum of fuss, and the more poetic styles. Poetry does definitely bog me down, though, when I’m reading — the use of assonance and consonance and all that forces me to read more slowly to appreciate the sounds.
Contrary to popular belief, reading slowly doesn’t actually improve comprehension — it actually interferes with it. Maybe this means that if it’s going to be pretty, it also ought to be a little simpler? I don’t know.
Hell, I don’t know anything, anyway. I started writing this thinking that I’d be able to suss out just what the difference between writing that is spare and boring and writing that trips along — that’s both beautiful and easy to read. I don’t think I’ve figured it out, though. Maybe it has to do with using a lot of commas? I’d like it if that were the case, because I sure do love me some commas.