Category Archives: Acting

I Live in Terror of the Creepy Elves – Emotion in Writing

Do they smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival?

I know it sounds like a frivolous question, but I grappled with it for several hours yesterday. You see, I’m writing a story about Santa Claus, and he’s an elf, and the next thing that happens in the story requires a bunch of elves all together in a jolly horde. So, I needed to create an elvish solstice festival. Obviously. But then I had to describe the damn thing.

What do big groups of elves do for fun? I’m not talking about those gangly, pasty Tolkien elves that creep me out, and that would creep you out too if you met one of the pouty, immortal bastards. I’m talking about happy elves that clean your house in the middle of the night and make toys and steal your firstborn child if you can’t guess their name. You know, elf hijinx. But what do big gangs of them do for a good time?

I thought of lots of things they might do. Dancing around elf-sized solstice-poles, holding shoe making contests, dueling with candy canes, and so forth. None of it seemed right. I liked the image of the teenage, future St. Nick and his friends hiding behind a giant toadstool and smoking a joint. But that didn’t seem right either. I felt like a crummy writer. I hated my brain, and I wanted to beat it to death with tequila.

My fourth tequila shot reminded me of something I learned in improvisational acting. When you want to start a scene, don’t think about something happening. Go with an emotion.

Okay, you may not relate to that, so try this. Think about when you were five years old and you wanted to tell a fib. Some enlightened parents call it telling a story. My parents called it being a lying little shit. Whatever you call it, you needed to tell something that wasn’t true. It’s just like being a writer, except that five-year-olds don’t get paid, and writers don’t get paid either, but they get lots of rejection letters that make them think about tequila and smoking dope.

Anyway, your five-year-old self may start his lie with, “What happened was, I was standing in the kitchen, and then I was just playing, you know, and just standing there petting the dog, and then the dog jumped on the table and then knocked the baby on the floor…” You know the whole time you’re talking that you knocked the baby on the floor when you climbed the height chair to grab a fist full of cake frosting. This pathetic lie ends with you locked in the broom closet for a week and fed only spaghetti noodles slid under the door. All because you just talked about stuff happening.

Instead, go with emotion. You should start your lie with a hurricane of tears, and then shriek, “The baby’s going to die! Don’t let the dog kill me too!” This is more like it. Your mom is so freaked out that she never considers you might be a lying little shit. This lie ends with the dog tied to a stake in the backyard and you getting a popsicle.

So how did Mr. Tequila help my five-year-old self create an elvish solstice festival? Instead of trying to imagine what was happening at this festival, I took each character in the story and wrote about his favorite thing at the festival, and why it was his favorite thing. It didn’t exactly write itself, and the four tequila shots didn’t help. But when I’d finished it felt right and made sense, and I had a realistic place for my characters to do some dumb stuff. Well, as realistic as an elvish festival can get.

And no, they don’t smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival. Snorting lines of pixie dust is another matter.

Yeah, we know what’s in that pipe, Sparky.

Forget Everything You’ve Learned. This Is For Real.

As an actor, I love being onstage. If I could manage it, I’d spend all of my acting-related time onstage. I despise rehearsals. The only thing I hate worse than rehearsing is sucking onstage. So, I rehearse and try to forget that the Jim Butcher novels will be picked over by the time I get to Half-Price Books tonight. It’s not exactly cutting off my ear or cultivating a heroin addiction, but it’s suffering of a sort.

I’ve just survived six weeks of rehearsal, and before diving into the eight-week show I started wondering about things. I did not wonder why I spent time practicing old skills I’d already mastered, and I did not wonder why I practiced new skills until my corpse could execute them, like frog’s legs jumping in a frying pan. That all made sense. But I did wonder why rehearsal, which is so good for me, feels nothing like performing in the show.

Well, everybody knows that you’ve got to train, practice, learn, get educated, and so on. I could find about 100 billion quotes on the subject, and only 110 billion humans have ever been born. But once you’ve trained to do a thing, you then have to do it for real, unless you’re my cousin Dave, who gets by just fine living over his mom’s garage and playing X-Box. The real world is a tricky place when it comes to doing things. Different things work in different ways.

For example, let’s take something I learned and then did in the real world: digging ditches. Effective ditch digging requires a surprising amount of learning, at least if you want to be able to stand up at the end of the day. I admit that learning to dig a ditch when I was 12 years old took a lot less time than learning the alphabet when I was five, but I still had to concentrate on what I was learning. Once I mastered the skills and started digging for real, the experience was different. I had to pay a certain amount of attention to not smash a toe, but my brain had plenty of time to think about football and that car I was saving up to buy in five years. So ditch digging = low learning curve, low analytical requirements, and high potential for daydreaming.

Let’s jump forward a disturbing number of years to another thing I learned and did for real: statistics.

(To digress, it may seem odd to you that I can like acting and statistics at the same time. Yet I like all the math, and perhaps that does reveal psychological issues. You may sometimes hear physicists mocking sociologists about not being real scientists. How can you call sociology a real science when it studies people, who are appallingly random compared to, say, quarks? On the other hand, how can you call physics a real science when it studies quarks, which are appallingly random compared to the number 4? Mathematics is the only true science, and you can imagine what the mathematician in me thinks of the actor in me. I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex about having it.)

I studied statistics for a moderately long time. During that period I probably could have learned to dig ditches about two thousand times. I found it sometimes challenging, and for a while I thought I’d be happy to die if I never had to hear about Bayes’ Theorem again. Eventually I applied these skills in the real world, and just like in ditch digging the experience then changed. I didn’t need to worry about smashing a toe with a poorly wielded normal distribution. But I had crammed a lot of statistics knowledge into my brain, and now I had to solve real problems by releasing that knowledge, as if I were the world’s most anal-retentive graffiti artist. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it. It just wasn’t possible for me to calculate an analysis of variance and daydream about my girlfriend at the same time, and I’m not sure that would have been a compliment to her anyway. So statistics = high learning curve, high analytical requirements, and low potential for daydreaming.

So let’s get back to this acting thing. It does not take long to become a bad actor. Any four-year-old trying to hide a broken vase will prove my point. It takes hard, thoughtful training in acting techniques to turn you into an actor that people like to imagine killing, and with more hard work you can make audiences merely hate you. With more exhausting effort you can develop the skill to make audiences first unaware of your existence, then be indifferent to you, and then find you inoffensive. After an amount of training equal to several doctorates in ditch digging, you can at last entertain people, or at least remind them of someone they once liked. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. I’ve seen other people skip straight from vase-hiding to entertaining people in just the time it took me to learn the alphabet.

But when I get to the real world, audiences don’t like it if I bumble around looking for my mark. They get confused if I dither over my character’s motivation, especially when his motivation should be to say the damned words that the author put down on the damned paper. Maybe I’ve mastered the individual techniques, but I can’t be thinking about techniques while I perform, because the audience wants more than a collection of successfully-executed techniques. That’s something they could get by putting the script and an acting book together in a blender. So acting = high learning curve (at least for us remedial types), low analytical requirements (no one cares which hand I use to hold Yorik’s skull), and high potential for daydreaming. And that’s the trick for me—daydream potential is my tool for making something happen that’s fun, unexpected, unexplained, and won’t make the audience imagine killing me.

So as I ride towards opening day, I do so on the back of my new acting mantra:

“At rehearsal, think about work. At work, think about magic.”

And I can always fall back on statistics. Or ditch digging.

If I go back to digging ditches, I'm hiring this dude as an apprentice.

Baron Yörg Goes to the Movies – The Princess Bride

I can testify with certainty that life exists beyond death. I died 500 years ago, and I am still receiving bills for water and property taxes. That seems compelling evidence that I, the vampire Baron Yörg, still live. And though I gladly ravage and obliterate all that is pure, tender and sacrosanct in this world, I still cannot get the tax appraisal district to cease annoying me. No matter how many of them I slaughter, more arise like grubs from beneath a slimy stone. This aggravates me enough to consider falling upon a sharply pruned dwarf holly tree and ending my existence, but one pleasure sustains me. I adore films, and I cherish the opportunity to share my observations about them.

Today I shall discuss The Princess Bride, a modest film released a generation ago that somehow has sustained a cult following. The film is not without charms, I admit. Yet does it merit the ongoing acclaim awarded it by romantics and people who perhaps believe in unicorns and chivalry?

To begin, I am refreshed to find that the story’s hero, The Dread Pirate Roberts, has ordered the murder of dozens of helpless prisoners, and himself has likely killed a good number of unarmed men begging for their lives. He rises above the mass of insipid protagonists who save maidens, fight evil sheriffs, or perhaps fail to kill anyone at all. Though Roberts does not delve into any significant wickedness, he obviously enjoys the pain of others, and the film profits by that in my estimation. Roberts fails to impress when he allows the whining Spaniard and the unintelligible giant to live, but he excels in his lack of emotion. Indeed, though he declares the princess to be his true love, he never shows any greater emotion towards her than he would towards a bowl of tasty mutton stew.

Lest my praise become overblown, I must complain that most of the actors cast in this film are far too pretty. Florin and Guilder appear to be medieval kingdoms, so the main characters should have less than two dozen teeth between them. This shook my suspension of disbelief, as did the general cleanliness and the absence of warts. Just a few pox-ridden wretches in the gutters would have suggested misery and filth, but the filmmakers could not be bothered with even that effort.

That disappointment is compounded by the so-called villains in this film. Prince Humperdinck is nothing but a pathetic string-puller. He does not deserve to be called a villain, and indeed hardly deserves to be called a sentient being. Count Rugen fares no better. He dresses like a Florentine haberdasher on his way to the opera, and no number of extra fingers can overcome so much brocade when it comes to unleashing bowel-loosening terror. And of course the man allows himself to be slain by a melancholy Spaniard, which removes all doubt that he is nothing but a sack of table scraps with a goatee.

Allow me to move on to one of the film’s shining aspects. I of course refer to the Fire Swamp. When Roberts and the princess explore this charming locale, they infuse the middle of the film with energy and a profound sense of fun. When the fire spout set the princess ablaze I felt a satisfying glow, and when the sand smothered her I almost smiled. By the time the last Rodent of Unusual Size had been slain, my henchman Nodwick had prostrated himself to beg for a renovation to his quarters. That dank, leech-infested cupboard was no longer his ideal domicile. In an act of mercy I am ashamed to relate, I granted his request by tossing a diseased rat and a shovelful of sand on him one night as he slept.  

The Princess Bride includes only three deaths, and one of them does not count since Roberts pops right back to life a few minutes later. That is a paltry number of deaths by anyone ’s standards. If no more people than that are to be slain, one might as well watch Pride and Prejudice. Rugen’s death almost fails to signify as a death at all, since he is so lacking in consequence. Yet Vizzini’s death produces odd satisfaction. He is an annoying, petty toad of a man, and would in fact make an ideal bug-eater. Something about his tone of voice inspires thoughts of ripping off his feet and making him wear them like earrings. Thus I feel that Vizzini’s death equates to five or six killings for entertainment purposes, and I am inclined to judge the film a bit more leniently.

Other aspects of the film contest with one another, some disappointing and others charming. Rugen’s torture device is laughable. No villain with any imagination would name a torture device The Machine. What an insipid name. Strap a man to a device called The Water-Powered Testicle Crusher, and then you will see him talk. Contrariwise, any film that includes a blazing, levitating giant who bellows in what might or might not be some human language is a film to be reckoned with.

The Princess Bride’s many charms offset its failures, but it’s greatest flaw is its artistic vision. The filmmakers chose True Love as their theme, and the story whirls inconsequentially around that concept. They ignored many weightier messages already in the film and begging for exploration: The Blind Cruelty of Revenge, The Uncaring Greed of Kidnapping, and The Nether-Tingling Nastiness of Torture. These are the issues that will enlighten, educate, and entertain. Even the filmmakers must have known this on some level, since they chose a pale dimwit with a speech impediment to extol True Love’s fine qualities during the wedding scene.

At the end, when all things are measured out and damnation is visited upon the deserving, how do I assess this film? It entertained me, but it missed so many opportunities to accomplish so much more. I give The Princess Bride two horrific depredations visited upon the innocent, out of five.

Off to another charming day of murdering innocent sailors. Don't wait up, darling!

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Why Can’t Mice Use Bazookas?

I spent a good part of last night wondering why mice can’t use bazookas. Well, I say that I was wondering about this, but that may be a little misleading. My wife would probably say that was whining rather than wondering. Mouse-bazooka capability doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. If not bazookas, then something else that’s destructive on a similar scale. Napalm would be nice, or maybe they could topple a big church over onto something they don’t like.

For 20 chapters of the story I’m writing, my mice have lived in obliterating terror of their antagonist, and now it’s time to kill the bastard. Sixteen chapters ago I set up the ideal plot device to perform the coup de grâce. My problem is that when the coup comes, my readers will have seen it coming from 16 chapters away. That’s a lousy way to reward them for sticking with the story for 20 chapters. I need a Left Turn.

My understanding of the Left Turn springs from improvisational acting. In improv, when your partner says or does something, then you should say or do something in response. Hopefully you say something that makes sense. If you say something entertaining, that’s a bonus. Sometimes it’s neat to respond with something called a Left Turn, which is a response that no one expected, but that makes sense to everyone the moment you say it. It can’t just be some wild, random, turnips-doing-algebra-and-barking-like-dogs thing. That just confuses everyone and makes the audience hate you and all your seed unto the last generation. It has to make sense—unlike mice firing bazookas.

I’ve found that you can’t force a Left Turn to appear. That’s like forcing an ice cream truck to come down your block. But you can do things to encourage a Left Turn, just like you can hire pretty girls to stand at the curb waving dollars and crying out for Eskimo Pies. To cultivate a Left Turn in improv, when it’s your turn you can follow a chain of ideas until you get to an interesting response. Each idea builds on the one before it, so it gets further from the obvious response but still has a logical connection back to the beginning.

Here’s an improvised Left Turn in a scene:

Me: “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! You killed 20 communist infiltrators all by yourself.”

My Partner: “Yes, but I’m terribly wounded.”

Me: “True, you’re about to die, but before you go I have one thing to say to you.”

My Partner: “What?”

[I start with the idea that this dude is about to die, and then I follow the chain of ideas.]

First idea in my head: “What do you want carved on your head stone?”
Second idea in my head: “Who should take care of your wife and children?”
Third idea in my head: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

Me: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

A Left Turn is born—logical, but not obvious.

So how the heck do my mice Left Turn their enemy into oblivion, alongside Carthage and The Captain and Tennille? I’ll start off with the basic assumption, which is something the mice might say. How about:

“This appalling creature is impaling and disemboweling us all over the place. We should do something.”

And here’s a chain of ideas about what they could do:

—Fall down and play dead.

—Run away to a safer town and forget this blemish of a place.

—Convince the creature it would be more fun to go impale and disembowel someone else, preferably someone far away who was once mean to us.

—Find someone who hates this creature worse than butt fungus and let him eradicate the creature.

—Find someone the creature loves and hold him/her/it hostage until the creature goes away.

—Eat poison and then let the creature eat us. Noble but stupid.

—Lead the creature to the town’s best hunter and taxidermist who conveniently happened to be passing by.

—Lure a giant predator bird down to kill the creature.

—Wait for a god to be lowered on wires and smite the creature with a thunderbolt.

I realize that my chain is pretty long now and that none of these ideas quite sparkle. Maybe I need to work a bit more on how the Left Turn can transition from improvisation to writing. Or maybe I started from the wrong basic assumption. I could instead begin with:

—Kill the creature with a bazooka.

—Kill the creature with a hyper-velocity acorn.

—Tie acorns to our foreheads so the creature chokes to death when it tries to eat a mouse.

I’ll keep working on it.

"A cat in an armored car? Good thing I brought my bazooka."

Photo by Noah7104 at www.roblox.com. (http://www.roblox.com/User.aspx?ID=1032679)

The Magical World of Falling on Your Ass

I am a connoisseur of failure. I appreciate failure all across its breadth and depth, from the most innocent gaffe to the catastrophe of shrieking magnificence. Success never tells me who I am. But when I’m crushed by an avalanche of failure, then I can see myself with frigid clarity.

Failure hurts like drinking molten lead. I don’t love it. You’d be crazy to love it. Some people may seek out failure, but nobody loves it. Success is a lot more laughs. You don’t get congratulatory cards for failing to graduate high school, for not making it to your wedding anniversary, or for not getting that big promotion. People tend not to appreciate failure just because it hurts, it’s unpopular, and it sucks.

I feel qualified to speak about failure because I’ve had a lot of it. I dropped out of college like a dope. I pursued a string of one-sided romantic relationships with women who couldn’t distinguish me from a mail box. I got married and then divorced in an impressive 18 months. I lost my business, went bankrupt, and lost my house along with nearly everything else. The year I turned 30 I made less money than I did the year I turned 17. I delivered stage performances that made the audience resemble lizards in a hard freeze. I failed in my efforts to help dozens of family and friends, resulting in everything from having to flush a radiator all the way up to death. Believe me, I know failure.

When people are asked how to fail, they often say something like, “You just screw up.” There’s a certain purity to this answer, but otherwise it’s stupid. In fact, I can fail in six ways. I can fail by setting my goals so obscenely low that even if I reach them I’m still considered a big failure. Or, I can set my goals so staggeringly high that God himself would have to come down and alter the laws of the universe for me to reach them. That guarantees failure for me.

Even if I get my goals right, I can still fail by not paying attention to the details. For example, my car may never reach its destination because it ran out of gas, due to me daydreaming about the Cherry Slushee I want to buy and never looking at the gauge. I can also fail by paying too much attention to the details and forgetting what I’m trying to accomplish. Maybe I drive flawlessly, but I end up at the fabric store, not a promising venue for iced cherry beverages.

Failure is scary, so it may seem odd when I promise you that being terrified of failure is a sure way to fail. Failure is kind of like a horse. If it senses you fear it, it will turn on you, buck you off, chase you, bite you on the arm, and shit on your rose bushes. If I fear failure, I won’t be able to think of anything except failing. Then failure becomes inevitable.

And the last way to fail is to embrace failure. That certainly sounds nuts. But embracing failure is when I try something that I think I can do—maybe—but that I’m not sure I can do. Sometimes I achieve things I didn’t expect. Sometimes I fall straight onto my ass from a moderately great height. But if I’m in the market for failure, I think this is the best buy.

Say that I have walked one of the six paths to failure, and now I have stumbled into a smelly, leech-infested thorn bush of non-success. Now I have the chance to see who I am and what I can learn. But a huge barrier squats between me and all this good knowledge. That barrier consists of four words, and when they come out of my mouth they sound like, “It wasn’t my fault.” Do not misunderstand me. I would adore it if none of my failures was my fault. I’d throw a party. I’ve often claimed that my failures were somebody else’s fault. I was dumb to do that, because when I claim that a failure was not my fault I’m also admitting that there’s not a damned thing I can do to prevent it from happening again. If I had no hand in it happening, then I can’t do anything to fix it. I’ve had to admit that my hideous failures were at least partly my fault, or else I could look forward to them happening again and again until I die.

I despise it when I fail, but I’ve learned to savor failure itself and the happy toys it brings to the failure party. Embracing failure can be particularly sweet, because I’m going out and doing it on purpose instead of stumbling into failure like a toddler in a room full of coffee tables. So I shoot for a little failure occasionally, because now and then it’s nice to see what I look like.

Baron Yörg Goes to the Movies – Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Vampires know three things. We know the best bars in which to meet young women with poor judgment. We know the pervasive boredom of eternal existence. And we know quality entertainment. I refer to entertainment that can ameliorate boredom even when you have just consumed your fifth girl named Ashley this month.

I, Baron Yörg, have patronized entertainment and the arts for more than 500 years. I feel qualified to express educated opinions, and have been asked to share my views on films, to which I have become devoted. I am pleased to select “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” for my first review.

My initial reaction to the film was, “My God, Gary Oldman makes the real Dracula look like an unshaven, sweaty gypsy at the Wine Festival.” Mr. Oldman is rather homely himself—no aspersions intended—so this says something about Dracula’s true lack of beauty. I believe this shows intelligent casting by the film makers, since an overly-pretty vampire lacks credibility. It is difficult to bend the forces of darkness to your will if they are wondering whether you are wearing eyeliner. Jack Palance portrayed Dracula in an earlier film, and he possessed the ideal look. He would have intimidated the armies of Hell even had he been a baker rather than a vampire.

Lest my praise become too effusive, I must take issue with the wardrobe. I understand artistic license. Indeed, I enjoyed Shakespeare’s libelous hatchet-job on Richard III. But if Victorian Englishwomen had slept in costumes such as those seen in this film, the nation would have been depopulated by pneumonia long since. In addition, some of Dracula’s costumes would present insurmountable challenges when one wished to slaughter and terrorize. Supernatural abilities mean nothing when one is burdened with a 20 foot long embroidered oriental robe that could easily clothe an entire family of Chinese peasants. Finally, I must express astonishment at Dracula’s double-beehive hair that caused him to resemble a demonic Dolly Parton. Should I ever meet the person responsible, I shall tear out his throat forthwith.

The supporting cast delivered lovely performances. Sir Anthony Hopkins portrayed Van Helsing with his customary verve. He showed us a Van Helsing who would be a pleasure to torture to death in shrieking agony.  Subsequent years have shown us what a treasure Sir Anthony is for film lovers, and I may choose to transform him into a howling undead fiend so that we may all enjoy his performances for many years to come.

The script adhered nicely to Mr. Stoker’s rather fanciful tale. I recall those actual events as involving rather fewer moaning girls and locomotive rides, and rather more mutilations and tedious waiting around for sunset. The portrayal of Renfield reeked of perfection, almost as if Renfield sat at the screenwriter’s left hand, which is a disturbing thought even to me.

Director Tim Burton crafted an appallingly dark vision of the story, for which he should be congratulated. He has produced some fine work in the years since this film, although after “Corpse Bride” the Diabolical Chamber of Malevolent Arts tripled his dues, placed a hex upon his home, and mislaid his invitation to the Christmas party.

At the end of all things, how do I assess this film? It comes down to this—Gary Oldman made me believe that he could defile the innocent, annihilate his enemies, and commit acts of soul-shattering evil. Sadly, the same may not be said of all vampire portrayals today. I bestow upon this film four horrific destructions of the human spirit, out of five.

It’s Only Worth Doing If You Do It To Someone

I like experiencing things more than I like hearing about them, with the exception of earthquakes and family dinners. I imagine you do too. Most people prefer to smell and taste a homemade brownie or two rather than hear someone read the list of ingredients on a package of brownie mix. I learned this rule by violating it hundreds of times over years of acting and performing improv. As my audience’s eyes rolled back and they began to strangle on their own spit, I would ask myself, “Don’t they like hearing about the gag gifts at Cousin Skeeter’s birthday party?”

Mark Twain finally convinced me that my audiences hated the birthday party, hated Cousin Skeeter, and hated me. Mr. Twain wrote, “Don’t talk about the old lady screaming. Bring her on and let her scream.” Upon reading that, I decided to do stuff onstage, rather than just talk about stuff. I resolved to take action. This began a period in which I flailed around the stage like a beached halibut as I tried to find things to do. I swept floors, I carried boxes around the stage, and I waved my arms a lot. My audiences found this as fascinating as the re-oxygenation of my blood. They hated my action.

A subsequent thousand years of humiliating failures showed me why my action sucked. My action needed a clear target and a reason to go after it. Action is doing something, true. But it’s also doing something to someone or something for a reason. For example, when the old lady screams, that’s doing something. And when she screams into her sister’s face from a distance of one inch, that’s doing something to someone. But when she’s screaming to communicate outrage because her sister just snatched away her hash pipe, that’s when action is born.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of good dialogue. The words and how they’re said are critical. But come on—old ladies screaming and grabbing drug paraphernalia is entertainment we can all appreciate.

These days I’m working to apply this principle to my writing. I’m astounded by the scope of action I can include in a story. I can incorporate literally cataclysmic events. The closest I ever came to that onstage was me dancing in Oklahoma! But I try to remind myself that the rules of action apply when I’m writing: do something to someone or something for a reason. So when my characters just walk somewhere, that’s not action. Even if they have a reason to walk, the walking itself isn’t being done to someone. If my terrorist releases a plague, but I never show what it does to anyone, that’s not action. Sure, I can say that the plague got released, but my readers don’t get the payoff of “seeing” what was done to the victims. If my hero sharpens his sword just because it’s sword-sharpening time, that’s not action. Any of these things may be fine additions to my story, but I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking that action has just happened. I’m better off fooling myself into thinking that a third brownie is no big deal.

I find action challenging to write, just like I find action challenging to perform onstage. I could say that I struggle with action out of laziness—and that would be true. But I also struggle with it out of fear. Onstage if I talk about someone being a bastard, I can take it back later. I can distance myself. If I slap him because he’s a bastard, that’s harder to take back. I’ve got to commit and be willing to back it up in the rest of the scene.

Trying to write action hits me the same way. When my villain burns down an orphanage, I feel a little more comfortable just describing how my characters heard about the tragedy, and then letting them get on with walking someplace. Then I don’t have to commit to the reality of the action. I don’t have to write about teddy bears on fire, or the villain kicking the escaping orphans back through the flaming doorway into the conflagration.

So, those are my struggles with action, and it kicks my butt pretty often. One would think I’m the dramatic and literary equivalent of a Galapagos Tortoise. But I’ll keep working at it. It should help that I’m building up good artistic karma by never dancing in Oklahoma! again.

An example of action. You should have seen what happened to him 10 seconds later.

 

 

It’s Only Worth Doing If You Do It To Someone

I like experiencing things more than I like hearing about them, with the exception of earthquakes and family dinners. I imagine you do too. Most people prefer to smell and taste a homemade brownie or two rather than hear someone read the list of ingredients on a package of brownie mix. I learned this rule by violating it hundreds of times over years of acting and performing improv. As my audience’s eyes rolled back and they began to strangle on their own spit, I would ask myself, “Don’t they like hearing about the gag gifts at Cousin Skeeter’s birthday party?”

Mark Twain finally convinced me that my audiences hated the birthday party, hated Cousin Skeeter, and hated me. Mr. Twain wrote, “Don’t talk about the old lady screaming. Bring her on and let her scream.” Upon reading that, I decided to do stuff onstage, rather than just talk about stuff. I resolved to take action. This began a period in which I flailed around the stage like a beached halibut as I tried to find things to do. I swept floors, I carried boxes around the stage, and I waved my arms a lot. My audiences found this as fascinating as the re-oxygenation of my blood. They hated my action.

A subsequent thousand years of humiliating failures showed me why my action sucked. My action needed a clear target and a reason to go after it. Action is doing something, true. But it’s also doing something to someone or something for a reason. For example, when the old lady screams, that’s doing something. And when she screams into her sister’s face from a distance of one inch, that’s doing something to someone. But when she’s screaming to communicate outrage because her sister just snatched away her hash pipe, that’s when action is born.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of good dialogue. The words and how they’re said are critical. But come on—old ladies screaming and grabbing drug paraphernalia is entertainment we can all appreciate.

These days I’m working to apply this principle to my writing. I’m astounded by the scope of action I can include in a story. I can incorporate literally cataclysmic events. The closest I ever came to that onstage was me dancing in Oklahoma! But I try to remind myself that the rules of action apply when I’m writing: do something to someone or something for a reason. So when my characters just walk somewhere, that’s not action. Even if they have a reason to walk, the walking itself isn’t being done to someone. If my terrorist releases a plague, but I never show what it does to anyone, that’s not action. Sure, I can say that the plague got released, but my readers don’t get the payoff of “seeing” what was done to the victims. If my hero sharpens his sword just because it’s sword-sharpening time, that’s not action. Any of these things may be fine additions to my story, but I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking that action has just happened. I’m better off fooling myself into thinking that a third brownie is no big deal.

I find action challenging to write, just like I find action challenging to perform onstage. I could say that I struggle with action out of laziness—and that would be true. But I also struggle with it out of fear. Onstage if I talk about someone being a bastard, I can take it back later. I can distance myself. If I slap him because he’s a bastard, that’s harder to take back. I’ve got to commit and be willing to back it up in the rest of the scene.

Trying to write action hits me the same way. When my villain burns down an orphanage, I feel a little more comfortable just describing how my characters heard about the tragedy, and then letting them get on with walking someplace. Then I don’t have to commit to the reality of the action. I don’t have to write about teddy bears on fire, or the villain kicking the escaping orphans back through the flaming doorway into the conflagration.

So, those are my struggles with action, and it kicks my butt pretty often. One would think I’m the dramatic and literary equivalent of a Galapagos Tortoise. But I’ll keep working at it. It should help that I’m building up good artistic karma by never dancing in Oklahoma! again.

An example of action. You should have seen what happened to him 10 seconds later.

 

 

Don’t think ahead, you moron.

In my younger days, the process of writing seemed premeditated to me. When I sat down to write, I knew where I wanted to end up. It was a matter of building myself a bridge of words and paragraphs to get there. But I struggled quite a lot in those days. My paragraphs pooled on the page like a pauper’s soup. They lacked detail, imagery, flavor, and anything else smacking of imagination. I wrote each paragraph like it was the next girder in a bridge that would get me across a literary chasm.

I sucked. A lot.

For a good many years now I’ve dabbled with improvisational acting. I can say with soul-riveting certainty that improv is not premeditated. When improvising, thinking ahead is like slamming a tire iron into the left knee of your scene. When you start thinking ahead to what you’ll say 15 seconds from now, then you’re not paying a damn bit of attention to what you’re saying now. That almost guarantees that what you’re saying now is crummy. Also, your fellow improvisers are almost certainly as creative and unpredictable as you. So when they don’t say what you expected, then you’ve just sealed them and yourself in an oily barrel of suck and tossed it into the Sea of Creativity Gone Awry.

Therefore, I learned, “Don’t think ahead, you moron.”

I return now to my writing endeavors, and I realize that my earlier writing resembled crummy improv. I was always thinking about what was coming next and how to get there. I paid little attention to what was happening in the paragraph currently being massaged by my greasy fingers.

For example, say I’m writing a paragraph about getting into an automobile. I know that within a few paragraphs someone will jump up from the back seat and stab my hero. If I focus too much on the stabbing, I may write something like:

“Walt walked up to his odd green sedan and opened the driver’s door. He slid into the seat and grabbed the steering wheel, then he put the key into the ignition and started the car.”

While I’m writing that paragraph, the whole time I’m thinking, “Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon…

I need to convince myself of the fact that Walt has no idea he’ll be stabbed 3 paragraphs from now. So if I can force my lazy brain to stick with Walt in the current paragraph, then it will come out different:

“Walt stalked across the sidewalk to his two-tone green sedan, and he snarled at the bird shit on the windshield. He yanked open the driver’s door and threw himself into the front seat like it was a foxhole. He strangled the wheel with his left hand while he jabbed his key into the ignition after three tries, five curse words, and one nasty reference to his ex-wife’s mother. The engine clattered to life, and Walt reached out to slam shut the driver’s door, never shifting his glare from the street in front of him.”

Walt’s still getting stabbed in less than a page, but I’m giving Walt the attention he deserves until then. And oddly, when I pay attention to the words I’m playing with now, I often find that down the line I end up in slightly different places than I’d originally intended. Sometimes I end up in radically different places. But they’re places I feel better about.

Improv and writing–they’re like peanut butter and chocolate for me.