Four elderly men stood before me. They had asked to talk to me and I was very, very nervous. One of them was shaking with emotion and all I could think of was somehow I had offended them with something I had written in the play they had just seen.
Let me explain.
In 1993, I was the director of the drama ministry at Brookwood Baptist Church. We produced four dinner theaters a year and my staff liaison requested we sell season tickets for the 1994 season. I was growing tired of writing, directing, and producing plays with a rural flair. I wanted something more modern and urban. I decided on the three plays leading up to our holiday dinner theater for 1994. Then, I wrote down a simple explanation for the fourth play, “The Night Gift”. It would take place in an urban setting, a newly constructed high rise in downtown with a penthouse office. The members of that office would find themselves stuck in the penthouse office on Christmas Eve and in the process discover they didn’t get along as well as they thought. That was it. A simple story. I would worry about the details later and write the play sometime during the summer of 1994 in time for the holiday dinner theater.
My good friend and our best actor, Larry Robison, asked me to write him a bit part as an old curmudgeonly gentlemen like Waldorf and Statler of the Muppets. You know, the two old men who sit in the theater box seats and insult the cast of the Muppets show. I created four elderly founders of the company that built the high rise. Larry would play Mr. Collinbird (the others were Mrs. Partridge, Mrs. Turtledove, and Mr. Frenchhen). At a pivotal point in the play, I wanted to change the mood from humorous to serious. Up to that moment, Mr. Collinbird had been hilarious and frankly, senile. The members of the office began to share their most memorable Christmases. When it came to Mr. Collinbird, everyone was expecting another silly story. Instead, he began to tell a very moving story about his childhood.
Mr. Collinbird told the story of Christmas,1941 when his father did not return from Pearl Harbor. The young boy went out into the woods and cut down the family Christmas tree on his own. During the tale, Larry became the young Collinbird and I came out on the stage dressed as his father with blood on my chest. I told my “son” he was now the man of the house and I would not be coming home for Christmas.
It was a simple five minute scene meant to change the tone of the play and to catch the audience off guard. They would be expecting Collinbird to be silly but instead they got a very poignant moving story of the child who became the man. After the first night’s play, Larry came up to me and said there were four men who wanted to talk to the author of the play. These were the four men who now stood before me. The trembling man wiped at his eyes and this is what he said:
“I wanted to thank you for honoring the men who fought in World War II. We are World War II veterans and I was at Pearl Harbor. Thank you for honoring us on Veteran’s Day.”
I was stunned! It suddenly hit me that this was Friday, November 11th, the original date for Veteran’s Day! I never intended to honor WWII veterans but God had different plans. God knew who would be there that night and God knew they needed to be honored by the simple scene in this play. The play was performed for two nights only and as impressive and shocking as the first night’s response was, I was not prepared for what happened the second night.
After the play, Larry escorted an elderly woman up to me and introduced us. She also wanted to meet the author of the play. This is what she said:
“My brother died at Pearl Harbor and I have been mad at him and mad at God ever since. Tonight, you helped me to say goodbye to my brother and to find peace with my Maker. Thank you!”
Later, Larry and I spoke about these people and their testimonies. Larry encouraged me to write the story of that young boy in 1941. He asked me where the idea of cutting down the tree as a rite of passage to manhood had come from. I shall share that tomorrow! For now, I want you to stop for a moment and think of someone you know who has fought in our military.
This coming Monday is Veteran’s day and 19 years ago, I realized how truly important it is to honor and remember the sacrifice of our men and women in the armed forces. Much has happened in the world since then and the number of war veterans has exploded. It would be a number of years before I fulfilled my dream to take that boy’s story and tell it in its entirety. In 2005, I wrote and produced “The Homecoming Tree” telling the story of the young Mr. Collinbird. The story was based on my parents’ lives during WWII. They lived in a boarding house atmosphere and their relatives came to stay with them as the war unfolded. I hope to soon complete the novel based on that play and to fully honor the memories of my now deceased parents. But, for now, I want to encourage you to honor our veterans this coming Monday. Thank them for their sacrifice to give us the opportunity to live in freedom!
I have now finished going through my manuscript, “The 12th Demon” twice and making the suggested changes from my editor. The first time was very comprehensive. The second time was for continuity. The third time, yet to come, will be to whittle down the word count. As with my first book edit for “The 13th Demon” my editor, Andy, has taught me SO much. And, since this is a blog for those wondering about the world of writing fiction, I thought I would share the three main lessons I learned in this edit over the next three posts.
I have spend the past 23 years working in church based drama. For 15 of those years, I was the drama director of my church. And, the requirement from my pastor was that every production had to be an original piece written by moi. As time went by, I learned how to write short and long drama and, in fact, I have been speaking at regional and national drama conferences for 13 years. If that sounds like I’m bragging, that is not the point. The point to be taken is this: writing dialogue for the stage is VASTLY different from writing dialogue in fiction.
On the stage, dialogue serves many purposes and one is to introduce exposition. Unlike fiction, there are no descriptions of action and setting. There are no backstories to relate. It is up to the actor to portray these important elements of exposition through the dialogue and the acting. The challenge is to find a balance between dialogue that sounds natural and at the same time conveys important background information. The weak playwright uses “as you know”s to do this:
“As you know, my father is the owner of this vast estate. And, as you know, he just lost a fortune in a sugar cane fire.”
Good dialogue catches the right balance. Just listen to some of the dialogue in your favorite television dramas. See how many times the actors say something that you know they know and everyone else knows but the audience. The worst example is the droning on of “Trekkie” like scenes where the actor says things like, “Engaging autopilot, now!” Just flip the switch, Sulu!
In my writing, I have found that I tend to slide toward dramatic dialogue. I forget I have so many other tools for exposition. One rule I always tell aspiring dramatists is to read their dialogue out loud. This is mainly to avoid difficult to pronounce phrases. But, reading fiction dialogue out loud really gives you a good idea of the sound of the character’s voice. Would they really talk that way? Would they really say those particular words?
In my just completed third book, “The 11th Demon” I tried something different. I originally wrote the book for Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month. I decided to write each major scene/chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters in first person. This forced me not only to write dialogue as these characters would speak out loud, but to also speak with their inner voices. The exercise helped me further define the characters and find the voice for their dialogue.
Going back to the second book these past couple of weeks has allowed me to rewrite that dialogue now that I have a better feel for how these characters are thinking.
— Ask yourself, does the dialogue sound “off”? Does it sound almost “inhuman”? Avoid using dialogue for pure exposition.
— Read dialogue out loud! Try speaking in each character’s “voice”. Take a cue from Walt Disney and become each character as you read through the dialogue copying their body language and their vocal tones.
— Try to make dialogue as real and conversational as possible without dropping in inane drivel like, “Good Morning.” “Good Morning to you.” “How’s your morning going?” “Fine. How about yours?” ETC
— Keep the dialogue consistent. Don’t allow one character to sound like another. Give each character a distinctive voice.
Tomorrow — PLOT