Breaking the Rules- The Tyranny of the “Should”


Another late night conversation about art and craft with my friend Karin. We are talking about my new short play, Pit Stop, which she saw, and liked, two nights ago.
She pauses a moment, then says, “Can I make a comment?” I know this is a preamble to feedback. She’s a screenwriter, and pretty perceptive, so I say ok. Then she echoes what my friend Joe said two weeks ago when I first put up the play, which features two characters in a small music venue. Charlie, a junkie country music singer once shared the bed of Julie, the bartender at the club. It’s sweet and funny and a good play. I like it. But Karin was about to point out something about the middle section that didn’t quite work. I had created two scenes, and a bridge – a blackout in between, at the top of which Charlie exits, saying, “Excuse me. I gotta do my next set,” and during which the audience was to assume time had passed – enough time for Charlie to have played that set. This was indicated by a short blackout and a fade-in sound effect of the end of a music performance – guitar riff ends, applause, and a goodnight from the emcee. Then Charlie reappears in the bar, and speaks to Julie, and the scene continues on.
I built the play that way because I wanted Julie to have time to depart and then return with a purchase from the drugstore, ostensibly across the street. And I stubbornly held on to that idea, even when Joe had told me he didn’t think it worked. He had offered a solution that didn’t suit me, and I dismissed it.
True, I was busy doing other things and didn’t want to have to rewrite the scene. But there was an element of arrogance in my dismissal of his feedback. When Karin had the same problem with the scene, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Two smart people tell me about the same problem. Can’t ignore that, right? As my first director once said, “If three people tell you you’re drunk, lay down.”
She and I brainstormed it, and she offered a solution that not only solves the problem but actually augments the situation and illuminates the character Charlie.
We’re going to do the play that way tonight, and I bet it will work much better.
Being a leader of writing workshops, and a coach to writers, I wondered why I had failed to fully take in Joe’s comments. I trust Joe. He’s smart and capable and experienced. Sure, I was busy, but that’s not a good enough reason to turn a deaf ear to his input. Today in my writing workshop, as I told this story, I came to understand what it was that made me dismiss his comment. He had supported it this way, “You shouldn’t have two acts in such a short play.” Aha! There’s the culprit. The word “should”. I had dismissed critique because he said “should.”
I am a rebel by nature. I’m also an auto-didact. I dropped out of college and acquired almost all my skills by doing them, not by being taught. I have an extremely low tolerance for academia and the rules of anything.
Tell me I shouldn’t do something, and I immediately want to do it.
I believe that principle is at the root of innovation. However, knowing structure and how things work is a critical to good craft. There are basic principles of writing, playwriting, grammar and structure that I adhere to and that I tout to my clients. I clearly have contradictory beliefs at play here.
There’s nothing wrong with having contradictory beliefs. All of us do. But beliefs need to be examined.
When Joe said the word “should,” I indulged in my belief that “should” isn’t a sufficient reason for doing anything. And in my turning away from the word “should,” I also turned away from Joe’s astute observation. He was not wrong in his assessment of my play’s problem. He just used a word that my rebellious self shrugged off.
Thank goodness my friend Karin made her comment, and my more reasonable self was unable to dismiss the confirmation of Joe’s critique.
Thoughtfulness. Just as important as breaking the rules.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s