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.