Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looking for "B" - A device for holding reader's attention

Here's a nice little writing device you can use to keep your audience's attention span fixed to the page - I'll tell you about it later. No seriously, that's basically how it works. What works? Hold on a minute.

First I have to explain something before I explain the something about that.
First I have to tell you that I've had an occasion to visit Hannibal, Missouri several times in last year. You see, where I currently live is not really that far from Hannibal. Well, not really that far. Anyway, if you aren't aware-- a famous writer spent quite a few years growing up in Hannibal and some of his most famous novels are set there. (Although he renamed the town "St. Petersburg" in the stories - it is Hannibal in reality.)
Of course I am talking about Samuel Clemens or "Mark Twain" as his preferred nom de plume. The funny thing about hanging out Hannibal was that my knowledge of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn" had really grown rusty. I mean, the last time my eyes had absorbed Twain words must have been in grade school. Fact is I forgot a lot but I kinda - sorta remembered a few facts and plot points but come on! There I was walking around Hannibal.

There's the Clemens house with the "white washed" picket fence made famous in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". There's a replica of the little shanty that his boyhood friend Tom Blankenship (model for the character "Huckleberry Finn") grew up in. Over there is the Thatcher house...etc.. etc..

All right, the point is -- here I was trying to draw up from memory, different images from the Twain novels that I could relate to the landmarks I was seeing and I had nothing. Soon after returning home, I quickly went to local bookstore and picked up "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and commenced to reading. Not only was I able now to bring up various places in my memory as I read, but I was also able to discover something else interesting. An interesting literary device Twain used to propel his story - a device I often use in writing Murder mystery scripts.

What is it?

O.K. I will tell you. It's simply withholding crucial information until after the fact. Case in point - in Tom Sawyer, Twain glosses over key bits of exposition that a reader would normally expect in the time-line. Twain lifts it and places it after the fact. What is the Effect? Keeps you reading to find out what just happened.

One example is during the murder trial of "Muff Potter", we the readers, along with Tom and Huck all know that "Injun Joe" is true killer. But will Tom or Huck reveal this crucial piece of information? In the story, the night before the trial, Twain makes a casual point of mentioning in a small sentence:
"Tom was out late, that night, and came to bed through the window."

Does he tell us anymore about this? No. Just a "throw-away" line it seems.

The next day at the murder trial, just as we are about to believe an innocent man is going to be found guilty, the defense calls "Thomas Sawyer" to the stand!
Wait! What?
Yes, the defense calls Tom to the stand! Tom reveals everything! That fatal night in the graveyard. What he and Huck both witnessed. How Muff Potter didn't do a thing and how Injun Joe is the real culprit here!

Wait a second! Did we miss something?

No. Twain did tell you about it. Well, sort of. Remember that night - the one where "Tom was out late"? Well, Tom was out late because - he went over to the Defense lawyer's house and confessed the whole truth.
Oh! I see.
Sure, you see! Now!
But do you also see what Mark Twain did there? Sort of a literary "sucker punch" if you will. He sets up a trial of an innocent man -- builds up the suspense making you hope against hope that someone will come forth and tell the truth!
Suddenly, Tom is called forth and saves the day and as a reader you think: "Hold on a second, Mr. Twain! How does this lawyer know that Tom knows the truth?"
When did that happen?
Hmmm, I guess I better keep reading to find out!

And what you find out, what Twain finally comes forth with is more or less an: "Oh by the way, remember when Tom was out and that whole, 'came to bed through the window'. Remember that bit? Well, that's when he went over to the defense lawyers house.
Why didn't he tell us that before? Like.. right before the trail?
Well, honestly that would have been rather dull now wouldn't it?
As a reader you would know what to expect: This happened - which will lead this thing to happen - which will cause this deal to happen. A to B to C.
One thing that will lull readers into boredom and frustration is allowing them to predict or guess where your sentences and story are heading.

I recall many years ago, working a quiet Sunday afternoon with a girl who was an avid reader. Upon completion of the book she was reading, she violently hurled it across the room. Why? She had it figured out in the 2nd chapter. She only kept reading until the end in hopes that she was wrong. She wasn't.

Now I come the part where I (and others) use the same "sucker punch" device. It is a staple of the murder mystery genre. As you know, in almost every good murder mystery, there is point toward the end of the story, where the detective has the "murder" figured out. Does he or she immediately shout out the killers name? Does he or she quickly reveal what clues and indications were discovered and share them with everyone? No.
In the classic mystery scenario, everyone is asked to gather together while the detective goes over each point step by step until it builds to a finger pointing crescendo. It's essentially the same device - withholding important information until the end. It keeps the audiences attention. They want to keep reading or watching to find out "who did it"!

As a writer it's important to hold your readers attention. If you reveal everything right up front, your book could be thrown across the room. It's like wrapping up a birthday present and handing it to the person and saying, "It's a food dehydrator."
It's best if you don't tell them everything. Allow them the pleasure of finding out. And one little nice device is taking them from A to C. Make them wonder where B is.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Waiting For The Laughs -or training an audience

I read an article in the "Arts Beat" section of the "New York Times" called "The Perils Of Being Too Funny" (which you can read by clicking here.) Essentially the article concerns comedy in the theatre and how the audience is so occupied with laughter they miss everything else.. you know like.. the rest of the dialogue and other stuff like, the plot.

The story ran around my mind and dislodged some old gems of wisdom I picked up by playing comedy on stage. And since I just blogged a bit about comedy and timing, I thought I would share some these nuggets of wisdom since they relate back to comedy and timing.

As you may have noticed, I called this blog "Waiting For The Laughs or training an audience" - and you many have thought, "I understand the first part, the 'waiting' part, but what in the world do you mean by 'training an audience'?
Actually these two concepts go hand in hand - waiting and training. Really, they do.

First: "Wait For It"

A wise older actor once took my aside during a particularly funny play we were in and explained how to "wait" for the laughs.
Now, you have keep in mind that actors rehearse plays for long periods of time.
We rehearse in front of no one but ourselves and because of this fact, we develop a certain timing: I say my line, you say your line, I say my line, ad nauseum.
And if we're rehearsing a comedy, the lines are supposed to be funny.
Sure, when we first read through the play, the lines were funny. Most of us laughed. But by week 2 or 3, it's not that funny anymore and no one is really laughing now. (Well, there may be a few that still laugh. Those are the actors you need to keep an eye on. I'm just saying.)

Anyway, the issue with rehearsing a comedy is that you can forget that it's a comedy. You can forget where the 'laughs' are. You're so programed into the robot timing of I say my line, you say your line.. the laughter of a live audience can throw a wrench into your robot clockworks.

Laughter can completely discombobulate some actors. They forget their next line because their timing is thrown off. Some actors aren't sure how long to wait. Some actors wait too long. Some actors don't wait at all and just plow into their next line, laughter be damned!

Back to that wise older actor I was telling you about - here's what he taught me.

  • Always wait for the laugh. But don't wait too long. If you wait until they've finished laughing completely, you'll throw the timing off and they'll stop laughing.

  • Don't start your line too soon or else you'll cut off the laugh. If you cut off the laugh, the audience may stop laughing at everything. Why? Because, they're afraid they'll miss something the next time. You see, if you start your next line while they're still laughing, you'll cause them to stop because they want to hear what you are saying. By not waiting you're training them to not to laugh as much or as long.

  • If you happen to start speaking your line during a laughter break, just stop and wait for the laugh. You can start your line again when they finish. But again, don't wait too long.

  • When is too soon and how long is too long? - Think of the audience's laughter as a wave. It starts out soft, a few chuckles and then as more join in it becomes a cacophony of noise that rises in volume upward.

    Like a wave it will peak and slowly begin to descend. Ideally, you will wait for the peak and as the wave begins descending; there - about halfway down on the back of the wave, come in with your next line. And come in louder than normal so they can hear you.

  • You will never know where the laughs will come or how long they will last from night to night. One night they may laugh at everything, the next night nothing. Always be ready.

  • The length of time the audience laughs will vary each night. You never know. Old time comedians use to measure the laughs they got by counting out loud. You may have heard a comedian say, "two, three, four.." after he told a joke. He was counting the length of the laughs he got. But this isn't something you can do on the stage. At least not out loud.

  • Whatever you do - don't play for a laugh. If you have a funny line, it's best if you play it straight. Straight is funny. There is a famous old story about this very subject.
    The story goes like this: A couple were in a play on Broadway. During a particular dinner scene each night, the actor would ask "for the sugar" and get a tremendous laugh from the audience. After a few more nights the actor playing this same dinner scene noticed that the audience wasn't laughing when he asked "for the sugar".
    After the show one night the actor mention this to his fellow actor, "I don't know what happened. I used to get laughs on that line."
    The other actor simply said, "I know what happened. Before, you were asking for the sugar and getting laughs. Now, you are asking for the laughs and only getting the sugar."

  • If you are playing comedy on the stage and the audience begins reacting with laughter, how the actors respond at first sets the tone for the rest of the show. You in essence "train" the audience how to respond. They will adapt to the timing you set. These simple rules imparted to me by a wise older actor when I was a noob on the stage really helped me. Now, I guess it's my turn to be the wise older actor and impart this knowledge to others.

    Parker Arts Council Presents 'I'm Getting Murdered in the Morning' - Parker, CO - AmericanTowns.com

    Parker Arts Council presents I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning

    By Lee Mueller

    Directed by Patricia Goodman

    The public is invited to a wedding reception and it’s not going to be over until someone is dead.

    The Parker Arts Council presents “I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning” at the Victorian Peaks Collection, 11020 South Pikes Peak Drive, Parker, CO.

    The popular antiques store will be transformed into a cabaret-style theater for the two shows and will include a buffet dinner plus a cash wine bar. Tickets are $35. 24-hour online advance reservation for the dinner and show is required by calling 303-840-5406 or online at www.parkerartscouncil.org.

    The audience is invited to guess who-dun-it as they become guests at the most unlikely wedding celebration they'll ever attend.

    “The purpose of the play is for them (audience members) to actually feel like they were at a real reception,” said Director Patricia Goodman creator and director of the performing troupe, Murder Gourmet Ltd.".

    What : The Parker Arts Council presents "I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning”

    When : Sat., July 24 at 7:00 p.m.

    Sun., July 25 at 2:00 p.m.

    Tickets: $35 includes buffet

    Venue : The Victorian Collection Antiques, 11020 S. Pikes Peak Drive, Parker, CO.

    Advance tickets by calling 303-840-5406 or online at www.parkerartscouncil.org (24 hour advance required).