form and function


I've been reading a lot of plays for work. Halfway to applauding the remarkable flexibility of the form, it occurred to me that it probably wasn't so much a product of the playwright's imagination as much as ignorance. Most seemed to have no idea how to write a play--where the margins are, what is italicized or not, how to indicate stage directions. Many also weren't spell checked.

One of my film school teachers always said we shouldn't call ourselves screenwriters if we haven't spent time reading screenplays. The same can be said of playwrights, novelists. You must read. And then you must re-read.

Not those "how-to" books that explain, that tell as opposed to showing, but the actual novels/plays/screenplays that demonstrate how skillful writers negotiated various creative challenges--dialogue, staging, flashback. Because those who read your work are using the same eyes that have read these great works, and subtly measuring yours by them.

Not to say that form is everything, but there is a problem when lack of attention to form becomes an obstacle for the reader to get over. I find myself, at times, unwilling to do that work--ready to reject something simply because I find the writer careless. And that's a problem.

I think it's true that you can ultimately reject "conventional" form, at a certain point, that you must find your own form in the process, but I think you must know what it is in order to do away with it. Or to use it in such a way that it transforms and revolutionizes the form itself.

I think there are limitations on that end too, of course, as I was unable to finish prodigy Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House. (Most reviewers called it a "challenging" read. It did not work for me!)

All of this to say. If you don't read, you don't write; you experiment. Nothing wrong with that, but if you want to be a good or great writer, some attention to form is necessary. You must read. And you must be able to apply what you read to your own work. (A little spell checking goes a long way, too!)

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  1. I agree with you. A writer should comply with conventions but also find his/her own voice.

    Love your blog...!


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