Monday, February 6, 2012

Standards and Practices

by R.S. Mellette

When I was a student at North Carolina School of the Arts, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy came to speak to our class. If you don't know who they are, go ahead and click on their names. I'll wait.

Impressive, huh?

On stage, Ms. Tandy originated the role of Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire, the play that changed acting forever. When asked about it, she didn't have much to say, but Mr. Cronyn did. His story affected my work greatly and I'd like to re-tell it here. I hope he doesn't mind.

He told us about an early dress rehearsal he was invited to. After the production Tennessee Williams asked, "What did you think?"

"It's great! Maybe a little long, but great."

From across the stage, director Elia Kazan threw his script at Cronyn and said, "You cut it."

At this point, I'd like to pause in his story to tell you a bit of mine. I went straight from their talk to my dorm room, got my copy of Streetcar and spent the whole night doing what Cronyn did. I tried to cut it. If you would like the full impact of this lesson, I suggest you do the same. Get the stage play and try to cut out what's not necessary.

Back to Mr. Cronyn's story.

He spent all night working on the script and cut maybe five minutes—which is nothing. The actors could do that themselves by just picking up their cues. "It is uncuttable," he told us.

I came to the same conclusion and, since I dabbled in writing at the time, decided that would be a good standard. With everything I write I try to make each sentence necessary. In Streetcar, every beat in act one has a resonance in act two. The subtle shades of each subplot define the other story elements around them. Mess with one, and you destroy them all.

Of course, I'm sure Mr. Williams went through many drafts to get to that point. Stories aren't born perfect, and few ever grow to be, but with that goal in mind I approach everything I write.

Sure, a good editor will find where I've fallen down, but when they say, "Add something," or, "Cut this," I check it against my inner Hume Cronyn. Is this an improvement? Does it make it better?

If not, and if the editor is with a publishing house, then life becomes difficult ... but that's the subject of another blog.


JeffO said...

"You cut it."

Hah! Great comment from Kazan. And a great exercise, too. I may have to try that.

Along those same lines, beta reading or crit partnering or whatever you want to call it is really great for seeing things in your own work. I kept hearing people say that and wasn't sure it was true until I started doing it myself.

Matt Sinclair said...

A great anecdote and an excellent exercise.

RSMellette said...

Thanks, guys. I love collecting old stories like that. Fun to share.

E.B. Black said...

I try to do the same thing with my writing.

Christopher Hudson said...

My publisher cut 30% of my first book ... a lot of backstory and character development ... made it a faster and easier read, but I thought they cut out the soul.

RSMellette said...

That's the issue of Bones, Muscle, and Fat - which sounds like the title of another article.