Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Art of Coarse Writing

There's a writing buddy of mine who will never tell anybody what he's working on. If he does, he's afraid there won't be any motivation to write it. Once he tells somebody what the story is about... there's no reason to tell it anymore.

I think he's on to something.

Some writers are lucky. They'll never get the "On the nose" note.
For the rest of us, it's about constant vigilance.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term. "On the nose" writing tends to be scenes or dialogue that is very obvious. It's very explicit about... what it's about. And for some of us, it's a lot of the television writing we grew up watching.

Any scene that wraps things up... watch out. Any dialogue that people talk about their feelings... danger. And when the scene wraps things up with characters talking about their feelings... "Alex, maybe if I could talk to my dad like this, I wouldn't have this drinking problem." "Listen Les, you told me what you felt, and I respect that, but there's a part of me that will never get over Johnny."


But is there a place for On the Nose in your process? I think so, but I might just be justifying this to myself because I see it my own stuff. I think in an outline or first draft, there's lots of room for obviousness. You're explaining motivations to yourself, to producers, to broadcasters. It allows for a real discussion of why characters are doing what they're doing and what ramifications it might have on other episodes.

But... after the first draft... the second draft has gotta be spent covering it over. Otherwise, it's a short-cut that lets writers off the hook-- the hook being: to find a way to actually dramatize all those feelings. And like my buddy, when the writer tells the audience what he's writing about, instead of writing it, what's the point.

And it's not just writing that can be "on the nose". Some of the best examples of "on the nose" work I've seen is acted or directed, particularly in amateur theatre.

And productions of classical work is the worst. The actors have been directed by people who don't trust the audience to understand what the play is about and instead of staging it in a way that will heighten the drama and make it relevant and exciting, they make the poor actors (many of whom don't know any better) accomplices in their crimes. Characters are broadly drawned; scenes aren't performed, they're pointed out; jokes aren't played, they're explained.

It kills any drama or comedy that's there.

Don't believe me? Watch any university production of Shakespeare and see what happens when they make a joke about a "cod's piece". Trouble is, it's never bad enough to be really entertaining, cf: The Art of Coarse Acting.


wcdixon said...

great post - as long as you cover most of it up in your second draft, its okay to be all over the nose on your first pass just to write through it...

Annie said...

On the nose test:

Would this writing be out of place in the last scene
of Full House?

Hamish MacDonald said...

I suppose "On the Nose" writing (and thanks for that distinction) suffers because of its lack of subtlety. It's like Big-A acting that telegraphs things to the audience out of fear that they won't "get it", and Lord knows we like it more when writers and performers think more highly of us than that, and allow us to make those leaps with them, over that haiku space in which all the meaning rests.

But I think there's another factor here, certainly in the UK: most people in real life don't talk comfortably about their feelings. I've been to lots of workshops and drunk deeply of their Kool-Aid, so I'm all self-expressed and taking action in my life on the things that matter to me... and often freak people out with my honesty. Some people like it, but other people run away at the seeming intensity of it. "No, you're not supposed to say it out loud!"

But the alternative, learning to express less in this life, seems emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually retarded.

God knows I hate stories in which characters feel something for the duration of the work and refuse to do anything about it, or act at cross-purposes to it, either out of some Bronte-esque notion that this makes for better drama, or a postmodern idea that it wouldn't be "realistic" for people to do anything but thwart themselves.

A recent example of a story that gets this right is Little Miss Sunshine. There were two ways it could have gone at the end, one of which would be saccharine and formulaic, the other of which would have been depressingly maudlin. But the story found a third path that managed to acknowledge "Yeah, we know how these stories go" and surpass it with a surprise that wasn't a trick, but a new story.

Sorry, I kind of conflated plot with your original point about dialogue, but they feel to me like they spring from the same danger: pulling things from the toy-box of familiar devices. I cringe when I hear myself speak lines that I've heard dozens of times in movies. (I can't remember who it was, but one screenwriter, for instance, railed against the line "What's that supposed to mean?" as a cheap device for eliciting exposition.)

It's as if we've inherited a Meccano set of speech and action, and not only do we have to learn how to make it work, we then have to throw it away and invent our own.