Postiversary Competition Highly Commended: Hairnet Aardvaark, by Lev Parikian

Stand back and count to Nine

The big, Tony-winning hits of the broadway writer Maury Yesten are at opposite ends of the scale: Nine, which works beautifully as a chamber opera, and the vast Titanic. So my ear was caught, the other day, when I heard him talking about the difference. Clearly he doesn't scorn the dancing sets and known movie story (Nine is based on Fellini's ). Nor does he reject the need to appeal to non-English-speaking tourists (the economic lifeblood of Broadway as it is of the West End). After all, spectacle has been part of the theatre ever since theatre existed, and I've no doubt that the first time an Ancient Greek  director decided to use a real props, or - gasp! - a third actor, or a bigger chorus, the purists were muttering into their retsina that civilisation was doomed.

But, as Yestin said of Nine, "You just have one character who says to the other, 'Why did you bring me to this beach?', and you've saved yourself $250,000 of sand."

Lucky us prose-writers, on the other hand: we never need to spend a quarter of a million of anything - except possibly coffee and brain-cells - on our writing. We can just say, "He took her to a beach" with as much or as little narrative evoking the beach as each of us would feel it needs. So what I'm talking about is how that line of dialogue is working. If the characters had entered saying "Look at this beautiful beach!", or "Shall we sit on this sand-dune and look at the sea?", I think much of the audience would have felt we were sitting in on a drama-school exercise. We would have felt instructed. At some, perhaps intuitive level, we would have sensed the characters' lives being paused, while the playwright made sure we got some information.

Whereas "Why did you bring me to this beach?" has character-in-interaction built into it: a question is aimed at another person with the intention of getting a response from them. What's more, it has narrative tension built into it: something about what people want and try to get is going to be revealed, or if the question goes unanswered that's also revealing. And, while we're at it, we've discovered they're on a beach.

That's a lot, all packed into eight words and a punctuation mark, and someone who'd never read a story or seen a play - a Martian, in other words - might not get it. The rest of us, in our sophistication, intuit all those other things - write them for ourselves - and so live them and own them far more completely than if each of these three main things had been separated out and given their own sentence of dialogue or narrative. As Andrew Stanton says the audience wants to work for their meal (go on, watch it again, it's gold-dust):  finding character and relationships, and what-might-happen-next, and doing the imaginative work for ourselves.

But, Stanton goes on, they don't want to know they're doing it. So instead of explaining it all - the unsuccessful kind of Telling - you smuggle in the demand on your readers to imagine the beach under cover of two people having a row or a flirt - rejigging their relationship, in other words... And in a sense you smuggle in the demand to work out what their relationship is - the demand for the reader to read the subtext - under the text: the apparent request for information.  Techniques like this are another way you avoid the unsuccessful kind of Telling, but much more importantly they're how you tell the story with real energy. Eight words - two seconds, or perhaps four at concert pitch - have built so much into our sense of this world and this story. And so you need to have the confidence to let them work, like a parent standing back and watching a child learn by struggling with the toy or the radio kit or the A Level text. If you show them everything, they'll never actually master it at all.

So, what two or three jobs are each of your sentences doing for your story? If it's only one, it may not be enough.