Monday, October 18, 2010

Your humble patience pray :: Guidance from Master Shakespeare

All the world's a stage...
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

In the prologue to Henry V is found the advice every writer or actor should hear in their heads as they embark upon any effort to present events larger than their stage or page can hold.  Not familiar with it?  You should be, and not only because it's the beginning of one of the Great Works, but because it holds an enormous amount of advice for writers from one of the greatest (if not the greatest) writer ever to lift a pen.

In these words, Shakespeare admits to and then dispenses with the doubts his audience might hold in their hearts that he can pull off the sprawling battle of Agincourt and unfurl the landmark event of English history in the space and time constraints of the stage.  He admits right away the limitations of the stage and actors to truly capture the events about to unfold without the willing assistance of the audience's imagination.

And as he said in a later play 'Aye, there's the rub'.  Nothing you write is going to work if you forget this simple fact: You are putting images in someone else's head and it's your job to give them enough to suspend their disbelief and let their imaginations do the rest.
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
A novel is not a stage... or is it?  Certainly, you can populate the vasty fields of your imaginary worlds with  all the armies of man and monsters you care to name... but really, how much can you describe them before the reality breaks down and it becomes a treatise on the arms & equippage of imaginary armies?  Too much is worse than too little.   You can't show it all, some part of the action and world will always fall off the stage.  And take it from a sometimes actor, the lap of the front row is a bad place to end up.

So your problem is somewhat the opposite of Shakespeare's stage, but the solution is the same...

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may 
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder...

I've read many an early draft of fantasy epics and space operas that dwelled so intricately on the arms and equipment of each armsman and space ship (or whatever) that you forget you're reading a novel and begin to wonder whether this is a doctoral dissertation.

Let one or two speak for many.  How do you cram an army onto a stage or page?  The same way Shakespeare did.  The same way, incidentally, as Tolkien did.  And John Toland and Joss Whedon in Firefly for that matter.  By giving us a handful of representative characters who stand in for the millions.  One crooked figure from which your audience is to extrapolate the millions unseen.

I'm about to unleash an army of aliens and giant robots upon the fields of the earth but don't look to me to create them in intimate detail.  Tell us they exist.  Set the scene and pan the camera across the field as the armies of monsters and mechanized monstrosities clash and then shift your focus to the heroes because the next line might be the single-greatest line in any prologue in English history, the prayer every writer utters in the dark watches of the night...

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts

Get your audience rooting for your characters (and you by extension) and they will suspend their disbelief, willingly participate in your ruse.  They will populate an imaginary field with aliens and robots and clothe your naked scaffold.  They will fill in the gaps where you eliminated all those adverbs.  When you get them on your side, you don't need to tell them that your character said something 'tiredly', they'll be so wrapped up in the action that they'll read it tiredly.

Because that's the secret:  The reader wants you to succeed.  They want you to tell them a story and as long as you never betray them, they will follow you through the gates of hell and allow you to take one character and let them stand in for thousands and compress the events of years into a few pages.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts 
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour glass...
Time and character compression are your friends, but only if the audience is.  And it's easier to get them on your side if the stage is not so awash in characters and needless detail that they can't find the story.

At the end of the day, writing is writing, whether it's a play or a sci fi lark about a boy genius who turns farm equipment into robots.  End the end, even Shakespeare knew that no matter what you are trying to say about the human condition, it all boils down you connecting with your listener and getting them on your side long enough to hear you out.

And as I prepare to send my muse into the field on a mission to which she is unaccustomed, that's a great comfort to me.  Bring on the robots! Cue the aliens!
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Exit, stage left.


  1. This is brilliant, Scott. A better blog about the innermost desires of an aspiring novlelist (me) I have yet to read.


  2. Very impressive article! The audience is pleased :)


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