There is a famous (and sometimes overused) piece of advice that writers like to give each other. It comes from Chekhov, in the form of a quote: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This quote is remembered differently by different sources, but that’s the meat of it. Often the takeaway from this quote is that it’s a short lesson in expectations, and foreshadowing. The gun on the wall is a kind of promise that the writer is making to the reader; a promise that needs to be kept. But this is just as much a lesson about narrative economy—one that seems to me to be informed by Chekhov’s own experience in the theatre. Let’s not forget that in addition to being a brilliant writer of fiction, Chekhov was a world-class dramatist. (The Russians can be infuriating like that.)
I have some limited experience on stage myself. In fact, there was even a period in my life when I thought that I might try and go into acting. This was when I was much younger, and had not yet realized an important and relevant truth: that I am a terrible actor. But that didn’t stop me. I acted in plays throughout high school, and when I went to University I joined a student-run theatre group. With time, I at least became competent enough on stage to realize how bad I actually was. So I moved on to other roles, off stage. I tried my hand at everything from set construction, to lighting, to fight choreography. Shortly before I graduated I even got to direct a production of King Lear in which we designed and built our own sets, hung and fireproofed our own curtains, ran our own lights and made our own costumes.
Which brings me back to that Chekhov quote. We actually had guns on stage during that play, and let me tell you that it was a pain in the neck. We had to find replicas that looked real enough, but not too real. I had to take cash out of our tiny budget to purchase them. We had to get the not-too-real replicas inspected by campus police. We even had to do a run-through with the fire marshal to make sure that our gun sound effect (a starter’s pistol, fired offstage) wasn’t too loud and wouldn’t risk setting our (fireproofed!) curtains on fire. Which is all to say: if I didn’t really want to “fire” those guns on stage, I never would have gone through all the trouble to put them there.
I may not have gone on to work in the theatre, but that experience of telling stories a shoestring budget has had a profound effect on my life as a writer. Here are three other lessons I learned in independent theatre, that still serve me well as a novelist.
Write like a Set Designer:
Just like a set designer, a writer builds the physical spaces that his or her characters will inhabit. At first glance the writer might seem to have it easier (no nails, no wood, no safety inspections). But it’s important to remember that when a writer builds, their readers build right along with them. When a writer assembles a living room, each reader builds their own version of that very same room in their mind’s eye. And one of the quickest ways to alienate your readers is to ask them to build a bunch of stuff that they aren’t going to use. (It’s also a good way to have your set designer quit on you.) When readers complain about too much description, I believe that it is precisely this that they are complaining about—work you’re asking them to do that does not seem to have a payoff.
One upside to all this is that once a reader builds something, then it is built. That imagined physical space can be returned to, without the writer having to re-establish exactly where the couches/chairs/weapons/mommy-coffins are. And with each visit, that space will accrue meaning, becoming more and more real.
Write like an Actor:
Or, to be more precise maybe I mean that you should write like a spoiled, self-centered actor. You should write like an actor who is not concerned in the least with what the director is trying to achieve, or even with the script. You should write like an actor who thinks that their own character is flat-out the most interesting and important character in the whole story, even if they only appear for two scenes in Act IV. You should write like an actor who is not shy about upstaging. And you should do it for every single character.
As writers we often have grand plans for our central protagonists, for our thematic ambitions, and for our plots. And sometimes, in the service of these grand plans, we can fall into the trap of treating many of our more minor characters as human-shaped props. Like: “Sally needs to enter the room, and be a jerk to John, because it’s important to the plot that John be sad in the next scene.” The actor playing Sally might say: “Hold up! This makes no sense. Why is she even behaving this way?” As the writer, you must ask these questions, too. No human character, no matter how minor, should be a prop.
Write like a Director:
Much like writing a novel, directing a play can be a tremendously intense and personal artistic experience. But one of the main differences for the director is that they are working on something that is fundamentally external to them. They didn’t write the play, they likely weren’t the first person to direct it on stage, and if the play is any good they probably won’t be the last. There is a distance between the artist, and the work.
This distance can be tremendously helpful for a writer, as well. Something that I always try to do after finishing a draft of a major project is to put it down for at least a month (longer is better, but I get impatient) before coming back to it with fresh eyes. That way I’m no longer interacting with the imaginary novel in my head, but with a real thing that is sitting in front of me.
Just like a director sitting down with a play, I have to ask myself: “What is this thing? And how can I make it a better version of itself?”
Alexander Yates, The Winter Place (Simon & Schuster, 2015). 978-1471123832, 448 pp., paperback .
Read our review of The Winter Place here.
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