Posts Tagged Peter Shaffer
I’m not good at nominating favourites. I find the question too complicated to answer so absolutely. For instance, a favourite book? Favourite in what subset of a subset? It’s like comparing apples to aardvarks. But I do have a few authors I’m wholeheartedly absolute about, and one of them is Peter Shaffer, whose death was announced today. I thought I’d dig out this piece as a tribute.
First published at For Books’ Sake, October 2011
We create the infinite: my favourite 3 fictional characters when I was 16
Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.
This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court. Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.
General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot. His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.
His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.
Pizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving. The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.
Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled. When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.
At the age of 16, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed. I got the grade as an academic duty but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.
At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.
And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.
Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.
And Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart – uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.
Writing this post, I realise how many of those synapses are still smoking. My first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before. The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, where players seem to be channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the transcendental infinite, music must be it. I wrote that whole book without realising that Mr Shaffer was secretly at the controls.
Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. ‘Account for me,’ says Equus’s Dr Dysart, confronting what he’s seen. In my own accounting, I owe a great debt to Mr Shaffer.
I’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.
I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?
What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.
First: expand your story ideas
A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.
Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.
I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.
You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.
Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.
Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).
And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)
Sometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.
So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.
Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)
In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.
As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)
And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.
You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.
Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?
I’m glad I wore my hat to meet these folks. They host live literary events around the UK, one of which was the recent Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Manchester, which featured on BBC Radio. Other writerly shindigs have made it to Channel 4’s TV Book Club, the pages of Company, Woman & Home and The Bookseller. One reviewer has described them as ‘blowing the cobwebs away from the literary world and infusing it with colour and life’. If you want to clasp them to your bosom already, skip the rest of this spiel and go there now.
They are For Books’ Sake, an online community that showcases classic and contemporary writing by women writers past and present. They rather like the look of My Memories of a Future Life and have asked me over to write about three characters who blew my own literary cobwebs away. So I whirled time back to my school days and picked out three fellas I’m glad I met between the pages and not in real life. Don a mad hat and come on over.