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Mamet's Rules

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I came across this on the web, where David Mamet is laying out the rules to his staff writers on The Unit.  I never saw The Unit, actually, but Mamet is brilliant and this little diatribe (I love the all caps thing, Mamet lives his life in all caps) gets to the heart of writing fiction.  I could spend weeks just explicating all this, and I think I will, but you need to read it now and know that, even though he leaves some things out, he is dead on in what he says.

I first came across Mamet when I read Sexual Perversity in Chicago while I was actually living in Chicago.  It was strange, he had pretty much captured my life exactly.  Then I saw American Buffalo and it blew me away, language like a fist to the face, and then the utterly brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross.  These last two works are all time American classics.  His movies have not been quite as good, a bit wan I think, because he takes his theory of acting to such an extreme that it bleaches out the works.  (Don't tell him I said that or I'll get a fist to my face.) Theory always screws up the good stuff.  But Mamet, as much as anyone, really knows how to build a story.

His little book On Directing Film is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the few essential works for a writer who is trying to figure out how to tell a story.  And his little diatribe to writers on The Unit might just be as valuable as that book.  His three questions for every scene: 1) WHO WANTS WHAT?; 2) WHAT HAPPENS IF SHE DOESN'T GET IT?; and 3) WHY NOW? (Caps his) are beautiful.  If you can't answer them clearly, and with answers that get your juices going, then you are not ready to write the thing.

Every Scene is a Quest, and Failure of the Quest Moves Everything Forward.




The Big Sunday Sum-Up

Thursday, March 11, 2010

ALL THE KINGS MEN is maybe the closest we've ever come to the Great American Novel.  Jack Burden has become as much a hero to me as Sal Paradise and the book has been as big an influence as anything I've ever read.  I've been talking about endings lately and this passage comes at the end that great novel.  It's something I've never forgotten.

    This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too.  For I have a story.  It is the story of a man who lived in the world, and to him the world looked one way for a long time, and then it looked another and very different way.  The change did not happen all at once.  Many things happened, and that man did not know when he had any responsibility for them and when he did not.  There was, in fact, a time when he came to believe that nobody had any responsibility for anything and there was no god but the Great Twitch.

This is the first paragraph of a long passage where Robert Penn Warren explicitly explains the story he just spent 500 dense pages telling.  In some way this sort of thing at the end of a book strikes me as a failure of nerve, I mean if you told the book the right way it's all in there already and this little blackboard summary should be unnecessary.  To go further, if you told it in 500 pages you did so because each word was necessary and to do this reductive thing at the end undercuts the depth of what you just achieved.

But then, in another way, it's like a gift to the reader, and it allows you to say explicitly what you've been trying to show in the body of the book.  If it's done right, and it is done right in ALL THE KING'S MEN, it can add another layer atop what you've already done.  If Mersault can explicitly "open his heart to the benign indifference of the universe," then why can't Jack Burden explicitly lay out what he gained from his own story.

I've thought about this passage for a long time, whether to use it as a model or eschew it, and I've decided I like it.  Why do I like it?  I'm not sure, maybe it because it's a part of the book I remember most vividly.  But also, since both ALL THE KING'S MEN and THE STRANGER are first person narratives, the narrator's idea of what his story meant to him could be wildly different than what the story meant to the reader (or even to the writer for that matter).  In that way it can act not so much as a summary, but as a final jolt of insight into the narrator.

The reason this has come up for me is that, at the ending of the book I'm revising, I do a little of this, having my narrator sort of explicitly detail what he's gotten from his whole adventure.  And what shows up is not what I think of the story, or what I think the reader should think of the story, but what my character thinks of the story.  And he's a bit twisted, which makes his conclusion twisted as well.  You think he's going to come out with some pablum about living within our means and finding happiness in the small things and then, bam, he goes the exact other way.  It was a bit of a surprise, but I liked what came out.  And that's why I think it works.

This has been a blog entry about a writer who . . .

Sometimes you need to write your own cliff notes.




Why We Do What We Do

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Every once in a while you wonder why the hell you're going through all this and then a great moment happens that lifts everything, and I'm not talking about the business side, I'm talking about the writing side.

I'm working on a Tyler Knox book where one of the main characters is this crusty old federal agent who committed an act that destroyed his family years ago.  He's been full of great regret ever since.  Through the whole of the section he's really looking forward to death, even going so far as to caress the cigarettes he hopes will eventually kill him.

Then, while chasing a dangerous terrorist, the quarry drops a bomb on him and as the explosion starts to rip through him, he thinks again of that one terrible act that ruined everything.  All through the section he had been thinking of death as a great relief and so, as death presses on him now, I figured he'd be twisted with agony and despair.  But that's not what he feels.  Instead he feels love, and not his love for his doomed wife and son, but instead, out of nowhere, their love for him, and it is the sweetest thing that had ever happened to him, that singular moment of love.  It is wildly out of character, and was unexpected for both him and for me, but as it started pouring out it felt just so right.  And the reason it was right was the reason he was still on the job, the reason he was in the spot of the bombing in the first place.  That love was driving him all along, he and I just didn't know it yet until the words came out.

And the emotions I felt for the old guy were as real as the emotions he was feeling on the page, imagine that.

If you're open to it, the story will tell you where it's going.




The Big Ending

Monday, March 1, 2010

Endings (Part 3)


I've been getting a lot of good feedback on my post on endings, there's a lot of interest in learning how to finish up, so I'll keep writing about endings for a bit, see if I can milk this monkey dry.

The best ending I ever read was in the novel WATERLAND by Graham Swift.  It still gives me chills.  It's one of those novels with a present mystery and a past mystery, but it is also a story of young love, and a story of a failing marriage, a story of friendship and sexual awakening, and a history of the British Fens.  Just a brilliant book.  And at the end, as all the mysteries ripen, there is a moment when a boy dives into the sea and there, in that singular and beautifully described moment, everything is solved.  It's magical, and Swift is simply one of the best writers going.

That seems to be the gold standard, the single moment that ends all the plot lines and seals all the arcs with a lovely simplicity.  In BITTER TRUTH I tried to emulate that in a way, using a letter written by a dying WWI vet, that was discovered at the end of the novel, to solve a number of mysteries, including the key mystery that arose in the present day.  I often think when going for the singular moment, smaller is better.

What happens all too often, however, is the big battle is substituted for the single moment.  William Gibson, who writes terrific futuristic novels, created cyberpunk, and wrote one of my favorite all time books NUEROMANCER, always seems to end his novels with big battles that solve everything.  I love his books, but you can feel him churning to the big ending as more and more arcs are ignited.  He ends up with so much going on, the only way to the end the thing is the big battle, an event that sometimes seems more a device for getting him out from under the book than something that rises organically from the story.

I think you need to be careful if you keep packing your book with plot lines and character arcs and just hope that the big bash at the end will solve everything.  Let the final confrontation solve the big things, sure, but start your endings earlier, have the big bash, and then resolve some things later.  The story might end up feeling less managed and more satisfying.

Make sure after the big splash you don't have the big sink.




Loose Ends

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Endings (Part 2).

What is it that actually ends?

Everything in a story has it's own arc.  Each character, each plot line, each relationship.  Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain and everything you put into the book is like a rock into your backpack.  The more you put in, the heavier the pack gets, and the longer the climb.  And the weight we're talking about is all the stuff you have to do as a writer by the end. Everything has to be resolved in some way by the last page, even if it's with an explicit lack of resolution.  If something is built up and not dealt with by the end than what's left is as unsatisfying for the reader as the proverbial gun on the wall in Act One that never goes off.  Readers want to know how things work out, and if you raise up something and put it in your backpack as a writer, they're putting in their backpacks as readers.  To leave them hanging is churlish.

And so we're looking for an ending that answers all our questions.  I know, I know you don't want to answer everything.  Sometimes when it's pat it's too damn pat.  But even if you don't have the answer, you just can't ignore the question.  An ending that leaves things open is fine, as long as it does it explicitly, not by simple omission.  A reader shouldn't be wondering if the author just forgot about the thing that was keeping her turning the pages.  That's cheating.  Which makes endings harder and harder as you go along and your backpack get's heavier and heavier.  How do you end so many things at once?

Damn good question.

Leave them hanging in the middle, not the end.




A little more on 1984

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I mentioned 1984, one of my all time favorite books in the last post.  The line that always gets me, and never loses its relevance, is this one, from O'Brien, when the truth of things is revealed to Winston Smith:

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

I don't want to get political here, but whenever the discussion moves to torture, I always think of Orwell.

Another great book that was an inspiration to Orwell was Koestler's Darkness at Noon.  Koestler is actually a little hot right now, with a new biography out.  I recently re-read Darkness at Noon and found it just as chilling as I remembered, the story of functionary for the state who is imprisoned in a purge.  But when I read it this time something popped out at me, which was really cool.

In 1984, Orwell's hero, Winston Smith, has a job of rewriting newspapers to fit the current political agenda, writing disfavored persons out of history, bolstering the history politicians currently in favor, just like the way the Soviets used to airbrush purged figures from their photographs.  It is quite the sinister job, but Orwell didn't come up with it on  his own.  In Darkness at Noon, Koestler has his hero make a prophetic remark:

Rubashov remarked jokingly to Arlova that the only thing left to be done was to publish a new and revised edition of the back numbers of all newspapers.

From a throwaway line in Darkness, Orwell created magic.  Somebody told me once that it's okay to steal as long as the work you're writing is better than what you're stealing from.  I think Orwell is on solid ground.

Don't be afraid to dig like a miner through books.




Closing it Out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I'm thinking now about endings, as I'm revising my most recent book.  Novels aren't often judged on their endings, unless the ending is baldly unsatisfying.  The beginning and the middle are the meat of a novel, the reason the thing was written, the crime, the investigation, the uncovering of the conspiracy, the ideas that were the very purpose of the work.  The ending is often just the way for the author to get out from under it all.  There is even something artificial about endings in novels because life never ends so neatly.  That's why the two most popular endings are death or marriage because they coincide with real endings in life, death of the body and death of the spirit. (If my wife sees this, it's just a joke.  It not . . .)

And yet, in a way, endings are the most crucial part of a book.  If every novel is the battle between two ideas, as I've written about before, than the ending gives us the winner.  1984 is about the forces of fascism versus individual freedom.  Which prevails?  We don't know until the end, when Winston Smith is famously broken in room 101.  There is no hope here, no love, no triumph of will, no transcendence.  This is what we get instead: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."  Would Orwell's masterpiece be as powerful if Winston Smith prevailed?  Would we still read it?

So the ending rules.  I never start a book unless I know the way it will end, not the actual step by step thing of it, but the feel of it, the idea that will come out ahead.  And I usually have a final image that sums of much of what's been going on throughout the book.  John Irving says that he can't write even the first line if he doesn't know how it ends, and I understand that.  A lot of time I'm moving forward toward that final image.  Although I must admit that my endings often change as I move through the book.  The more I develop my characters and ideas, the more I get a sense that maybe I was wrong at the start, which is, paradoxically, a great sign.  If a book is working, it will talk to me more than I will dictate to it. 

And there are a number of ways to go about to close things out, which I'll talk about later.  The thing I want to emphasize now is don't minimize the ending.  It's not just the final big battle, the ending provides the ultimate meaning of the work.

End big, end bold, end smart.