Novelist as Theater Director

theater, stage

(photo: wikimedia)

A thrilling weekend in Williamstown and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a group of serious theater lovers—four plays in three days and rich presentations in-between. Unexpectedly, one of these presentations—a detailed review of the steps of play production—mirrored many of the challenges an author faces in preparing a work of fiction. Let me explain.

Once a theater company decides to produce a particular play its first step is to hire a director who will create the theatrical production. The director {the “author,” in this analogy and here you have to bear with me} helps build the creative team and find the cast {characters}, blocks the play and decides who does what when {plot}, and guides the aesthetic process of the production {editing}.

A large creative design team is needed to help put the play together. These designers take on various tasks, in keeping with the director’s vision for the play and what this specific production is to convey. While of course a director starts with a script, just as an author begins with a more or less firm idea, the way a play emerges in its staging is unique to each production. Literary critics have decided there are only about a half-dozen basic plots, which suggests much of what differentiates the tens of thousands of novels published each year results from loosely analogous attention to the same creative elements a play director must consider.

In theater, set design establishes the physical world of the play; costumes, makeup, and props help define characters. In novels, authors must use description of the scene, and the appearance and clothing of the characters for exactly the same purpose. Lighting and sound design help create a play’s mood and tell the audience “where to look,” just as authors establish mood and focus attention—or, in the case of a mysteries, misdirect it—on key information. Dialect coaches make sure the words come out the way a character of a given era, nationality, and class would say them, and on the page, dialog has to ring true, too.

Choreographers and fight directors design the more complex or risky stage action. Stage-fights have to be both safe and realistic. (Realistic is easy, we were told, safe is hard.) Fiction has similar problems. A battle between two people or a hundred has to seem dangerous—even when it involves a continuing character who we know will survive to appear in the next book. At the same time, heroes must escape in a plausible way. They can’t get off too easily. A recent thriller I read had a confusing scene near the end, in which it wasn’t clear which shooters were inside their cars, in the street, along the wall, or wherever. I couldn’t visualize it, even after three re-reads. In my writing group, we call this a problem in choreography.

While the theater director has a whole team to take care of these essential component parts, the novelist works solo.

In casting a play, a director thinks about the skills and personalities of potential actors, and whether they can fill their roles. The author likewise must decide what type of person to create for the role they will play in the novel. How much can people such as those they describe believably stretch when facing the demands the plot places on them? How are other characters likely to react to them? At the same time, they must avoid creating stereotypes and “stock characters,” who would move through the novel like cardboard cutouts.

The whole process of rehearsing a play—from the initial read-through, to the blocking, through final rehearsals—echoes the editing process. Plays aren’t rehearsed just once; it takes time and myriad adjustments and refinements for all the creative parts to mesh together. Similarly, thinking of a novel draft as similar to a theater production, it’s easy to see the kinds of editing an author must do: tuning up all aspects of design/description, focus, realism, choreography, and character development to best serve the ultimate product—that best-selling, award-winning novel taking shape in the theater of the author’s mind.