Since I started writing a book, a quote by George Bernard Shaw has lingered in the back of my mind. I was in a Theatre History lecture, at the University of Minnesota, when I heard this quote attributed to him, “Any idiot can write a book, but it takes talent to write a play.” I found the quote funny the first time I heard it, because Shaw’s plays are stage direction heavy. He provides details many in the Theatre world consider excessive. The non-dramatist doesn’t mind reading his plays because of this fact. His plays are easier to read because the stage directions read like details in a book.
I also found the quote funny because Shaw’s first works were several books. These books (Immaturity, written 1879, published 1930; The Irrational Knot, written 1880, published 1885; Love Among the Artists, written 1881, published 1887; Cashel Byron’s Profession; written 1882, published 1885) lingered and remained unpublished until after Shaw received notoriety from his plays. I guess the better quote would be, “Any idiot can write a book, but it takes talent to get published.” But I would never accuse Shaw of lacking talent. However I don’t think, based on Shaw’s own writing (How to write a Play-1909) he would say many playwrights are talented. “As a matter of fact the majority of those who in France and England make a living by writing plays are unknown and, as to education, illiterate. Their names are not worth putting on the playbill, because their audiences neither know nor care who the author is, and often believe that the actors improvise the whole piece, just as they in fact do sometimes improvise the dialogue.”
While Shaw’s plays have paragraphs of stage directions, I went in the other direction. I grew up in improve theatre. My high school did not have the budget to stage musicals in a proscenium. The fall performance was collaborative performances created through improve. Some called our stage black box, or an experimental stage. It’s a minimalist, low budget, very portable way to stage a performance. I attempted to write all of my plays for this stage. None of my early plays had a lot of stage directions. I was following the advice of my favorite playwright August Wilson, “I think that as a playwright, if I detail that environment, then I’m taking away something from them [designers]. I’m taking away their creativity and their ability to have input themselves, not just to follow what the playwright has written. So I do a minimum set description and let the designers create within that.” (African American Review, Spring 2001)
As a writer with academic training in writing plays, I’ve had a learning curve taking on a book. My first struggle writing a book was in composing all those “stage directions” I worked so hard to never write before. My goal is to achieve a balanced narrative. One with enough detail to spring board the reader into the environment, but not loose them in lengthy narratives. I try not to get to hung up on this. I’m not attempting fancy prose here. The priority has been just getting it out of my head and written. I would rather be burdened with ideas than busy composing pretty prose that say nothing. My most recent learning struggle has been writing beats into dialogue. Actors don’t appreciate playwrights telling them when to take a dramatic pause, so I’ve never needed to write this kind of thing before. I’ll have no complaints as long as my struggle remains writing pauses, and not writing dialogue.