Tell the Story

A young friend asked me how to write original metaphors. He quoted Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I’m a huge Orwell fan, and I generally agree with his ideas about writing. Certainly, I admire his push against hackneyed expressions. But I think he was attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

Young directors and actors, just like young writers, worry about “finding their voice.” They shouldn’t. Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must compel you to want everyone to share your excitement. But they won’t unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste and touch what you touch.

Bad writing often stems from one’s attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn’t imitate what one sees in print, but I’d add that one should also not try to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn’t care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story.

Being original — or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one’s own writing (directing or acting) and other, published pieces — has nothing to do with telling a story.

In fact, attempts at originality generally weaken the story, because it’s very hard to complete two goals at once. You’re either trying to be original or you’re trying to tell a story.

If you have just one goal (your story), and you’re clear about what it is, then you’ll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else’s story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you’re serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.

Instead of “Never use a metaphor … which you are used to seeing in print,” avoid metaphor altogether — until you need it. What’s the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor’s purpose? Remember, you’re trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman’s boots, to taste the diner’s bitter coffee and to feel the cramping of the king’s arthritic fingers.

There will come a point when you can’t convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man’s love for his wife this way?), so you’ll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can’t describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else — something familiar and evocative to the reader — so that he can experience the original idea via a proxy. Maybe readers can’t feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it’s like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?

Without trying, your metaphor will be original. It will have to be, or it won’t work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader feel. This is similar to the point of song in a musical.  Composers make the heroes break into song when speech will no longer convey the emotion. (“I just met a girl named Maria!”)

As for finding one’s voice, it happens when you quit trying. Don’t make the mistake of trying to look natural when you’re posing for a photograph. You can’t do it. But you will look natural if someone snaps your picture while you’re busy measuring out a cup of flour for your muffin recipe. You’ll look natural because you’ll be actively pursuing a goal — a goal other than Being Natural. By telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice will emerge.

Friends tell me that I’ve found my voice — that Folding Chair has a distinctive style, and that they see it in every production I direct. That may be, but it’s not something I shoot for. I just tell stories as clearly and sensually as I can.

By the way, I’m not advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story — that engage the reader’s senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don’t serve the story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?

When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound “too original.” When I direct, I cut anything that looks “cool.” This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I’m usually proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that my audience will think, “Wow, what a telling turn of phrase he came up with” or “What a cool bit of blocking from the director!” At which point they’ve lost the thread of the story. They’re thinking about the writer or director, not about the story. The story isn’t me. It’s not about how smart or cool or inventive I am. It’s about a King and his three daughters.

As William Faulkner said, “you must kill all your darlings.” As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist), “the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.” Murder your darlings; obliterate your beautiful things. Tell the story!

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