Thoughts About Genre Forms

Posted: September 27, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,

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.

  1. deb says:

    Interesting. Bader would be proud.

    BTW – I struggle with the whole stage direction thing all the time as a director. I know I SHOULD read them, but often they just get in the way, so my inclination is to just skip them. Sometimes, most of the time, actually, I want the actors to skip them, too. I think it’s difficult for an actor to get his/her own take on a character if the playwright is continually telling them what to think or how to say things. Actors, in concert with their director, ought to figure this stuff out for themselves. Or worse, if the stage directions aren’t authorial and some other director’s vision is creeping in, then I just don’t even want them in the script. Why put them there? They just come from the first production and are meaningless, unless you’re trying to replicate someone else’s work — which you shouldn’t be doing anyway. (“She moves to the table and puts out her cigarette.” Why? What if I don’t have a table? Or a cigarette?!)

    On the whole, I prefer to just follow the punctuation — except for random italics and CAPITAL LETTERS for no reason. These confuse me. Commas are awesome, though. And the occasional dash.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Two quick thoughts:

    1) Many of the professional directors I’ve worked with liked to consider all stage directions ignored by default unless completely necessary, or the playwright was in the room.

    2) Regarding description in novels: I don’t know that your point about quality affecting the amount of skimming is completely accurate. Certainly quality’s a factor, but readers can also just get used to skimming. In which case it doesn’t matter how good the description is, the reader may miss it because they don’t read it closely enough even to realize that it’s good. Some books that I really enjoy I reread immediately after finishing. I know I will skip much of the description on the first read, even if the description is lovely and adds a lot.

  3. Moff says:

    Doesn’t the sound of prose affect — and even improve — comprehension, though, in terms of tone? You mention Harrison. I just read him for the first time — The Pastel City. There’s a weight and a rhythm — basically, a gravity — to the words that conveys that the story is set in a world that has seen the passage of much time, and much devastation, and where great men must summon their reserves to attend to great deeds if the things of value are to be saved. I cannot see the book working nearly as well as written by, say, Isaac Asimov.

    Diction also has a lot of other effects on the story. There are jokes that just don’t work without the build-up provided by particular word choices. And if you want to show, as we’re supposedly supposed to, rather than tell, I think you need to be open to using the sound of the language and not just its meanings to communicate.

  4. braak says:


  5. Oh, I can contribute something. Vaguely at least. My writing all goes towards the screenplay format, which might be while I don’t have much chance of gainful employment as a writer. Screenplays are meant to be read silently and aloud and flow briskly at both. They should be descriptive, vivid, but most decidedly succinct and brief in description. Every stage direction has to serve an explicit purpose, and please, for the love of God, don’t tell your actor how to think, but feel free to show them how act out their thoughts. For instance: “She moves to the table and puts out her cigarette.” would only be used if she specifically needs to spend time thinking about what’s next, or if the extinguishing of the cigarette is an explicit “fuck you” to the bitch who just complained about the smoke passive aggressively, or if, say, it was a way to walk into he conversation and immediately take control of it, or wrest control back… blah blah blah…

    I don’t know about plays, as I’ve only read a couple dozen, and most of those were shakespeare, but stage direction has to be pointed, descriptive, and absolutely necessary. Which really makes me realize why a couple of my earlier scripts sucked so much.

    As for what Moff says, I’m actually fairly certain you do pay attention to how the prose sounds. Yes, poetic descriptions are annoying if the story is good too, but when they’re good they’re fucking inspiring. I find that as I read, while I don’t sound out the words physically (unless it’s 17th century political discourse, which by god is confusing- and printed, so I wouldn’t be so soon to jump to the conclusion that everyone was illiterate. Actually right around Shakespeare’s time was when people were beginning to learn to read, so that within a generation everyone was reading to some degree, even if it was just the Bible.), but I do hear the words echo in my brain. When something is superb it resonates and I have to go back and relive it, see if I understand it, but when it’s meaningless and artless it brushes past. I’d like to think most people read this way, but I am willing to wager that writers read this way, with the sounds of the words being just as important as their meanings. However, I can see why, when explaining the differences in format, a writer would say that a pleasing sound doesn’t matter as much in prose. Because rationally and academically it seems like it shouldn’t, yet it does.

    That’s my tuppence three farthings on the matter for now.

  6. Moff says:


  7. Bill says:

    In some sense every production of every play is a temporary construction using the playwright’s blueprint. I’m not sure all playwrights get that though. Which is why, as a director, I prefer to use the work of dead playwrights. They are much less insistent that I closely follow their blueprint. The living ones even want me to use all their words, in the right order. I mean, really.

    As for prose, I read quickly, as you know, mostly for the sheer enjoyment of the act of reading. I know that I adjust my reading pace as I go through the book, speeding up as I go knowing that when I do hit some long chunk of text I can make a judgment call about whether to slow down based on previous long chunks of text. But I don’t like to slow down. It isn’t at much fun. Sometimes I’ll hit some text that makes me stop and re-read it – mostly because of situation or mood, but sometimes, rarely, I hit some text that just rings a bell in my head. Like those parts in the LOTR when Tolkien picks up the language and rhythm of an Old English Saga. I keep looking for the book that will be nothing but bells.

  8. braak says:

    @aspiringexpatriate: Well, I think it’s generally accepted in literary circles that while not EVERYONE was illiterate in the Elizabethan era, it was an era that was literally just finished being one with an almost-complete oral tradition. Even once literacy was just getting started, you still had a hybrid tradition that put equal weight on oratory as it did on writing.

    I mean, I know that kids today are illiterate (and stupid, and ugly), but when you compare the sheer volume of text that they have to absorb just to function in society, it’s kind of a lot more than kids back in 1583 did.

  9. True. Was that side comment really the only thing worth discussing from all I said?

  10. braak says:

    No, just the only thing that didn’t require a substantial amount of deliberation before I responded.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    For me, writing that moves freely between the descriptively complex and the spare, feels extremely satisfying, somehow. It almost challenges me to not think about it, not linger at different points and leap from the warm, stimulating fuzziness of cerebral overcharge, into cool, fresh pauses of simplicity. I also think that sort of rythm translates well to both stage and screen mediums; however, it does pose the danger of granting automatic gravity to reflections that don’t necessarily deserve it (See: “Closer”). But it feels good to read it and hear how the words dance together.

    @aspiringexpatriate – That was totally a snub by Braak. I saw it with me own eyes.

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