Michael Dempsey is a theatre actor, director, playwright, former TV and film writer. His first novel, a sci fi noir thriller called NECROPOLIS, was released this very week, so he’s doing his best to keep busy and not be a total nervous wreck. Here, in keeping with the “Writing Advice We Hate” theme, he ponders “How To” books and writing gurus.
I’ve always had a knee-jerk reaction to authority (and not in a good way). But I grudgingly concede that we need rules in life. Things would be ugly out there if everyone ignored traffic lights, put aluminum foil in the microwave and wore their tighty-whities on the outside of their jeans. Rules help us get along and avoid hurting ourselves. That’s life.
We’ve all heard the artistic chestnut, “You have to know the rules before you break them.” This philosophy posits that there must be a mastery of craft before artistic inspiration can be fully expressed. To this way of thinking, all those depressing black and white drawings of miners were a necessary prelude to Van Gogh’s explosion into a new dimension of color and perception. For the moment, let’s give it benefit of the doubt for the purposes of discussion.
So there must be rules in fiction. But what rules? Whose rules? Which ones can we break, and which ones are inviolate? Where does inspiration meet technique, and how does commerce—which we grudgingly concede is a necessary factor in being a professional writer—affect the decisions we make about these rules?
I began my career as a playwright, then as a TV network sitcom writer and screenwriter, and most recently, an author. Each of these forms of fiction have their own needs and peculiarities, but one can argue that the basic structural elements hold true for all of them. Inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, etc.. Sensing my greenhorn impatience, I was warned by my elders not to go off half-cocked on a project: without technique, I’d get lost. So I diligently studied the structure of plays and screenplays, analyzed them and copied them. And I read all the “How-To” books.
The first inkling I had that all these rules didn’t begin to touch the important stuff was when I tried to study the dynamics of comedy. I’m not an especially funny person in real life, but I had a knack for putting humor on the page. I trusted that fact, but I had absolutely no idea how I did it. It just happened. When I tried to think about it, everything instantly became murky. Oh, I was offered plenty of sage advice (usually with a smug, self-satisfied smile). Conventions like “The Rule of Three: things are funnier when they occur in threes,” or “Use words with ‘p’s and ‘k’s: they’re funnier.” But bon mots like that seemed like they were merely surface technique—basically window dressing. They had nothing to do with the essential mystery of what makes people laugh, and how to summon that. Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he said, “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog: you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”
A Hollywood producer once told me, “Kid, let me tell you The Secret of writing.” Oh my god, The Secret! I was about to be given access to the innermost cave! I leaned closer, breathless.
“People want the same, but different.”
Well, that was about as disappointing as learning the secret to the Force was midi-chlorians. But as hilarious and stupid as it sounded, upon reflection, did it make some sense? Is it insulting to your audience to think that, while people don’t want carbon copies, they need enough familiar landmarks so that they don’t get lost?
To answer that, first you have to ask yourself is, “Who am I writing for? The average reader or those brave, few adventurous souls who are willing to jump with me into the void?” Look, we’re professional writers. We have to make a living, and that means reaching a lot of people. There’s always been that tense balance between art and commerce, ever since the first caveman looked at the second caveman’s drawing of a bison and said, “I’ll give you a pound of antelope meat if you paint one of those in my cave, too…but make his head a little bigger, and get rid of that stupid tail.”
So if everything we read and see all seems kind of the same, we can’t just blame a writer’s cowardice or career ambitions? Because, before we get our product to the end-consumer, first we have to sell it.
In film and TV, the most dreaded creatures for writers are the development executives. These are often twenty-something business school graduates who decided that the big money was in show business. Every day, these people have to make decisions on what to buy. And if they’re wrong—if a project tanks—they’re out of a job. Literally. The turnover is insane.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many caring, talented agents, development people, producers and publishers. My experience with my publisher and editor for NECROPOLIS has been wonderful—they obviously really dig what they’re doing and the genre they’re selling. But what about those others? I think, deep down, these people are terrified, because they’re not writers—they’re not trained, they have very little life experience and many of them don’t have that essential instinct for what makes art tick. So what do they do? They latch onto something far worse than rules—they latch onto formulas.
I once had a screenplay rejected by this smiling, corn-fed boy with blinding teeth. He sent me on my way with the comment, “I love it, but Plot Point One happens on page 31 and not page 27.” Astonishing but true. Why did he say this? Because the latest, most fashionable “How To” book said that’s the way a script should be. So what did all the ambitious young screenwriters do? They stampede out to the Writer’s Store, read the book, and then make damned sure Plot Point One was on page 31, that’s what! And out pops another clone.
You’ll find the gurus everywhere. The famous agent who wrote a “How To Write A Blockbuster” book or the fiction seminar maharishi who charges $300 for a couple hours of his time. And then, of course, we all must view every manuscript through the lens of their formula.
In the 1990s, an entire “How To” industry grew out of Joseph Campbell’s classic, The Hero’s Journey. Campbell, a brilliant social anthropologist, distilled down archetypes that he discovered existed everywhere—certain basic story elements that resonate so deeply with the human psyche that they appear across the globe in completely diverse cultures and times. He gave them names and a hierarchy, like “The Ordinary World,” “The Call to Adventure,” “The Refusal of the Call,” etc. Campbell’s work is genius: illuminating, thrilling and important. The book is something every single writer should read. I have studied it—hell, I’ve even taught workshops about it, it’s so valuable.
But, inevitably, some industrious writing teacher adapted these archetypes into a list of plot points and wrote a book called it The Writer’s Journey. Everybody in Hollywood read it. And almost instantly:
YOUNG, BEAUTIFUL STUDIO EXECUTIVE TO ME: “Love it, Michael, but you don’t have a “Refusal of the Call” scene.”
And I finally lost my shit and screamed, “NOT EVERY GODDAMNED STORY IN THE UNIVERSE NEEDS A ‘REFUSAL OF THE CALL’ SCENE!!!!!”
Well… Actually I screamed it on the inside. The guy worked for Dreamworks, he was a good friend of my agent, and at that point in my career I really couldn’t afford to alienate him…
Art just met commerce. And commerce kicked its ass.
Look, there’s fiction, and then there’s reality. When I decided to write my first novel, I knew I would have my hands full just learning this new form of fiction. So I deliberately chose to write a story with a structure I knew well. I love science fiction and I love crime novels, and so I wrote a genre thriller that blended the two. Is the book ground-breaking? Probably not. Might you recognize some tried-and-true plot devices? Probably . Will it be “the same, but different?” Hopefully. Hopefully this book is not my ugly black and white Van Gogh but something that’s at least a bit down the road toward an explosion of color. And hopefully, if it reaches enough people, the next one will inch a little further in that direction.
So, finally, who decides what are the rules, and which ones must be broken?
Certainly not the gurus. I may change my mind later, but right now, it seems to me that it’s a partnership—between me and my story. I’m going to try and let the stories tell themselves, with me watching over it like a benevolent grandfather. Let the stories dictate what traditional elements they need and where they need to deviate from those, and just nudge them when necessary to make sure they doesn’t go completely off the rails in a burst of inspiration. Oh, and make sure they doesn’t become completely unsellable, too.
The Buddha told his followers not to blindly believe what he was teaching, but to go out and test his philosophy in the world. And if it was wrong, reject it. From that rose the famous saying: “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
For the modern world, I would modify it: “Read the Buddha’s ‘How To’ book. Then burn it.”