I’ve been watching Slings and Arrows. When I say watching, I actually mean devouring. It’s an exceptional series, but there was a specific moment that really got to me.
In the second season, the New Burbage Theatre Company is producing Macbeth – the (cursed) Scottish play. As the Creative Director, temperamental and rather-crazed, Geoffrey Tennant is tasked with visiting an elementary school’s production of the play.
Hearing this plotline I immediately tensed, I expected an embarrassingly drawn out performance of terrible child actors while the old pros looked uncomfortable. Instead, what I watched was something that was almost heartbreaking in it’s simplicity. Rather than repeat and stumble over Shakespearean dialogue, the children had their soliloquies cut down into into the barest meaning; where only the emotion carried over.
What follow is this wonderful exchange, as Oliver (Geoffrey’s personal Banquo) points out how it’s the simplicity of the words that seem to strike the strongest chord.
Compare the differences between Macbeth’s soliloquy and the student play rendition. The child’s version is simpler yes, but the emotions are the same.
Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Yes, Shakespeare is powerful. But so are those simple, childish lines.
Think of the children’s play as the first few drafts of your work. If the plot and the emotion is there, what does it matter what it sounds like? So often we get mired in prose. Entirely focused on how the thing should sound, we forget about what it should convey.
Simple doesn’t mean dull, it doesn’t mean stupid, it doesn’t mean plain. Making something simple is about making something clear and understandable. I think the best stories are the ones from our childhood; the fables and fairy-tales that influenced the tropes and archetypes we have in every medium.
Having simplistic text means different things for different writers. It can mean simplifying your prose, creating clear plot-lines, or having understandable characters.
Breaking down your story into manageable chunks and looking at the scene and story structure to probably the best way to clear up plot-holes and take a look at characterization. I did a previous post about using an IDEA(L) scene structure but there are hundreds of ways of breaking down plot and story structures.
There’s nothing wrong with looking to tropes or archetypes to help inform your writing as well. As a reader, I don’t necessarily need to like your characters, but I do need to understand them. If there are game-changers or plot-twists in your work, it can’t feel like a punch to the face. The reader doesn’t need to anticipate the plot-twist, but it shouldn’t disjoint the entirety of the plot when it happens.
In writing, simplicity is about strong characters and clear plot. How those interact, and their complexity, is besides the point. Simplicity is about going back to basics and strengthening the core of your work.
In Slings and Arrows, the children’s production of Macbeth had the emotion, the drama, and the character work. It was powerful even if it didn’t have the finesse of Shakespeare’s words. Prose should always be the last thing you focus on in your work. You can fix prose in rewriting. Redrafting plot and characters is a longer, more difficult, task.