Learn to add drama to a story with Sol Stein’s Actors Studio method

There are no good Inside the Actor’s Stuido memes. However, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I came upon a curious discovery. Turns out that Actor’s Studio host and mild-mannered curmudgeon James Lipton spent his younger days working as a pimp in the Red Light District of Paris (well, “a procurer… an agent, so to speak”).

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Hmm, probably shouldn’t lead a blog post with “James Lipton was a pimp.” Because what can I really say to top that. Well, I’ve come too far now.

I’ve long had an obsession with Lipton’s glacially paced interviews, so imagine my joy at spotting a chapter titled “The Actors Studio Method for Developing Drama in Plots” in venerated master of the craft Sol Stein’s book On Writing.

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Approximation

So here’s the deal. Back in the ‘50s, Stein – at the time a playwright-in-residence at the Actors Studio – attended a workshop led by Elia Kazan. He was partnered with screenwriter Rona Jaffe, with whom he was instructed to improvise a scene. Stein received whispered instructions. His character, Kazan said, was a school headmaster intent on expelling a troublemaker. Jaffe’s character was the child’s mother, intent on defending her son. Tempers flared in a dramatic improvised scene. Only afterwards did Stein discover what Kazan had whispered in Jaffe’s ear – that her son was well-behaved and had been falsely accused. The two characters had different scripts. As a result, understanding became impossible and conflict inevitable.

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Approximation

Side note: I tried this in a classroom once during a lesson on rhetoric. I paired up two students, each with secret note cards. One played a high school principle, the other a student who had been falsely accused of cheating. Same deal – different scripts. It failed miserably. My students did everything they possibly could to avoid conflict and negotiated peace within half a minute. Methinks they just wanted the part where they participated to end. Anyways…

We don’t want negotiated stalemates in stories. We want conflict. We want ALL CAPS YELLING (metaphor all caps, of course). How to ensure the sparks fly? Give your characters different scripts. Take a look at the following exchange from Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld (lol at masterpieces of literature having 3 stars on Amazon…). Two events had just transpired in the story: the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and Bobby Thompson hit his famous game-winning home run to clinch the pennant.

“Did you see the paper, Father?”

“Please, we know each other too well. You’re required to call me Andy now. Yes, I stole a long look at someone’s Daily News. They’re calling it the Shot Heart Round the World.”

“How did we detect evidence of the blast, I wonder. We must have aircraft flying near their borders with instruments that measure radiation. Or well-placed agents perhaps.”

DeLillo’s characters are discussing the news with different scripts. One is referring to Thompson’s home run, the other to the nuclear test.

I employed a similar technique in my novel Infinity Point. In the following scene, actress Nikole Fink has been taken hostage at gunpoint. She steals away to a public restroom where she knocks a passerby unconscious, steals the woman’s cell phone and – panicked and confused as to how to contact the police in a foreign country – places a frantic call to her agent in New York. Meanwhile, Nikole’s agent has become fixated on clearing up Nikole’s recent scandal in the tabloids in which she had been photographed by paparazzi stealing evidence from a crime scene. Wally assumes this is what the call is about. They are operating with different scripts:

“You have to help me, Wally,” the voice spoke. Yes, it was her. “I… I didn’t mean to… Look, I did something bad and I need your help.”

You know, Wally thought, perhaps I am simply not cut out for this industry. I am a delicate man, a sophisticated man. I enjoy tea from Thailand. I own a respectable collection of vinyl records. James Bond I am not.

“Yes,” Wally said. “I know, Nikole. Do not worry. I am working on it.”

“You…? Wait. What?”

“I have hired a detective. He and I are negotiating as we speak. This man is the best in the business. Surely he will help.”

Nikole was quiet a moment.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know everything – the cave, the bodies, the hourglass, the Black Lotus, the body bag, the blogger’s photographs. At first I was concerned, but now with the detective’s help, we will settle matters. You needn’t worry.”

Wally tried to imagine the scene on the call’s opposite end. He pictured Nikole drowning in pills and wine, her apartment a war zone of filth.

“Everything is under control,” Wally insisted.

This builds tension because the reader wants Nikole rescued; however, the misunderstanding prevents progress on the front and only buries Nikole deeper in her situation.

Probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever written

My hard drive failed a couple weeks back. Most of my stuff was backed up but horribly disorganized. Years of memories and files going all the way back to high school were scattered across external HDDs, flash drives, email attachments and cloud docs. Scrounging through the shreds of my life I came across a ton of old writings, mostly fragments, half-finished drafts and experiments of writing under the influence. I’d forgotten about most of these. They’re pretty terribad in terms of the actual writing, but they have fantastic titles. One is called “Some Weird Lesbian Fantasies I’ve Had.” Another is titled “Notes On A Coke-Fueled Orgy Held On The Occasion Of The Seventieth Anniversary Of The Sinking Of The Battleship Bismark By Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.” I’ll post those when I need some clickbait. But I think this one’s gotta take the cake in terms of sheer weirdness. I wrote this about six years ago right after I moved back to Ohio from New York City. Yeah I was going through a bit of a phase or something, I don’t know. There’s really no explanation.

 

A Masochist’s Guide to Manhattan

Tucked between the scripture-sprayed graffiti canvas of East Village dive bars, within earshot of the Tompkins Park’s acoustic panhandlers, a sidewalk’s length from the number 6 line, in a back room off a back room off underneath Luigi’s Tavern, a man named Sergei will punch you in the testicles for a dollar. In a corridor starved of clean oxygen, the men squeezed tight. The ceiling leaked black tears. Bass from the tavern’s jukebox shook the walls and the stench of feces and newspapers grew stronger the closer the line moved to Sergei’s office. I tried making small talk with a Japanese businessman beside me, but everyone seemed withdrawn and embarrassed, sheathed in shadows and silence. Here is the world’s forgotten crawlspace. Here are pennies lost beneath cushions. Every so often a man would stagger past us, clutching his crotch, stopping every so often to reel over in pain. “Anyways,” I said to the Japanese businessman, “I’d say it’s a bargain. Not much you can get in New York for a dollar these days.”

On the uptown Q train there is an MTA employee named Willard who will beat you with a broom if you board the train drunk. Most days I don’t have money for booze so I just shamble around like a puppet corpse flailing and shoving and pickpocketing until someone calls the cleaner. After a time I began to recognize the regulars. Some men from the line at Sergei’s made weekly appearances before Willard, but some women were return customers too, the trash of the city, come not to be cleansed but swept uselessly, bouncing around a filthy bathtub without a drain, drowning but not dying, existential excrement.

On 86th and Fourth there is an alcoholic named Valeria who will slash your face with her fingernails in exchange for an argument and red wine. After a particularly brutal beating, Willard palmed Val’s business card into my jeans pocket as I lay bleeding amidst a forest of apathetic feet. He whispered something in my ear but that time I really was drunk and I don’t remember the details. We watched Humphrey Bogart movies and drank and I found her clipboard between the couch cushions. She shrugged.

Kathy, a retired classics professor in Chelsea, will break your heart once per month if you agree to water her plants and feed her fish at precise intervals. Once I deviated from the schedule and killed a goldfish named Sam, and Kathy showered me with so much love that I had to stand at the ledge of her apartment rooftop and threaten to jump unless she’d promise to spit on my grave.

Dollar Wash, a dry-cleaning service on Broadway run by two identical Lithuanians named Natalie, will hire and fire you once per week. The sisters wore matching outfits every day. Nothing at Dollar Wash costs a dollar. Once I stumbled in drunk and started a fight with a customer and ended up damaging two of the industrial strength washers and a Lithuanian mobster beat me near to death with a wooden bat. A week later the sisters hired me again.

On my last day in the city I stumbled through the park, nursing my scabs and my scars. I found a plot of grass under a willow tree and watched children throw a football in a field. Summer sun felt scalding on my scalp. I sat and watched a mass of humanity circulate like an atmospheric pressure system, laughing and sobbing and texting and walking dogs, eating ice cream and flying kites, hailing taxis and holding hands and watching planes write love notes in the sky. And if I could have that moment back, just for an hour, an instant, a day, just one last time, just a blink of a strip of film negatives to be experienced afraid and alone just once more.

Coming Up With a Title: Description of a Struggle

First, the good news. After half a decade spent holed up in my starving artist refuge, subsisting on ramen noodles and heat generated from a burning pyre of rejection letters and manuscript-length failures, I finally nixed that most elusive bucket list bullet point – I got a book deal.

 

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I settled into manuscript revisions, signed contract in hand (well, scanned on a computer screen, but still). Problem: the title I’d selected for the book, THE BLACK LOTUS, had already been claimed by half a dozen novels, including one fair-seller in the genre. And, besides, I just didn’t like the title. I felt awkward saying it to my boss. (“Hey Adam, what’s the name of your book?” “Uh… undecided.”) So I had to come up with something new. Huh. Hmm. Uh… Oh.

 

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The internet is littered with advise on titles, from data-driven Google Adwords campaigns to the advice of self-proclaimed experts offering the same stale advice (Make a list! Google it! Use a number!) to algorithms testing the best-sellerability of a particular string of words.

Scott Berkun offers sage advice at his blog:

We all suffer tremendous taste bias on titles. We assume our instincts and likes are matched by everyone. There are many kinds of taste, good and bad, which means there is an unbelievable amount of contradictory advice about titles, almost as much as there is about writing books themselves.

He continues doling out the depressing truth: “Many popular books suck, and many awesome books are unpopular. Book publishing is not a meritocracy.”

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But one thing all the experts agree on is this: the title matters. Data shows that would-be book buyers make snap judgement about the title first. I can vouch for it. I’m currently reading a novel in a genre I’d otherwise never pluck from the shelf – three women on a quasi-spiritual journey in search of love – simply because I couldn’t resist the title. The Big Bang Symphony. I had to have it. (And it’s good!)

Googling the phrase “coming up with a book title” offers a window into the anxiety of a writer’s soul. Nobody has all the answers. I am no great sage of the written word. I’m just a random guy on the internet. I’ll tell you what I tell my students – feel free to ignore everything I say. Anyone who claims to have “the answers” on writing should draw immediate suspicion. (Unless it is Sol Stein. You should listen to Sol Stein.) But, all that being said, here’s a few things I did that aren’t routinely given in the standard internet advice:

1. Read poetry. What words stand out? Write them down. Poetry is full of pretty words. Much like our 45th president, poets have the best words. Lots of books, TV shows and movies have titles taken straight from lines of poetry. Just check out this stanza from the poem “Of Nicolette” by ee cummings:

dreaming in marble all the castle lay
like some gigantic ghost-flower born of night
blossoming in white towers to the moon,
soft sighed the passionate darkness to the tune
of tiny troubadours,and(phantom-white)
dumb-blooming boughs let fall their glorious snows,
and the unearthly sweetness of a rose
swam upward from the troubled heart of May

Note to self: come up with idea for future novel titled Tiny Troubadours. Anyways. Point is, lots of great word combinations can be found in poems.

2. Look at photographs, drawings and other artworks. I do this a lot when writing, actually. When I have writer’s block, I turn to forms of art other than writing. One of the scenes in my upcoming book takes its inspiration from the fantastic photography of the Chinese duo Birdhead. Art is designed to give you the feels. I try to translate those feels into words.

 

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This strategy actually sealed the deal for me. I spent weeks agonizing over possible titles, then I saw a beautiful nature photograph of the night sky with an infinity symbol and thought, that’s it: Infinity Point.

3. Don’t be afraid to modify the book to accommodate a title. Which brings me to my next point. The title Infinity Point didn’t really match the story. Everyone tells you “sum up the book in a pithy phrase!” or “make sure it matches the story.” Sure. Yeah. But can a good title actually improve your story? I came up with the title Infinity Point, then worked it into the manuscript as a place. And, you know what? It made the story better. Instead of the climactic scene playing out in yet another blah “street” somewhere, now it got a whole lot more interesting. A ruined lighthouse on a forgotten pier at a place called Infinity Point? More intrigue. More yay.

4. Don’t be afraid to go down a weird internet rabbit hole. My search for title inspiration took me to some odd internet places. Here, for example:

 

 

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Found in related items: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken CoopThe Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. I don’t really have a point to make here, but aren’t you happy that I shared that with you?

5. Give it the awkward test. Walk into a room and see if it feels weird to say your title to strangers. I once seriously considered titling my book “In The Event of Spontaneous Combustion.” Yeah. Awkward.

 

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6. Just pick something and be done with it, goddamn it. At a certain point you have to. Oh, just do it. Come on. There are so many more productive things you could be doing. Starting work on your next book, for example. Watching videos of goats yelling like humans. Eating a sandwich. Just open a dictionary or something and pick some random words.

 

Connect scenes with “but” and “therefore,” not “and then”

One of the pros of being an unashamed film buff is getting to appreciate Tony Zhou’s YouTube series Every Frame a Painting (cons = forever alone, no friends, etc.). The other day, whilst sipping high-altitude pressed coffee and having pretentious thoughts about modern sculpture, I came across a brilliant how-to on structuring a video essay based on the 1973 film F for Fake by Orson Welles. Many of the lessons, I believe, can be applied to writing fiction.

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Zhou references an older video he made in which he presented viewers with a list that could come in any order. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. “That’s what makes it boring,” he says. I’m reminded of Dave Barry’s blunt advice for writers: “Don’t be boring.” You know something? This blog post is boring. Here’s a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night recreated using nothing but bacon to make things better:

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As a side note, I once gave a student extra credit on a final exam because he managed – against all odds – to make every essay question about bacon. Anyways, the first thought I had after watching Zhou’s video was “Crap, there’s another thing about writing I never learned. Curse you Mr. Lyons!” (ah, blaming failure on others, one of my favorite pastimes). The second thought I had was about a novel manuscript I wrote a number of years ago that never got published. I looked back on it and, sure enough, large sections of the text present a laundry list of scenes that could be freely rearranged. There was no cause and effect. The part of Zhou’s video I find most relevant comes from a workshop led by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have heard before. But it took us a long time to learn it… What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is the word “therefore” or “but.” So what I’m saying is you come up with and idea and it’s like “this happens, and therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens.”

I recently discovered a wonderful literary hidden gem called Time Commences in Xibalbá by the Guatemalan writer Luis de Lión. It’s a challenging read, with a translator’s preface and afterword that, in combination, are almost longer than the novel itself. A troubled man returns to his childhood village in remote Guatemala. He steals a life-sized wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary from the church and… proceeds to make love to it. Really. In the close-knit, conservative village, all hell breaks loose (a phrase you should NEVER use in your stories). The series of events that follows could not happen in any order. The statue is missing from the church. Therefore, panic erupts. Therefore, a search committee is formed, pitchforks and all, to comb the village. But, they don’t find it at first. Therefore, fingers are pointed. Therefore, the community begins to fall apart. But, they find it eventually. You get the idea.

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Looking back at some of my work that has gotten published, I notice that I’d unwittingly followed the cause/effect order of scenes. My story in Worker’s Write! tells of three contractors who show up to work only to learn that one will be fired at the end of the day. Therefore, two contractors decide to work together to hurt the third. But the main character starts having second thoughts. But his accomplice carries through with the plan anyways. Therefore… etc. etc. Okay, that uses up my “shameless self promotion” quota of the day.

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[I was going to post a still from Anchorman here with a quote about self-promotion, but – true story – I once ran a beer-related blog with over a thousand readers each week and had the whole thing shut down over copyright because I posted a Steve Carell meme. *shakes fist at sky*]

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I’ll be pitching a manuscript to agents at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City later this week. During the revision process (TEN drafts!!), I hunted down scene sequences that followed the dreaded “and then” list format – that is, they could come in any order – and I reworked them to have a clear cause and effect pattern. (Hi future agent! See, I know fancy literary stuff. Also, I will give you bacon).

 

Learn How to Keep Characters in Motion With Robert Downey Sr.

In the following video clip from the Criterion Collection, film director and screenwriter Robert Downey Sr. – better known to you as “wait, there’s a Robert Downey Sr.?” – claims to “only know one thing about screenwriting.”

Keep your characters in a hurry. That’s a lesson by no means restricted to the art of the script writing. It’s solid advice for plotting regardless the medium. Note how Downey specifies that it could be “psychological.” Not all plots star Dwayne Johnson. It doesn’t need Space Hitler or sharknados. But there should be a sense of urgency at some level. I’m reminded of James Scott Bell’s fantastic book Plot & Structure, in which he describes various types of death a character can face: physical, psychological, professional. This is your character’s last chance to have a career, to save her marriage, to sober up, etc. If it’s just another day in the life, who cares?

In Vladislav Todorov’s wonderful thriller Zift, we meet our protagonist as he’s being released from jail. We soon learn his objective: to reclaim the hidden treasure he’d been jailed for stealing. Todorov ups the stakes considerably when his lead character is captured by Communist authorities and injected with a lethal poison. Soon he will be dead. Poof. Urgency. Now he has only one night to complete his objective, and the result is a page-turner that’s hard to put down. Why? Because the character is in a hurry.

But urgency doesn’t just apply to genre fiction full of secret agents and hidden gold. Atticus Lish, in his much-lauded literary debut Preparation For The Next Life, creates urgency within the scope of a love story between a troubled Iraq veteran and an illegal immigrant from China. We can’t help feeling that this is Brad Skinner’s last shot at returning to a normal life after his harrowing experience overseas. Likewise, Zou Lei feels the constant presence of immigration authorities bearing down on her. They have to figure out something, soon, in order to save themselves and each other.

You can have lulls in action, sure. Your characters can huff Carménère corks and endure heroic feats of artistic suffering and crowd surf to avant-garde Beatles cover bands in Tbilisi. But the best fiction keeps a specter lurking in the shadows between paragraphs. What are your characters in a hurry to do? Looking back at my earlier fiction, before I started getting published, I see that oftentimes my stories didn’t have an answer to that important question. Now, as I try to continue my success, I strive to keep my characters in motion, even when they’re standing still.

The Ambitious Experiment

When I was in high school my friends and I formed a garage band called The Ambitious Experiment. Well, “band” is a matter of definition. We bypassed the whole “making music” part and split before cutting our first single. We could barely play our instruments, we had opinions on minimalist sculpture (Tony Smith FTW) and our bassist had a fantastic mustache. That’s some serious street cred, pre-destining oneself for failure. But we tried. I mean, I guess. The point is… well, I’m not sure what the point is. Would you like to see a picture of a pipe-smoking Walrus named Tricheo who likes to be referred to as “The Judge?” Yes? Good. We understand one another. Click here.

Today I am engaged in a new ambitious experiment – a brave, semi-quixotic adventure into the world of publishing. This blog and website will function as part of my all-important “web presence” needed to succeed as a serious writer person. I’ll share cat pictures, advice for others attempting to get published in print, drawings of cats, photos of cats, videos of cats, and updates on the status of my adventure. The difference between this experiment and my decade-old dud is that this time I’m not giving up. See, I have a plan. It looks something like this:

1. Start a blog

2. Start a blog war

3. ?????

4. Use newfound celebrity status to get out of speeding tickets, meet Snoop Lion, etc.

If you have opinions on books, bourbon, craft beer, the (early) films of Wong Kar-wai, linguistic relativity, optimality theory (actually just go away) and/or the use of “and/or” in contemporary blogging, please proceed to leave a series of increasingly arsenic-laced comments so that we may jumpstart the war and use it to our mutual pageview inflation.

If you would like to read a steady stream of cries for attention thinly veiled as self-deprecating humor, you can always follow me on Twitter. Expect more general awesomeness in this space in the near future. I’m off to down another gallon of coffee and nervously check my inbox for the hundredth time this minute.