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From Plays to Novels (1 Viewer)

"Bringing the Stage to the Page" is the title of a presentation I've given to writers' groups. Below is part of that presentation and a mention of a couple of theatrical folk turned novelists. I hope some of you find it useful.

Playwriting and novel writing are two of my life-long passions. I wrote my first novel in the 6th grade and began writing plays even earlier for backyard theatricals. For me, the forms are inextricably linked. Now one of my favorite topics when speaking to writers’ groups focuses on ways to enhance novel writing with playwriting techniques—particularly, by using props, dialogue, and subtext.

The prop an actor uses on stage says so much about the character who possesses it or desires to possess it. Objects can be used and misused, needed, fought over, lost, stolen, destroyed, regained—so many possibilities for conflict, which is at the heart of drama. And objects described in novels can serve the same purposes, creating visual images in the reader’s mind. My latest novel, WOMEN OF MAGDALENE, began with a pair of boots I saw in a Civil War museum. Horseshoe nails were embedded for cleats in the soles of the boots to keep a soldier from slipping in the mud or to keep a field surgeon from slipping in the blood. I chose the surgeon. My protagonist, Dr. Robert Mallory, wears those boots in the surgery tent and again on the muddy trek to his new post at the Magdalene Ladies’ Lunatic Asylum. And that is only the beginning of the significance of that prop, that indispensable pair of boots.

A play’s dialogue is written to be spoken, to seem natural, to flow, revealing character and moving plot. A novelist’s dialogue can benefit from the playwright’s craft and the actor’s delivery. In writing my young adult novel, JULIETTE ASCENDING, the heroine narrates her adventures with a voice of breathless youth. In David Blixt’s novel, MASTER OF VERONA, the Shakespearean actor turned novelist gives his cast of characters plenty of good lines: “I've been thinking about the move from acting to writing, and it's interesting—my agent is trying to get me to use less dialogue, whereas I love that it's my dialogue that propels the story and reveals information. That comes entirely from my acting—and especially my Shakespeare—background. I fear it will be a habit impossible to break—because it's interpersonal relations that create the drama of any story.”

And what would dramatic storytelling be without subtext? Watching actors whose performances are not “on the nose” obvious, but instead full of undercurrents, subtlety, and irony, a novelist gathers gestures, expressions, and tones of voice that translate into compelling prose. After playing the role of Jack Absolute in Sheridan’s THE RIVALS, actor, playwright, and novelist C.C. (Chris) Humphreys combines his stage experience and storytelling talents in a series of novels about the rakish character he has made his own, beginning with JACK ABSOLUTE: Officer, Mohawk, Lover, Spy.

I asked Chris to tell me about his special relationship with Jack Absolute, something I could quote. He offered the following comment, laced with subtext: “A quote? Hmm! On what part of Jack?
Well, my wife did read the scene where Jack makes love to the sexy actress Stage Right in the theatre and said, 'No wonder you like writing him, he's your fantasy alter ego.' Now there are certain things you don't mention to a wife. Especially that, with Jack, it is not so much fantasy, as memory.”

By pairing well-chosen props with vivid dialogue, then running some meaning between the lines, novelists as well as playwrights can part the curtain on imagination.

Rosemary Poole-Carter