Is plot dead?
I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn’t just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called “well-made story”, was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.
Actually, to say we were “arguing” is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What’s more, this student is no kid. She’s also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She’s mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.
By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn’t read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I’ve spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.
Every writer in the guild – screenwriters, TV writers, news writers – depends on structure. It’s our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I’d go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.
Structure, of course, isn’t some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one’s genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you’re convinced it’s a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that’s being told, if it drives the action… then it’s good. If you’re riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you’re still talking about it weeks later… then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.
Recently, some WGAE colleagues and I were talking with a room full of producers/writers who work in non-fiction TV—(this means shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman or Four Weddings) mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn’t expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, “Yeah… because we put it there.” Of course, it’s something we all knew intellectually… and yet there it was a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.
If you were, I definitely didn’t see you; it was such a giant, heaving mosh pit, I literally feared for my life at times. Over the past five years, NY Comic Con has mushroomed from a clutch of comic book collectors with card tables held together with gaffer’s tape into a sold-out, Javits Center media event that’s starting to rival the uber-Con in San Diego. My boyfriend and occasional writing partner, Laurence Klavan, and I are longtime playwrights, TV writers, and novelists (well, okay; he’s the novelist and I’m the TV writer) and are relatively new to the comic world. But we do have two graphic novels out and so were kindly invited to sign books at the First Second booth with the respective artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, as well as appear on a panel Friday night.
Considering that the Con officially closed each night at 8PM, we were initially suspicious when we noticed that our panel was scheduled for 9PM. “What gives?” we thought with writerly paranoia. Would anyone be in the audience? Would our fellow panelists even show? What if it was all a terrible scheduling snafu? We grimly fought our way past a vast horde of purple be-wigged Hit Girls, bikinied Slave Leias, and other characters who were waiting for a bigger, more popular event across the hall and were surprised/stunned to see we actually had an audience, and a pretty sizeable one at that, for our panel, “Building a World in Comics”.
I can’t speak for Laurence, but I went in feeling, well, kind of intimidated. It wasn’t just that I still thought there was a scheduling mistake and the audience was actually waiting to meet Stan Lee. “World-building” is an expression you hear a lot of in the comics world, since so much of the form deals with superheroes, aliens, historical figures, and anthropomorphized critters living on different planets or levels of reality. Don’t get me wrong; Laurence and I have both written quite a few surreal and/or supernatural plays, stories, and animated scripts. But our graphic novels in question (City of Spies and Brain Camp) take place, respectively; in New York City and upstate New York (what can I say? We like New York). Granted, one has a sci-fi element and the other takes place in a NYC that might as well be another planet, i.e. the one from World War Two. But what could we say about world-building that might inform or interest anyone, much less the core audience for Neil Gaiman, Bone, and The Dark Knight?
Our moderator was comics journalist and manager of Bergen Street Comics, Tucker Stone, and our co-panelists were cartoonists George O’Connor and Mike Cavallaro. George began talking about his work re-inventing the myths of the Ancient Romans, and Mike described how he depicted the alternate reality that takes over in the latter part of his latest graphic novel, Foiled. Both artists are supremely talented at creating heightened and mythic worlds; given our books, I was starting to feel if not like a bull in a china shop, then like a square peg in a distinctly round-hole kind of panel. Yet it was in response to a question from an intense guy in the front row about “getting all the details right” that I suddenly realized all four of us were all speaking the same language: and that’s the language of character, emotion, and story.
Of course, world-building needs research; details and specificity are crucial to good storytelling. And it’s tempting to research your envisioned universe so enthusiastically, you risk drowning in it. But no matter if you’re an artist or a writer, a good story isn’t primarily about the details of your world, whether it’s Ancient Rome, a far-off planet, 14th century Venice, or a summer camp in Dutchess County. As mighty as it sounds, world-building only exists to serve story; and story is always about character.
I’m writing this at a corner table at a coffee bar near my apartment. For me, this is so unusual, it’s practically freakish. I’ve always written at home; even when I was young and broke, I wrote at home. Back then, I was so poor, I didn’t have a desk and instead balanced my keyboard on an open dresser drawer. These days, I not only have a desk, I have a nice desk, a battered antique that a late friend of mine, a friend who was admittedly something of a lush, used as a bar. The writing surface is still covered with round white circles where various wet highball glasses and vodka bottles once stood and on humid days, I swear you can almost smell the bourbon.
I like writing at home. I like the quiet, the books, the food. I like being able to walk around in the ugliest t-shirt imaginable and take a nap (right on the floor if I ever wanted to!) whenever I have the urge. I don’t take my situation for granted. I know for many writers — people with young kids, roommates, impossibly tiny apartments – find it difficult if not outright impossible to swing this. A writer friend of mine shared a minuscule studio with an actress wife who was often home; he rigged up a circular shower rod in one corner and behind the heavy curtain was his laptop, the tiniest desk imaginable, and a pair of earplugs. Having a place where one can be alone with one’s thoughts, the proverbial room of one’s own, is so essential for writers, many of us have had to jerry-rig a few cubic feet and the illusion of privacy out of whatever’s at hand. And so while I’ve lived with my boyfriend (also a writer) for many years, I’ve always held onto my tiny Village apartment as an office. I once complained to a friend about all the artists’ colonies and writers’ retreats she’d been to that I wish I had gone to as well, and she seemed honestly taken aback. “But you don’t need to get away to write,” she pointed out. And she’s right.
Jean Kerr, author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, was so hard-pressed as a suburban mother to carve out any kind of privacy for herself that she would regularly pile her manuscript into her station wagon, drive a few blocks away, and covertly write against the steering wheel, hoping none of her brood would bike by and find her. My maternal grandmother was a novelist in Korea who supported a gigantic family (ten kids!) writing serialized stories in various newspapers. She regularly took refuge in the various tea rooms of Pusan, scribbling longhand, and handing the finished sheets to a trusted child (i.e. my mother) to hand-deliver. According to my mother, hers was a top-secret mission; but her siblings would invariably find out, the jig would be up, and my grandmother would be forced to move on and find a new refuge. I have a photo of my grandmother in one such restaurant, glasses on, holding a pen and focused absolutely on a stack of papers in front of her despite the guy sitting across from her, virtually no room to move in, and the noise of a city so obviously pouring in through open windows. I used to look at the picture and wonder: how did she do it? Then I became a writer myself and realized: she just did. This, after all, was a woman with deadlines, serious mouths to feed, and the compulsion to write. When she needed a break, she would head out and grab a bus, any bus, and ride along its entire route – staring both blankly and observantly at the world in the way we all do, wherever we live, whenever we need to get out of our heads.So I’m thrilled that the Writers Guild East, now in its new location on Hudson Street just north of Canal, is finally opening a Writing Room: a quiet place with six work stations where members can come in, plug in a laptop or take out a Moleskine, and write.
Reservations are in four-hour blocks starting at 9:30AM and will be assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. Cellphones and food will be blessedly banned, as will, I hope, boisterous conversation and over-amplified I-pods. If people want to write in a Starbucks, damnit, they can go out and write in a Starbucks.
The Writing Room is nothing fancy; all that will be provided is a flat surface, quiet, wireless, an outlet, and some coffee. Yet while these things together might be considered a luxury in New York City for anyone, for the writer, they’re as essential as words themselves.
When it comes to writing, I’m a mutt. I’ve written documentaries, books, textbooks, instructional videos. The nice thing about this kind of work is you pick up a few tips. I wrote a video on how to run a faster 10k and now I know what a fartlek is. I wrote a Martha Stewart Christmas special and now I can make a Christmas wreath out of a hanger.I even wrote a video course on college algebra when I was desperate for money. This taught me that even though getting older means that the things that seemed impossible when you were young are not only easy but fun (e.g. speaking in public, driving a stick shift, screaming into a megaphone on a picket line), algebra isn’t one of them. But for most of my career, I’ve written dramatic work – plays, some screenplays, and tons of children’s television.
There are those who write prose, people an agent I know refers to “real writers”. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those of us who write stories that aren’t meant to be the final product, but the blueprint for the final product. Our work exists to be interpreted – by directors, designers, actors – which means that only a percentage of what we originally intended makes it to screen or stage. Occasionally, the result is better than one could have imagined; often, it’s worse; always, it’s different. Does this attract a certain kind of person? I teach in a low-residency MFA program in creative writing and trust me on this one, you can tell the dramatic writers a mile away. The playwriting and screenwriting students are the ones hugging and doing improv and putting on cabarets and one-act festivals. They’re upbeat and unpretentious, and give graduation speeches that are too long and require props. As far as I can tell, dramatic writers are sort of the clowns of the MFA program, minus the seltzer bottle and big pants. Maybe that’s because drama is not only a collaborative form, it’s as low as vaudeville and as ancient as the Greeks. Or maybe it’s all that hanging out with actors.
When you write children’s animation, of course, there are no actors to hang out with. The actors tend to be a bunch of eight-year olds in London, or a studio full of adults doing funny voices in LA. And there are only rarely table meetings, the kind I dreamt about as a kid watching Dick Van Dyke, meetings where you’re surrounded by funny, smart people all talking at once while punching up a script and eating deli and screaming with laughter.My life as a television writer is the opposite, a sort of middle-class/Greenwich Village version of a 19th century Jacob Riis photo, the one where some nameless lady is sewing shirtwaists in an Essex Street apartment: it’s basically piecework, with internet access. Alone in my apartment, I pitch, I write, I recoil at the notes, I write again. The more shirtwaists I crank out, the more I get paid. If my stitching gets sloppy, I lose the gig. And let’s not even talk about insurance, since animation is so not covered by the Guild, it’s almost funny, but isn’t.
One of the pleasures of writing animation, however, is the relative control you have over the visuals. (Note: I say “relative”). Sure, there are restrictions. Some people think animation means you’re free to write anything, whereas the truth is you can’t even show running water or a character putting on a sweater. Still, what I write pretty much stays in the script. If I write that an octopus holds a balloon and floats up to the stars, or a jealous heron knocks her husband off a tree branch, or a starfish swoons with emotion (and in closeup no less)… it stays. If you pitch it well enough, if it’s affordable, if it’s good… the sky’s the limit. Within reason.
In terms of pure satisfaction, I’m lucky enough to have two graphic novels out now, books I wrote with my boyfriend/fellow Guild member, Laurence Klavan. We wrote City of Spies and Brain Camp as screenplays, which were handed over to two amazing artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, who then directed, shot, cast, acted, designed and edited what they read. I’m still stunned by how faithful both books are to what we wrote, down to the smallest detail… even while they utterly express the personality and vision of the two artists.
It’s about the purest collaborative experience I’ve ever had in my life and of course, I hope both books do well. But I’m not kidding myself. As a business, publishing isn’t TV (frankly, these days even TV isn’t TV); and even the most successful graphic novel sells only thousands of copies, maybe tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands… who knows? Compare this to a single cartoon I’ve written, even a not-very-good episode for a lousy show, which can and will be seen by literally millions of children, around the world, for what I’m sure will feel like forever.
Still, I can’t complain. Whoever said this was supposed to be easy?