A Matter of Life and Death (and Steam)

Val McDermid, doyenne  of Scottish crime writing, recently did a broadcast talk entitled “Murder is not the point”.   (It’s one of the Radio 4 “Point of View” series, currently available here. )  Her thesis is that murder is a hook to engage the reader, but the writing can take any direction the writer wants to take – which might reflect on history, geography, society, or any other field that preoccupies the writer.   “Murder,” as McDermid put it, “is just a carnival barker’s pitch to get you inside the tent”.

Lazy Bee Scripts publishes murder mysteries of the interactive sort.   These have evolved from whodunnit novels, cited by McDermid as the font of crime fiction, in which the reader tries to solve the author’s puzzle.   In the stage version, the detective work is done by the audience.  Since there is a limited time for the audience to absorb background material, interactive murder mysteries tend towards the light entertainment end of the crime spectrum, rather than McDermid’s high-minded approach (using the murder in the foreground as a means of exploring the background).  Nevertheless, there is still scope for the author to lead the audience down a chosen path.

Rocket The Steampunk Bee (detail)In Abram Skinner, I’ve used a murder mystery as a vehicle for exploring a small corner of the Steampunk multiverse.  Steampunk might be thought of as a fantasy genre, but I don’t think that helps very much.  (The term Fantasy tends to be used disparagingly to indicate something beneath the dignity of the serious reader, but I take the view that all fiction is fantasy, since it is the creation of the imagination of the author.  Whether it is highbrow literature or not should depend on the content, not the container.)  In this case, the imagination starts with a counterfactual history question: what if oil had not become dominant?  The answer assumes the absence of the internal combustion engine and plastic materials and creates an extension of the age of steam with Victorian fashions overlaid with mechanical gadgetry – as exhibited here by the Cottonopolis Coglective (the Manchester Steampunks) along with Rocket the Steampunk Bee (designed by Evelyn Sinclair).Cottonopolis Coglective

It’s the strength of this visual aesthetic that I wanted to bring to the stage, but there’s a pitfall waiting for every Steampunk writer (probably inherent in counterfactual history): the desire to explain everything.  Everything, in this case, is not only the way technology has evolved, but also politics and commerce.  The risk is that the background overwhelms the story – and it was the story that brought the audience into the tent.  That’s why I settled on a whodunnit as a vehicle for bringing Steampunk to the stage.  It has the trappings of the classic country house mystery (albeit without the house).   All the suspects are confined to one place, so the focus is on them and the writer is prevented from exploring the whole of the outside world.  The sociology of the age is implicit in the nature of the characters and the audience can get on with admiring the costumes, absorbing the plot and pointing to the murderer.  (And if they go away ruminating on the role of the professional assassin in buccaneer capitalism, then I honestly won’t mind.)

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Is this a play or a novel?

A novel gives a writer the illusion of control.  By describing in the most minute detail, the novelist seeks to fix characters immutably.
Plays are different.  Plays are a collaborative process.  The writer creates, but someone else brings the work to the stage.  As Damian Trasler put it (in a frustrated tweet):-

This does not mean that the director and actors should change the script, but they, not the author, have the responsibility for bringing it to life.  At a simple level, the writer may have a very specific vision of the actors who should play the characters, but those actors may not be available.  (There are exceptions.  When contemplating the first production of The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard was asked how he saw the roles of the central characters.  He described Birdboot as a Ronnie Barker and Moon as a Richard Briers.  Director Robert Chetwyn managed to cast Ronnie Barker as Birdboot and Richard Briers as Moon.  However, as far as I know, they were not available for all the subsequent productions.)

So, as a writer, how do you know that you are usurping the job of actor and director?  The biggest clue is the over-use of stage directions.  If a direction is necessary to make the plot work (telling someone that they need to be on stage, for example), then that’s fine.  On the other hand, if you repeatedly describe facial expressions or tone of speech, then close down your script file and write your novel; that’s clearly what you want to do.  I’m not saying never do it (sarcasm, for example, is not always obvious) in written dialogue, but if you keep describing tone and expression, you’re stifling the actor.  Furthermore (whisper this quietly), sometimes the actor will find something that the author didn’t realise was there.
Similarly, if the writer stuffs a script with pauses, beats or ellipses, it becomes unreadable.  The writer’s effort to show the rhythm of the speech gets in the way of the actors need to find that rhythm.  (If it is essential to you to dictate the cadence of every speech, then turn your script into a poetic monologue and perform it yourself!)  Of course there’s a time and a place for pauses.  There are the pauses that indicate where the gaps are in a one-sided phone conversation, and there are the long, significant pauses that make the audience uncomfortable.  In general, however, it’s far better for the writer to concentrate on punctuating the sentences and let the actor find a rhythm to suit the character.

Oh, by the way, that novelist’s illusion of control: it’s an illusion.  No matter what you put on the page, a different image will be created in the head of every reader.

Making A Scene

American play scripts tend to have a scene-setting direction before the start of the play, then the play starts with an “at rise” direction.  Whilst I often dislike the way this looks, I think the structure is hugely useful.  Let break this down.

Setting the Scene

A scene heading should indicate a change of time or place.  (There may be exceptions to this: in abstract theatre, with little or no set, where the action changes in time and space without any formal indication, arguably, you don’t need scene headings.  On the other hand, where there are separate blocks of dialogue it may be useful to break the text up into scenes. However the latter is for the purpose of rehearsal and is usually the director’s job rather than the author’s.)  So in normal circumstances, it can be useful to state the distinguishing feature of the scene (the time or place that has changed) in the scene heading.  So:-

Scene 1 – Monday Morning
Scene 2 – Monday Afternoon
Scene 3 – Twenty Minutes Later

All those happen in the same place, so (unless a later scene happens somewhere else), the location doesn’t distinguish one scene from another and there’s no need to put it in the heading.
Hang on a minute!  Where’s this play set?  And, come to that, when?  It’s all very well saying that it’s Monday Morning; I don’t want to wade though three pages of puzzling dialogue before I discover it’s 1744.  The readers needs that information; it’s not in the scene headings, so where do they find it?  This is where the scene-setting direction comes in.  One or more scene-setting directions should follow every scene heading.

A Time and A Place for Everything

The opening of the first scene-setting direction should tell the reader about geography and date.  The geography may be very specific (“a one-room apartment in Brooklyn”) or, if the country and city don’t matter, just the outline description of the setting (“a castle dungeon”).  The date can be vague (“the 1920s” or “the present day”) or specific (“June 6, 1944”).
The reason for my preference for this in a scene-setting direction, rather than (as in many American scripts) before any scene headings is that if the location or time changes, this can be described in a scene-setting direction for the specific scene).  Note, however, that you only need information at this level if and when it changes – so if all scenes are in that one-room apartment, you only need the information once.

Everything In Its Place

The stage is set.The next level of detail is a (brief) description of the set.  What does the reader (the director, the actors) need to know? What are the essential features of the set?  How many exits are there? Where are they? What and where is the essential furniture?
(There is an argument to be made here for including essential properties, particularly those that are at the boundary between set and props and tend to stay in the same place.  It is better to learn that there is a land-line telephone on Marjorie’s desk before it rings.)
Again, this level of detail is stated once and remains in place until there is a change of set.

Getting A Rise

Finally, the ‘At Rise’ direction says what happens when the curtain (or lights) go up.  Who is on stage?  What are they doing?
If the next scene uses the same set, then the opening direction merely needs to say what has changed between scenes (which should just involve characters and props: “Gerald is alone, seated on the chaise longue, reading a newspaper”).

And now you’re ready to make a scene.

The Headline Act

Recently, someone was asking how to start writing a script.  I think they were looking for process advice, but I’m going to stick with the facetious: start with Act 1, Scene 1.
The reason I want to say that is to point out that it ain’t necessarily so.  Acts and Scenes are hierarchical.  The only point in act and scene headings is to distinguish them from others of the same type.  Consequently:-

  • If you’re writing a one-act play (one-act in terms of formatting, rather than terms of dramatic structure), then you don’t need the Act 1 heading.
  • If your play has two acts, but only a single scene in each act (no changes of time or place within the acts), then you don’t need scene headings
  • If Act 1 has multiple scenes, it needs scene headings.  However, if Act 2 of the same play has only one scene, it does not need scene headings.
  • If your play is a single scene, then you don’t need a Scene heading, because Scene 1 is only relevant if you need to distinguish it from Scene 2.

The last point may look slightly odd. Does the play just start without any headings?  Possibly.  However, when Lazy Bee Scripts publishes single-scene plays, we will often restate the title before the opening scene-setting direction.

Ready to open the curtains

What’s Hot – A Heatwave for the Stage

I have mentioned before that I don’t like lists.  Consequently, until now, I have resisted calls for a Best Sellers list on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  There are various reasons for this.  For a start, one size doesn’t fit all; just because something is popular, it doesn’t mean that it will suit your performers or audience.  Secondly, such a list is unfair to the scripts (and authors) that don’t feature on it, since it will tend to be self-perpetuating.  Thirdly, it’s unfair to new scripts which haven’t had time to become popular.  However, I think the principal cause of my resistance was summed up by John Betjeman in The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel:

Approval of what is approved of is as false as a well-kept vow.

I want everyone to think for themselves and decide on their own tastes and priorities, rather than liking what everybody else likes.

Until now.

We’ve got over 2700 scripts and 60 murder mysteries on our books.  I’m convinced we’re way beyond the point where everyone has the patience to find for themselves material that will fit their needs.  Consequently, we’re introducing more signposts – easy shortcuts to suitable material.  We’ve had “What’s New” listings for a long time.  Recently, we introduced the “Find A Few” search to supplement our full search engine, and now we’ve added a “What’s Hot” list.

Best Sellers

People looking for Best Sellers also liked…

Actually, the “What’s Hot” is multiple lists, because there’s no point in enthusing about a popular two-hour drama to someone who wants a best-selling five minute comedy sketch.  Of course, this brings additional problems: should the categories be distinct, or should a best-selling one-act pantomime for schools appear in three categories? We’ve gone for distinct categories (accepting the risk of confusion because our general categories have fuzzier boundaries):-

This being a human endeavour, the results are imperfect.  For example, the most popular Youth Theatre plays tend to be for ages 8 to 12 (because there aren’t so many plays for younger children, and older children perform a mix of plays written for their age-group and plays written for adults).  Consequently, only two plays suitable for under-fives show up in the best selling youth theatre category, but (because it’s a musical) one shows up in the musicals category.  Ah well.

We hope that will make selection a faster and more rewarding experience for many of our customers.  I also hope that many others will ignore “What’s Hot” and strike a blow for independent thinking by searching and browsing in other ways!

Shakespeare’s Pasties

An American customer pointed out something she supposed to be a typographical error in A Fifty-Minute Titus Andronicus (one of Bill Tordoff’s abridgements of Shakespeare).  This was both hilarious and troubling.  The customer said:-

I am doing this play with my class and just noticed a pretty significant typo that affects the plot.  In Scene 11, in Titus’ final speech, where he feeds the sons to Tamora in the pie, and the word pastries reads PASTIES.

She thought that this was both an error and a significant change of plot.

Now Bill Tordoff’s intention with all his abridgements is to preserve Shakespeare’s original language but to create a version short enough to be read in a single school lesson.  Thus in his reduction he cut out a couple of preceding lines, so he changed one word.  Nothing to do with pasties; he changed “And” (continuing from the previous lines) to “I’ll” to render the text:-

I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads,

So ‘pasties’ occurs in the original Shakespeare.  The Bard uses the singular version in two other plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well.  In the latter, it comes in Parolles’ response to the threat of torture:-

I will confess what I know without constraint:
if ye pinch me like a pasty, I can say no more.

The culinary form is clear: a sort of pie made with a crimped (pinched) seam.  Shakespeare was thinking of a Cornish or Devenish pasty.

The teacher was right in as much as the derivation is the same as that of pastry (even though the pronunciation has diverted to Past-i), itself derived from the mixing of flour to form a paste.  But what was she thinking of, and why was she so alarmed?  The word she was thinking of is spelled the same as the Cornish Pasties, but is pronounced Paste-ies and refers to a modest covering of the nipples as modelled in the accompanying picture of Dita Von Teese.  In this context, I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads, does paint a significantly different picture.

The troubling thing here is that the non-culinary meaning springs more readily to the mind of a literate teacher of drama.  I suppose that modesty pasties do find more uses on the stage than the Cornish variety, but nevertheless, I think that America may be missing out on a choice form of portable food.  Recently, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson (who has an admirable appreciation of Latin but a lamentable grasp of international trade) was talking about the opportunities for exporting haggis to the United States.  Perhaps he should take up the cause of the Cornish Pasty.

A new way to find the perfect play script

Overcoming the tyranny of choice

Sue Gordon

Some time ago, Sue Gordon made a plea for us to add a “busy teacher” button to the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  This was essentially “never mind all that choice, just give me the script I want”.  At the time I mocked Sue by suggesting that the real message was “never mind all that choice, just give me one of Sue Gordon’s scripts”.  (Nothing wrong with that.  She writes very well. If what you want is one of Sue Gordon’s scripts, then they’ll be absolutely perfect for you.)  The difficulty with Sue’s suggestion is the amount of mind reading involved.  On the other hand, her point is a serious one.  Offering a hundred scripts is off-putting to someone who has time to look at no more than three.  At the time of writing this, we are offering 2721 on our web site.  That amount of choice can be overwhelming.  (We even have scripts about the tyranny of choice.  See the sketches Skinny Cap to Go by Richard James and, in a different style, The Coffee Shop by Ray Lawrence.) So we’ve implemented a new search engine called Find A Few.

Find A Few doesn’t work quite as well as Sue Gordon would like (it sometimes suggests other people’s scripts), but it’s as close as we’re going to get.  It can be approached in two ways: firstly there’s a Find A Few option in the Search menu.  In that case, Find A Few will start with no prior information and will ask questions until it reaches a manageable number of scripts (or none, if the customer wants something we haven’t got).  Secondly (better in my opinion – but that reflects the way I would search) every time other searches or links lead to a list of more than three possible scripts, a Find A Few button appears which will allow the customer to narrow down within their current field of search.

Take for example, our wealth of scripts involving Cinderella.  Currently, if you approach this via the Pantomime pages and the Cinderella link, you will get to a list of 43 scripts.  Just above that listing, there is a button to [Find a Few] which will then ask questions to determine what manner of Cinderella you want.  Our goal is to narrow down to no more than three scripts.

Guess Who

Are you familiar with the Guess Who board game?  The object of the game is to identify a character from a field of 24 by eliminating those who don’t share particular characteristics (hair colour, spectacles, beards, moustaches, and so on.)  The game has been around long enough to draw academic comment about how well it represents demographics.  (It doesn’t.  The original characters were created for easy grouping into overlapping sets; so, for example, it under-represents women, not least because the designers chose two forms of facial hair which are easy to represent visually, as is male-pattern baldness.)
The Find A Few search engine works in a similar way: it asks (largely) binary questions to reduce the number of scripts suggested.  It chooses the questions by selecting characteristics that will (ideally) pick (or eliminate) half the remaining scripts.

In our Full Search engine, the customer chooses the issues that are important to them.  With Find A Few, the computer chooses the questions.  It may well ask something that the customer doesn’t care about, or hasn’t thought about (“Do you want a set with practical doors or windows?”)  In doing so, it will exclude lots of plays that the customer would enjoy, but it does so to find the most efficient path to a manageable set of scripts.

All this is to offer the customer a small number of plays without trying to tell them what they want.  (“People who bought Dig In for Murder also purchased a bottle of poison, a flash-light and a spade.”)