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Archive for January, 2015

Some years ago, while working free-lance for Berkley Books, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to write about books I had yet to read.  The editor, who had presumably read the book, had an intermediary hand me a dot-matrix printed paragraph on a perforated piece of computer paper. My job was B2B.

I recall one of the science fiction outlines, which took place on a distant planet, was more or less a plot summary from the Cliff Notes on “Hamlet.”  What was I supposed to do with that?  Apparently, what I was paid to do — turn it into an alluring pitch so that Barnes and Noble would order more than one copy of the book before it was printed.  Often, just to get through the exercise, I’d have to write a “mock” draft — one where I’d ridicule the author and the book as derivative drivel set on an obscure planet so as to try and hide the trail back to Shakespeare.

Yes, I grew up in the publishing industry. Fresh out of college, I started in the mail room of Zebra Books — a romance company that published such politically correct titles as “Savage Love,” “Savage Ecstasy” and “Savage Romance,” all titles regarding the inter-racial love affairs of American Indians and abducted females who grew to love their captors.  The formula was basically — male rapes female, female hates male, male goes away, both realize they can’t live without the other. (I hope I haven’t given away any industry secrets).  I remember writing the back cover copy for my own version of a romance: “A starving hobo reaches toward the remains of a tossed cigarette, when the sooty fingers and grimed nails of a bag lady slide under hi s fingers.  Their hands touch in …. Gutter Love.

The Art Director of that place was a middle-aged, mustachio’d Italian madman named Vince with whom I had instant rapport.  Vince showed me the contract for one of the books — the publishers paid a thousand dollars for all rights.  Then he showed me the bill for the cover artwork: five thousand dollars.  “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he’d say.  In the mailroom with me was a young African American named Chris.  Chris was well over six feet tall and carried a lot of weight.  He was a Jehovah’s Witness, but spent half his day cussing people out for not following the rules. “Don’t you be bringing no mail here at 4:30 when I gots to get to the post office at 4:45.  Yes, I’m talking to you.”  Vince used to wait until Chris went to the bathroom.  Then he’d signal me to follow him.  We’d enter the small tiled space where there were three cubicles.  Vince:  “Contestant number one, welcome to today’s edition of mystery guest.  Take a look at those shoes and see if you can guess who might be our secret stall visitor today!”  Chris: “Doggone it Vince, if you don’t get out of here in two seconds, I’m gonna wrap your knuckle nose into the sink.”  Vince: “Sorry contestant one, our secret stall visitor spoke, thus disqualifying you from this round.  However, our secret stall visitor gets a free role of unbranded toilet paper.”  With that, Vince would toss a roll of t.p. from the counter over the top of the stall.
I later went to work for the AAP, the publisher’s lobby, in their educational offices in NYC.  Since my direct supervisor administered programs for the paperback publishing group (among others), I was tasked with a monthly press release on America’s Top Ten Bestselling Paperbacks.  Each month we’d run a different category, such as the Top Ten Bestselling Horror Paperbacks.  Most of the books were ten years or more removed from their first printing — they were just books people liked to buy.  I’d have to dream up an idea as to why this might be relevant for anyone (Halloween is coming and now it’s time to revisit some of your favorite horror classics).  Maybe they were required reading for school.  I recall one recipient sent the press release back to our office with a note across the face: “who cares?”

After a short stint as an administrative assistant at the National Book Awards, I went back to graduate school (what else does one do when the career path looks bleak and other options are vague?).  Via a fluke, I ended up teaching writing. I walked out of a general meeting without filling out an application and was called by the head of the department.  “Why didn’t you stay and do the application process?” “I did the math; adjunct work pays a little less than McDonald’s and there’s more homework.”  “Would you consider a full-time temporary position?” I had to have that explained more than once.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I also worked as a journalist.  I started out writing Theatre Criticism for The Ocean County Reporter, one of those free papers that ended up in everyone’s litter box.  The editor would chop up my sentences until they no longer said what I’d originally intended.  After a time, they offered to take me on full time.  I was to ride along with one of their best staffers and learn the ropes.  That lasted about six months — I needed to get out of Jersey.  One of my great regrets from my year in journalism is that I didn’t escape with a single published piece that I could use in a portfolio.  Either there are typesetting errors or enough editorial hacking that my work was no longer true.
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I don’t know that I’ve ever had any luck with Craigslist.  Almost every time I reply to an ad, with the exception of the apartment listings, it’s been some kind of con.

Yesterday, I scanned through the writing positions and there was a post about a “Book Blogging” position that also included an eventual website building/maintenance reference.  The publisher was called Harper Duz Books.  Naturally, the first thing I did was google the company.  Hits??? One — a wordpress blog reviewing a book called “Love in the Time of Cocaine.”  The review wasn’t all that well written, and for someone who began the page by saying they were reviewing the book for a “new publishing company out of New Jersey,” the analysis was not all that kind:

“…the writing itself leaves much to be desired. Alban’s first novel, it reads like an exercise in a creative writing seminar….it reads like poorly received comedy. Harvey and Luis’ friends are comically portrayed as stereotypes, while Luis and Pamela are generic figments of a fairytale….Unfortunately, the reader spends most of the time wondering whether or not this is a teenager writing in a fiction class or a horrendous translation.”  (author only identified as “Page Terror“)

I was skeptical, but decided to write to the address anyway.  I created an abridged blog about my experience in the publishing industry (which I will amplify slightly and add in a day or two — because it was fun).  As I walked around, I thought — they won’t reply.  I mostly mocked my publishing encounters.  Probably not the outcome they were seeking.

Lo and behold, this morning I receive an e-mail from Eleanor Orduz (could that be the Duz in Harper Duz?). Actually, it was signed Nicole.  The content:

“We have had some qualified candidates respond.  In order to select the best blogger for the position we are asking that you read one of our new titles and write a positive review of the book directly on Amazon.  We will select the best blogger for the position by comparing the reviews.  Please find, here attached, Love in the Time of Cocaine by Alvaro Alban.  Once you have read the book, please look it up on Amazon and leave your review.  Do not send your review to this email.  We will read your review and contact you directly.”

In some respects, one has to admire the cojones, the willingness to manipulate Amazon reviews to perhaps lead to more hits? More sales?  Needless to say, I’m not going to waste my time selling their book for free, but I felt compelled to write something here just in case someone else, like me, decides to google the publisher before going to work on their review.  Oh yeah, I’ll tweet this one too.  And maybe even print the letter as my Amazon review.

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I’m a later-comer to the Elmore Leonard oeuvre.  Naturally I’ve heard the name and had even watched Get Shorty without exactly knowing who wrote it.  I picked up Cuba Libre not even knowing it fell in the category of crime fiction — I simply wanted to read something new.  Leonard died before I ever read a word he wrote.  I guess it wasn’t all that new.

I’m not going to say I’ve downed the Leonard collection of 46 books, 7 screenplays and 2 teleplays before I made some observations.  My first note to myself was, that as intricate as I found the plots and as quirky as I found the characters, I always put down the novels as if I hadn’t had a full meal.  Now, I’ll admit, when I picked up the novels, I saw them as fiction, not crime fiction.  They were on the library shelves for contemporary fiction — and the library has a section for crime fiction.  Maybe they jumped ship.

What I love about the novels is similar to what I love about Shakespeare.  The messenger who appears before Henry V is full of sauce and vinegar for the English king.  He claims he was told to put it on and later basically apologizes for underestimating the valor of the man whose reputation was gained as Prince Hal.  They guy appears for basically eight to ten lines and he has as rich a life and purpose as any other character in the play.  The same is true for the Lords who plotted with the French and are found out before the troops leave for France — they are justified and believe in their cause (for all of one or two lines each).  Leonard has a similar capacity to see to it that each of his characters has a personal objective that is rarely subservient to the needs of anyone else.

In Road Dogs, various characters who’ve been fleshed out in other novels intersect. Jack Foley (Out of Sight) and Cundo Rey (LaBrava) come together via prison and connect with Dawn Navarro (Riding the Rap), who is waiting for Cundo in Venice, CA.  Each time the plot twists, it is more or less a revelation that a character is adjusting how they play the scene to get what they want.  Each character in the book has an agenda, from the FBI agent who trails Foley and threatens a local gangbanger into gathering a group of hoods to act as surveillance, to the movie star who is set up by Dawn as a mark for her psychic con game.  What is true for Shakespeare is true for Leonard — there’s no such thing as an auxiliary character.  Every person you encounter is central to their own life and has their own designs on how the game should play out.

The other commonality in Leonard’s work is a mirror of the hard-boiled detective.  Like the private investigators of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Leonard centers his work on criminals who have their own code of honor. I’d consider calling them “hard-boiled criminals,” but that phrase tends to imply something else.  Jack Foley, for example, will consider double-crossing Cundo Rey and even sleep with Dawn, his common-law wife, but as events unfold there is a bond to his yard-mate that he cannot dishonor.  Neither can he go through and pretend to exorcise the new widow Danielle’s house of ghosts — it is abhorrent to him to play on her grief as part of the scam.

So then, the novels are lean, the characters self-motivated, the plots make credible twists as each character adjusts their methods to get what they want — what accounts for the half-hour after Chinese meal syndrome?  Simply this — there are few, if any, character arcs.  There are only plot arcs.  Once again, I blame the library for not alerting me that I was reading something other than crime fiction — no one expects Sam Spade to come to some kind of self-realization during one of his private investigations.  Half of the fun of the hard-boiled detective is the narrative voice making snide observations about “losers” and “dames.”  However, Hammett atones for Spade’s lack of character arc by his vulnerability.  Sam always believes one wrong person and gets trundled into a shack or shot up with narcotics as a result — and from there he gets hardened and recovers his dignity (along with whatever prize he may have been sent to discover).

The criminals in Leonard are generally too wary to be vulnerable.  They break bread with each other knowing that there are knives at every place setting.  And most of them finish the novel, dead or alive, no smarter than they began it.  Like Chinese food, it’s a fun night out, but it makes me question his ten rules of good writing.  They don’t really tell you very much (did you expect them to?):

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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