"Binge-Worthy" and "Page-Turning" are Kissin' Cousins
Inspired by his upcoming class Screen and Stage to the Page: What Drama, Movies & TV Can Teach Prose Writers, Grub instructor Michael Marano shares five tools prose writers can steal from the stage, screen and TV.
Do you want prose that pops? The kind of writing that makes readers compulsively dig into the next chapter of your book, or the next scene of your story, the way they'd click on a "Watch the Next Episode" prompt? Then embrace the fact that good dramatic writing, for stage, screen, or TV, is good writing in and of itself. That's the most important lesson I've learned as a film and arts critic and novelist. The tools of the playwright and screenwriter are invaluable for the prose writer, if the prose writer can take the time to roll up his/her/their sleeves to learn to use them.
What kinds of tools am I talking about?
1. There's a Method and an Art to Tapping Real Life.
Sure, everyone's had a Year That Changed Their Lives when they were young. But that doesn't mean your experiences are going to immediately translate into To Kill a Mockingbird. The terrain for investing real life with dramatic weight was mapped out by the great theatre director and theorist Peter Brook, who wrote in his 1995 essay "The Open Door" that "Theater is life. But it's not just the imitation of life." The same is true with fiction. Brook says, "Life in the theatre is more readable and intense because it is more concentrated. The act of reducing space and compressing time creates a concentrate." The same is true with good fiction and yes, non-fiction. Real life must be intensified to make good drama, and it must be intensified to make good prose. Without that intensification, you don't have drama, you don't have dramatic fiction or non-fiction, you have diary entries that are inert.
Example? Everybody's seen a marriage go off the rails. Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? works because it concentrates all that angst into a single night. By that same token, everybody's had an idiot boss. So, the scene in Jaws in which Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are trying to tell the Mayor of Amity (who's furious about the vandalizing of a billboard, and not too upset about people being eaten) that he needs to close the beaches has heft because it's a concentration into one exchange of the frustration people feel over years of working for a nitwit.
2. Information is Not Drama
This idea was best articulated by David Mamet, most notably in a famous Memo sent to the writers of the TV show he ran, The Unit. Every narrative needs exposition of some kind, from the Medical Examiner telling the Cop Heroes what they need to know to M telling James Bond what he's going to be spending the rest of the movie doing. But information is not drama, and scenes full of information without drama are deadly dull in any context, especially prose narratives. Mamet came up with a formula for making sure your scenes have drama. Think about it. Could anything be more boring than a competition to sell Real Estate? But look what Mamet could do with that boring subject in Glengarry Glen Ross. As per Mamet, each scene needs to address:
- Who Wants What?
- What Happens if They Don't Get It?
- Why is this Exchange Happening Now?
Infuse the exchange of information with emotional weight by applying these three factors, and your prose will be tight and urgent.
3. Emotional Beats
Screenwriters use a tool called the "Beat Sheet", which is not just an outline of plot points, but a map of the specific emotions each plot point is to create. It's a constellation of feelings that can give your overall narrative shape and form that it otherwise won't have. With a Beat Sheet to compliment your plot outline, you can play your readers' emotions like a musical instrument. Go online. See if there's a Beat Sheet posted for a film that hit you hard emotionally, and you can see exactly how your emotions were hit, so that you can find ways to hit your readers. Toy Story 3 was emotionally devastating, and it's about lumps of plastic, fer chrissakes. Take a look at this Beat Sheet for Toy Story 3, to see how the geniuses at Pixar worked you over:
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an Action Movie. So's The Terminator. And so's Avengers: Infinity War. And Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet the Action of each of those films is not translatable to the narratives of the others. Action set pieces in prose form that are not fully integrated into the emotional reality or themes of a narrative can pull a reader out of that narrative, just as surely Mad Max pulling a Roger Moore's James Bond-era gadget out of his pocket to get out of jam will pull a viewer of that hypothetical movie. I won't name names, but I've read far too many bad novels in which newly minted FBI agents are able to single-handedly take out warehouses full of bad guys. Without reloading. Keep your action scenes character-based and thematically honest, so you can have the emotional punch of the action scenes in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games.
Ever read a scene with two or more characters talking, and it's dead? Even if there are high dramatic stakes involved? Actors, directors and screenwriters have techniques to invest inert scenes with "Business," that is, activity that demonstrates and develops character that otherwise would not be shown. A famous example? At the start of The Godfather, the scene was not gelling, as Coppola and Brando were filming it. Somebody noticed a cat outside where the film was being shot. Brando picked up the cat and petted it while delivering his lines, which changed the whole emotional dynamic of the scene so that it suddenly worked. The best tool to add "Business" to prose scenes is one that screenwriters use a lot: rewrite or reimagine the scene from point of view of an observer who is deaf, and can't hear the dialogue. This will force you to add nuances, reactions, actions that would not otherwise be readily apparent to you.
Wanna use these techniques for your own writing? Learn and apply these tools and more in Michael Marano’s upcoming class Screen and Stage to the Page: What Drama, Movies & TV Can Teach Prose Writers taking place over the course of 8 Thursdays from 10:30am-1:30pm, starting January 24th.
Michael Marano is a horror and dark science fiction writer whose first novel, Dawn Song, won the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild Awards. Stories From the Plague Years, a collection of Marano's new and reprinted short fiction, was named one of the Top Ten Horror Publications of 2011 by Booklist. His supernatural crime novella "Displacement" was nominated for a 2011 Shirley Jackson Award. Stories From the Plague Years was reprinted in 2012 by ChiZine Publications of Toronto, who reprinted Dawn Song in 2014, which will be followed by two sequels, A Choir of Exiles and Winter Requiem.
Since 1990, he has also been reviewing movies for the Public Radio Satellite System program Movie Magazine International. Mike's pop culture commentary has appeared in many national publications. Marano is also a beginning circus performer, developing and choreographing narrative aerial pieces for the trapeze and lyra based on the works of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.See other articles by Michael Marano