Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"A Missing Element"

Regular readers know that one of my favorite shows on TV is the original Law and Order. Interestingly, my daughter Anna has also become a Law and Order junkie of late, though she favors the SVU spinoff. I don’t know, can there possibly be a Law and Order gene, with a generational mutation for sex crimes? Though the sampling here are miniscule, this appears to be the case.

I love the original Law and Order for its remarkably balanced presentation of the arguments. (I don’t know why Anna loves the sex crimes version. I’m afraid to ask.) I’ll get back to that subject in a minute. I should move that first paragraph down, but I like it as an opening. So it stays where it is.


Yesterday, I happily self-flagellated, albeit in the guise of an educational posting, about how you could be a better writer than I am by avoiding becoming consumed by a single stylistic proclivity, meaning in my case, “Stop it always with the funny business!”

A complete writer, I concluded, uses the entire palette. Otherwise, though you may develop a standout ability, like a shot putter with one hyper-muscular upper arm, you wind up becoming the writing counterpart of the disproportionally enormous uni-shouldered freak.

The result of a unilateral focus is that you emerge from the process lacking entirely in range. And depth. And respectability as an all-round good writer. And you’ll feel deficient in libraries, where , not coincidentally I believe, I am invariably brought low with excruciating cramps.

So there’s that. A unilateral focus inhibits your mastering the imaginatorial spectrum. Which, in this era of specialization now that I think of it, is the situation in all lines of works. As I discovered when I asked my cardiac surgeon if, when he was repairing my faulty heart valve, he would also straighten my left eye, and he told me that he didn’t know how.

Let’s move on, however, to another thing I’m not good at, which, if you are good at it, or can train yourself to become good at it, you’ll be a better writer than I am. I will not enjoy your being a better writer than I am, but if you become one as a result of what you read here, I will justifiably be able to take some of the credit, “second place” in the hierarchy of achievements, but better than nothing.

A really good writer, among other things but unquestionably high the list, must have an insightful understanding of an extensive variety of human behavior. By definition, unless you are writing a one-person show, your script will, by definition, have more than one character in it. And it makes things considerably more interesting if those characters are different. (I would therefor suggest you avoid writing a two-character script about identical twins, especially identical twins that have been raised together.)

Here’s the source of my difficulty. Having devoted my efforts since pretty much birth to making my own character interesting and entertaining, there remained little time for me to pay attention to anyone else. As a consequence, I am the farthest thing from an expert on how other people think or feel, or behave as a result of the way they think or feel.

I am completely in the dark.

If people aren't like me, I have no idea what they’re doing. (Ergo, my inability to write Law and Order, and my admiration for the people who do. I myself could only write one side of the argument, the side whose position matched my own. The other side would have to throw themselves on the mercy of the court.)

At the risk of understatement, my limited understanding is unhelpful in my writing. (Don’t even ask me about life.) For example. I am required to create a devious character, to contrast with an innocent dupe they’re attempting to exploit. I’d have no difficulty writing the dupe. The nefarious duper? Not a clue.

The situation demands a “Sealing the deal” scene, where the dupe, who is innocent but not stupid – the dupe is no dope – gets gradually but persuasively bamboozled into signing on the dotted line. The bamboozler is thus required to deliver a deal- clinching “pitch”, a hole-free proposal to persuade the dupe to say “Yes.” The scheme has to hold water. It has to make sense. But, fundamentally, it has to be a lie.

As a writer, I could not convincingly pull that off. I lack the mental acuity to construct the pitch. My version would be like,

“So do you want to do it?“

“I don’t think so.”


Or the slightly longer version:

“So do you want to do it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Aw, come on.

“I don’t want to do it.”


“But, Earlo,” you rebut, “you have written dozens of scripts. Surely, some of them contained “argument scenes” and you were able to successfully invent both sides of that argument. N’est pas?” (Weren’t you?)

C’est vrai. (Yes I was.) But only when the characters represented clearly defined archetypes. Take Major Dad, for example. The two lead characters: An ideologically left-leaning reporter, and a throwback, tradition-steeped Marine.

In that case, there was no problem. I wrote the reporter like me, and I wrote the Marine like a cowboy.

I know me, and I know cowboys. Giddy Up!

In contrast, there was Cheers, where I was seriously out of my element. “’Sam Malone’ – a semi-literate, Ladies’ Man.” Yeah, good luck with that one. I only wrote four Cheers episodes. And two of them featured the “Coach” character.

An innocent.

Are you picking up on the limitation here?

I’m an “innocent.” I am “child-like.” I lack a substantial chunk of adult understanding.

And you know what?

I like it that way.

I enjoy seeing things with fresh eyes. I take pleasure in noticing what others miss, but when I bring it to their attention, they go, “Why didn’t I see that?”, and they laugh.

You want to be a better writer than me? Take note of what I do, and do something different.

But if you enjoy where my limitations take me,

Set sail with your own version of the same thing.

1 comment:

joe said...

Could be worse. You could be one of those writers who lacks that sort of understanding and doesn't know it.