Fun With Lists…or Not Really…or Reading Like a Writer

Wodehouse, I don’t think anyone will disagree, is a clever writer. There’s a dryish wit that feeds his prose. British, yes? Yes.

When Wodehouse describes a regular situation (man falls off bike) he conveys all the normal information like:

1. If you’re not careful, you can fall off your bike.

2. Falling off the bike will hurt.

3. A reader has empathy for the guy falling off the bike.

I’m a boring writer comparitively (See above, I made a list. So exciting.), so let’s look at Wodehouse. Here’s the passage from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie Wooster witnesses Officer Oates’s bicycle accident:

The constable, I say, was riding without his hands: and but for this the disaster, when it occurred, might not have been so complete. I was a bit of a cyclist myself in my youth — I think I have mentioned that I once won a choir boys’ handicap at some village sports — and I can testify that when you are riding without your hands, privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence. The merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie connecting with the ankle bone at such a time, and you swoop into a sudden swerve. And, as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller.”

Interesting bits of how Wodehouse developed the above passage (here’s another list):

1. He lets us fill in the gaps. We don’t actually see the Scottie dog attack the bike, but we know it happens.

2. He overexplains the situation. Wodehouse doesn’t just say “If you ride without your hands on the handlebars you need to concentrate.” No, it’s “privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence.” The situation is not an accident it is a complete disaster: “but for this the disaster…might not have been so complete.”

3. The overexplanation and use of elaborate wording is reversed right at the end with the slang of “smeller.”

Not to take the fun out of reading by overexamining, but taking small chunks of a writer’s work and examining it like this can lead to revelations in your own work. I mean, in this one paragraph we got: leave gaps to fill in, overexplaining, and reversals. I’m sure that if we continued to probe the language of this paragraph we would find still more tidbits.

But that’s not as fun.

Still…the next time you come across something that you really love in a work, you should read it, mentally note it, and come back to it after you’ve read for fun.

Always fun first, then work.

You don’t need to examine the whole thing (who has that kind of time?), just take a paragraph like I did here. You will definitely learn something.

P.S. Official Warning Label: Do not attempt this exercise with Chaucer, Milton, myself, or Shakespeare. Your head will explode. And I’ll just be embarassed.

In Which Stephen Fry Says It Better Than Myself: Novels vs Screenplays

Novels and screenplays work very differently. (Please, save the ‘Duh, Jennys’ for the end.) However, sometimes it’s difficult to see why they work differently without thinking about it.

Novels: You get the words and only the words to describe scene, character motivation, dialogue, etc. Basically, novels have to cover everything and be complete in and of itself.

Screenplays/Plays: Are not complete until they are performed. Often, not until after weeks and weeks of rehearsal/shooting. Russell Crowe was reportedly pissed that Gladiator was being written while they were still working on it–and before you say, “Well, Crowe gets pissed at a lot,” let me say in his defense that it makes an actor’s job harder when they don’t get to interpret something whole.

Wodehouse wrote musicals and plays and his work has been adapted for the screen. But, as mentioned, the screen works differently than prose. You’ll be pleased to know that the two actors who portrayed Jeeves and Wooster in the British series based off of Wodehouse’s two legendary characters, the legendary-in-their-own-right Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, took the adaptation seriously.

Stephen Fry even wrote an essay on it. Check it out in whole here.

In the essay, Fry says, “When Hugh Laurie and I had the extreme honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of television adaptations, we were aware of one huge problem. Wodehouse’s three great achievements are plot, character and language, and the greatest of these, by far, is language. If we were reasonably competent, then all of us concerned in the television version could go some way towards conveying a fair sense of the narrative of the stories and revealing, too, a good deal of the nature of their characters. The language, however, lives and breathes in its written, printed form.

Then he gives an example at random. But I’m not going to do that. Let’s take a peek at Jeeves disapproving of some outfit or other of Wooster’s in “Leave it to Jeeves”:

I remember meeting Monty Byng in Bond Street one morning, looking the last word in a grey check suit, and I felt I should never be happy till I had one like it.
     ‘Jeeves,’ I said that evening, ‘I’m getting a check suit like that one of Mr. Byng’s.’
     ‘Injudicious, sir,’ he said firmly. ‘It will not become you.’
     ‘What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.’
     ‘Unsuitable for you, sir.’
     Well, the long and short of it was that the confounded thing came home, and I put it on, and when I caught sight of myself in the glass I nearly swooned. Jeeves was perfectly right. I looked a cross between a music-hall comedian and a cheap bookie.'”

Ah, now. We have a very clear picture in our heads of what Wooster looks like, we have a very good impression of Jeeves’s opinion, and we have a very good idea of what these characters sound like. Enough verys, right? The scene is complete on the page.

Now, I don’t have the teleplay in front of me, but it would look something like this (forgive me, trying to write a screenplay format in a blog is tricky):

Grey check suit arrives. Wooster pulls it out of box. 
WOOSTER
A check suit, just like Mr. Byng’s.
JEEVES
Injudicious, sir. It will not become you.
WOOSTER
What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.
JEEVES
Unsuitable for you, sir.
Wooster ignores Jeeves. Puts on suit. Looks like cheap bookie. 
In order for this scene to work, the suit has to be right there, so that the audience can see and react to it at the same time as Jeeves and Wooster. (Don’t forget that television and movies are entirely visual media…whatever the writer wants the audience to see, they have to literally write a picture.) There’s also no explanation to develop Wooster and Jeeves as characters.
The actors have to fill in the gaps to physically express what’s meant, costumers have to provide clues to the station of the two men speaking, set designers have to establish the well-to-do apartment, and cameramen have to take the pictures that will be put together in a sequence that will make sense when watched. Plus, you know, everyone else who is involved in a production. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To see the various ways that the crew of Jeeves and Wooster accomplished all of this, check out this YouTube video. (Sorry guys, copyright and all. They won’t let me embed.)
And, since Stephen Fry still says everything much better than myself, I leave you with his words on the matter of page vs. screen:
Well, try as hard as actors might, such an exchange will always work best on the page. It may still be amusing when delivered as dramatic dialogue, but no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head. And that is the point, really: one of the gorgeous privileges of reading PG Wodehouse is that he makes us feel better about ourselves because we derive a sense of personal satisfaction from the laughter mutually created. Every comma, every “sir”, every “what?” is something we make work in the act of reading.”

Trouble on Your Hands: Complications

You know how they tell you creating complications is a good thing in writing a story? Challenge your characters? Well, Wodehouse is The Master.

I remember thinking this way back when I read The Code of the Woosters. Now I’m reminded of his skill in The Luck of the Bodkins.

In this funky love larger-than-triangular-geometric-pattern, Wodehouse creates a mess and half. You’ve got Monty Bodkin who loves Gertrude. Gertrude thinks he’s a cheating rascal, due to a misunderstanding. Just when he’s convinced her otherwise (because he’s truly a gentleman) his buddy Reggie, who mistakenly thinks Gertrude has lost her “spark” for Monty, tells her Monty’s a true catch–just look at all the girls who hang around him! Then, right after Monty learns of his friend’s blunder, Monty is (through a convaluted series of events) comforting the hottest movie star in town when Gertrude shows up to confront him. Sparks ensue.

And I didn’t even tell you about the movie producer who’s scared of customs agents mistaking Monty for a Customs Spy. I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but I know somewhere that’s gonna cause a big load of hassle.

What I really enjoy about these complications is the human-ness of them. Each fear and complication hinges on something in the character. Monty, for example, is a sexy, rich, young man. He doesn’t have to work. His whole trouble with Gertrude starts when he sends her photographs of himself on the beach in the Riviera–hence she thinks that this sexy, rich, young, bored man would of course be a cheater. Which tells us about her insecurities as well as Monty’s flaws.

Then those flaws feed off of each other.

From my experience with The Code of the Woosters, I know Wodehouse is capable not only of complicating matters, but complicating matters right until the very end. Literally, I was on the last two pages of that book before he started to resolve anything. And VOILA! It was delivered with a tidy little bow.

Still not quite sure how he does it. I’m working to see how that all comes about. I have only caught that the flaws feed each other.

So, Mental Note: character flaws must feed the plot complication.