Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Staging a Mystery to Avoid Expectations

I've been thinking about reactions, and first instincts, since I wrote that post Saturday. And about acting. And of course, writing.

I have done a fair amount of amateur acting. If I was any good, I think it was because I learned to ignore my first instinct and look deeper.

There's an adage in acting that applies equally well to writing. "If you're asked to play the devil, find the angel in him. If you're asked to play an angel, find the devil in him." In other words, one-dimensional characters are boring, boring, boring.

In the play Gaslight, the main character is a woman afraid she might be losing her mind. Her husband is solicitous, but seems impatient with her. Then when he goes out, the mysterious stranger comes to visit. He tells her the husband is not who he seems to be, that he may have killed someone in these very rooms, and her worry and possible madness are part of the husband's plot. If the wife – I think her name is Bella. I dare say I could look it up, but that's not the point. Let's just call her Bella – will trust him, the mysterious stranger, do what he says, they'll catch him and solve her trouble.

The tension, the dramatic energy that propels the story, comes from Bella having to decide whether to trust her husband or the mysterious stranger.

Gaslight was a decent old movie with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten. It works mostly because who could possibly believe ill of Joseph Cotten?

But when our theater did the play, with a cast including a couple of really close friends and a guy I hated – but that's a different story – the director (another good friend) went with first instincts. (Spoiler alert!) The husband is the bad guy, so he had the actor lay on the menace and evil. From opening curtain the actor scowled, he threatened, he did all but twirl his mustache. And the mysterious stranger is the good guy, so hey, play him as kind and as trustworthy as Santa Claus, all twinkly. He wasn't so much mysterious as he was cuddly.

And with those two decisions, all the suspense and tension got sucked right out of the play. It wasn't a drama, it was a melodrama. The only worry I had as the play drew to its close was, "What am I going to tell them afterwards?" Because you don't want to walk up to your friends after the performance and say, "Wow. That really sucked. You guys don't get it at all."

I had a similar reaction when I was stage manager of the theater's production of Harvey. The director wanted doors to open by themselves, things to move. It took a lot of effort to convince him that Harvey is not a play about a guy who's best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. It's about a guy who SAYS his friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. That makes all the difference. Before the audience knows for sure, they no longer care. They like Elwood, they want him to be right before they know whether he is or not. In fact, a later production I saw convinced me that it's not even about Elwood. The play is really about his sister, it's the story of a woman with society ambitions whose brother says his best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Excellent question. I guess I'm just warning myself to avoid being obvious. Ambiguity can be a writer's friend, under the right circumstances. As my reader digs into the book, do I want him/her to know everything right away? Of course not!

Give the readers enough information to be able to follow the story and characters they want to follow. Then trust them to figure it out. That Aha! moment is much more exciting and enjoyable than a guided tour where everything is pointed out an explained right from the start.

WIP Update – Had another middle of the night, bolt-from-the-blue idea. This one came a little after 1 a.m. Unfortunately I had left my notebook on the kitchen table, so I had to run out to jot the thought down. Just as well, I wouldn't have wanted to turn on the light and wake up Tori. It was a decent idea, two lines of dialogue that might or might not have a place in the story. But even if they don't fit, they led me this morning to another idea that I really like. It kind of changes the flavor of the story, but it's not bad.

I think I'm ready to start writing it.

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