How Much Story Is the Right Amount of Story, or, “One Page, Please”

I’ve spent some time lately writing a brand new thriller, reading friends’ stories, catching up on American indie films, and finishing Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

The early drafts, in fact the pre-drafts – the synopsis phase – is where the most exciting writing happens. That is when you’re an architect and not an interior designer. Writers often see films and think “Why did they shoot this before they gave that script a few more re-writes?” Reading scripts I sometimes wonder, “Why didn’t they let the blueprints mellow for a while, before they started writing pages?”

Not that I can’t sympathize with the writer eager to start ticking off plot points and counting the pages up to 90 or 100 (and hopefully not too much more) and calling it done. There is a time for that. But it’s so much smoother when you’re reasonably certain you have a good foundation. Every screenwriting how-to starts with a lecture about not wasting your time, and my only way of rephrasing it is to say, “Cool it.” To the naked eye, a writer might have achieved very little in one day during the synopsis phase, but he might have saved him or herself a week of headaches down the line just by taking a walk and deleting a sentence.

Nor do I entirely subscribe to the idea often blamed on Spielberg that any movie worth shooting can be summarized in one short sentence. One page is more like it. Maybe on some ideal planet there’s a writer who only thinks in one sentence notions, and then flushes them out to six or eight paragraphs with complete confidence. I wonder what that would be like.

I find the writing process more chaotic. You can’t be completely afraid of committing something to words, and yet you have to know when you’re getting lost in the details. I know when I’m starting to get lost. I hit “print” and the “print preview” window opens, and I see more than one page. Then I know it’s time to trim it.

Just this week I was reading this New York Times article about the Brooklyn detective Lou Scarcella, who let’s just say had a knack for dispensing with the notion of reasonable doubt while compiling evidence against suspects. Part of the article reads:

“In another Scarcella case, no one from the district attorney’s office has approached Charles Marcus, 40. In 1994, Mr. Marcus, known as Danny, gave the defendant, James Jenkins, a signed affidavit saying that in 1986 he saw an armed man he knew — who went by the name Dezo — chasing another man who was murdered moments later. Mr. Jenkins, who remains in prison, goes by the nickname Wag.”

Huh?! That’s precise reporting but bad storytelling, the kind of trap that makes screenwriters drink. If I had eight weeks to write a script, I’d spend the first three of them writing and rewriting the one-page. And everybody would have one name for the time being.

About movies, I’ve recently watched Blue Caprice, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, and Enough Said. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (written and directed by David Lowery) is the best film in theaters right now, certainly among thrillers. 

More on Moby-Dick soon. I enjoyed it so much, I started reading one of the stories that inspired it, Owen Chase’s 1821 memoir, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, of Nantucket; which was attacked and finally destroyed by a large spermaceti-whale, in the Pacific Ocean; with an account of the unparalleled sufferings of the captain and crew during a space of ninety-three days at sea, in open boat; in the years 1819 & 1820. That’s the actual title. So much shorter with the ampersand!

Also can’t put down Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick?, which is full of marvelous details. It’s inspiring, and maddening, to read that in August, 1850, Melville had finished a draft, then hung out with his idol Hawthorne and decided to change his story a little by adding a character, named Ahab!