Over Thinking

14 November 2019: Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

One of my biggest stumbling blocks in writing is believing a story needs to be more complicated than it does. This almost always relates to the backstory of the characters. I usually know quite a bit about events in the characters’ histories and often feel I need to reveal everything I know to be true about the characters when oftentimes less is more.

In my story Phoenix, which closes Fables of the New South, I developed a complicated history for the character, Christine, which detailed the abuse she endured by her parents. A teacher begins to suspect what’s going on and launches an investigation. In my original outline for the story, the teacher was going to report the family to authorities, but I came to realize this would add a level of complexity to the story that the narrative could not support. An investigation such as the one I imagined would take months and involve a lot of bureaucracy.

Instead, I confined the investigation to the teacher simply asking questions in order to gather the information needed to approach the authorities. This course of action accomplished the goal of setting him at odds with the girl’s parents, who retaliated against him. The final story was improved by the brevity of the situation. Sometimes, the advice to “keep it simple” is the best course.

This idea is especially true when moving from one medium to the next. Once I have a story, I can render it in many different forms, as prose or drama. What works for static words on a page usually does not translate well to the stage. An example is my novel Rebecca, Too, which began as a play that I’ve never been able to produce. In fact, in trying to translate the story back into a play, it becomes necessary to leave out quite a bit of the narrative complexity I developed for the novel.

One of the luxuries of prose is the space to provide an extensive background on a situation, incorporating flashbacks, thoughts, memories, and multiple perspectives. Adapting a story for the stage requires quite a bit of pruning. The action of a play needs to be confined to what an audience witnesses in front of them, and this makes relating a complex background more of a challenge. There’s also the need to “show” instead of “tell” because actions speak louder than words. Finally, a script is more dynamic than a short story or novel, since it requires the contribution of directors, actors and crew to tell the story, and how it’s perceived can be affected by the way it’s performed.

I’m in the process of developing a series of plays about Claire Belmonte, a character I first created as a background figure for the original play Rebecca, Too, who went on to became a major focus in the story collection Fables of the New South. Her story is covered in three different books, Fables, Rebecca, and my latest story collection, Reconstruction. Claire’s relationship with her abusive mother is especially complex, so converting it from prose to script is very challenging, relating the complex emotions involved, while presenting a story interesting enough to hold the attention of an audience.

Storytelling is often a very frustrating business, developing realistic characters and giving them interesting things to do, but the results can be very rewarding for authors and readers. The challenge is to discover how much of the story needs to be told and how best to relate the details to hold a reader’s or an audience’s interest. Simplicity is often the key, even when relating a very complex story.

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