Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Occam's Razor (Keep it simple)

My word for the day from Merriam Webster is Occam's Razor.

Yes, I get daily emails with the "word of the day". I'm a total nerd, okay? That's what writers are, they think language is the bomb.

They also use outdated slang words like the "bomb".

I actually first heard about this philosophy (I guess its a scientific reasong thing, too) when I was in a creative writing class in high school. Mrs. Muth, a lovely old lady, gave us some handout on poetry writing and it illuminated the idea that "less is more". That poetry is about distillation of words. Good writing has nothing unnecessary.

I just got done doing a major rewrite on THE ALBATROSS. I'm starting to regret naming it that title as the more I rewrite it the more it's really starting to feel like an albatross around my neck...But the rewrites went well and the play is becoming deeper and slightly different, but in a good way. It went from a 102 page script to 137, which in some ways scares me as I know it will probably need some other cuts, but its exciting because I have a lot of new scenes and an entirely new character (not really new to the story, per se, but he was offstage and now he's more involved).

People have praised my dialogue on more than one occasion and I just got a lot of comments on the readings of THE ALBATROSS about how realistic it sounded (which is nice but to me truthful is better than realistic--I'm not going after slice of life). If there is one thing I do pretty well, realistic or streamlined dialogue is it. This can be a blessing or a curse because sometimes that really great dialogue just hides some other larger issues inherent in the character or plot. (Also, this became extremely problematic when I started writing screenplays becuase that medium tells stories mainly by images, not necessarily dialogue.) But at least I know this about myself.

The key to good dialogue, though, has a lot to do with Occam's Razor.

In other words, simplify. Leave no excess words.

In good plays, characters don't say anything more than what they need to in order to get what they want, or if its applicable to the reality, or the truth, of those given circumstances.

So, for example, if your script has a line that starts, "As you know..." or "You know you've been friends for three years and..." you probably don't need it. It's there for you the playwright, not for the characters.

But won't the audience get confused? You say.

Look, first, most people that go to theater are pretty smart. Second, even if they haven't gone to the theater a lot, most people have seen so many movies, tv shows, and whatnot that they immediately get so much information from a few lines and the actor behavior than any amount of your awkward phrasings. So just cut it out and see what happens. Don't worry, the audience will fill in the blanks. Just show your characters behaving truthfully given their wants. That's where the real playwriting is...creating those events and circumstances that make for brilliant drama. Once that's done, you can cut the dialogue down to the bone and still have a great scene.

And if the audience does get confused...just say you're inspired by Harold Pinter.

And now for Fun Facts! (courtesy of Merriam-Webster):

William of Occam (also spelled "Ockham") didn't invent the rule associated with his name. Others had espoused the "keep it simple" concept before that 14th-century philosopher and theologian embraced it, but no one wielded the principle (also known as the “law of parsimony”) as relentlessly as he did. He used it to counter what he considered the fuzzy logic of his theological contemporaries, and his applications of it inspired 19th-century Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton to link “Occam” with the idea of cutting away extraneous material, giving us the modern name for the principle.

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