writing for the king

Do you want me to strike this?

Ron Albertson, Waiting for Guffman

I took a few stage-directing classes in school, but I didn’t learn much in the way of formal technique. (The theater department of my liberal arts college abhorred all things “pre-professional.”) When directing a play, I’d sit and watch the actors run a scene, tell them what to do differently, then have them run it again. It wasn’t elegant, but it got the job done.

At my school, theater majors were given only one opportunity to direct a full-length play, as a senior project. In my eagerness to get my theatrical career off the ground—unlike my peers, I’d never done any theater prior to college—I mounted six or seven indie productions in various spots around campus before my senior year. Mamet, Pinter, that sort of thing. Good times. Nothing beats putting on a show.

Forging ahead like this without any oversight and without much experience as an actor being directed, I developed an array of bad habits as a fledgling director. It was only during my senior-year project that the directing professor himself had the opportunity to watch me work outside of a classroom exercise.

“You’re directing for the king,” he observed, glumly. My first instinct was to take this as a compliment—who wouldn’t want to be royalty-oriented?—but no. “In the past, the king would sit square in the middle of the audience,” he explained. “All the action would be directed toward him. Everyone else would just have to deal with what they got. Today, things are a bit more democratic.”

“Oh,” I said, still unsure where he was going with the history lesson.

“You might try sitting somewhere else,” he clarified.

“Ah,” I said. “Yes.”

So I moved and watched a scene. Moved again, watched again. I discovered he was right. Arranging the scenery and blocking out the action, I hadn’t given any thought to the people on the right, let alone the people on the left. Or, for that matter, the poor bastards in the back. I’d only been interested in optimizing my own experience as an audience member, and I had the best seat in the house.

A theatrical production has to “play” to an audience of hundreds or even thousands of people. Great stage directors—Bartlett Sher is one of my favorites—handle this challenge so elegantly, you often forget about your lousy seats. It just doesn’t matter. You’re right there, having an experience. Unless, of course, there’s a column in front of you. (I’d like to see Bart direct his way around that!)

A book also has to play to a group of readers, an audience. Might be 5,000, might be 500,000, but it’s not infinite and it’s not just you. Don’t write for the king. Move around the “auditorium,” Imagine the various perspectives of all those potential readers. Do they know what you’re assuming they know? Do they enjoy what you’re assuming they enjoy? Will they find this or that aspect of your subject quite as fascinating as you do?

The eyes of a reader are the ultimate proscenium arch. As “director” of the reader’s experience, you’ve got an unlimited budget for sets and props. You can cast literally anyone you want. You can mount a production of extraordinary scope, spanning eons and galaxies. Writing a book may not be as fun as mounting a play—or, well, at all—but it’s an extraordinary privilege.

My professor may not have taught me much in the way of technique, but he identified a blind spot in my working style that still hinders me today. No matter how good you get, you can’t see what you don’t see; I wish I had more teachers like him.