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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

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.