The Play's the Thing

>> Friday, August 18, 2006

Just finished chapter number fifteen of Something Rotten in my first revision for Dial. The original manuscript was twenty-one chapters long; the new one is twenty-six chapters long. Most of the new or divided and expanded chapters came in the first half of the book. For example, the chapter I'm set to begin with tomorrow was chapter eleven in the draft I sold to Dial. Now it's chapter sixteen.

Today's chapter was something of a milestone in this revision, because it represented the last, and most difficult, of the more significant additions to the book. My editor and her publisher both thought this chapter had to be completely rewritten--it didn't work for them at all. Here's what Liz said about it in her revision letter:

One scene that feels a bit forced is the viewing of The Lion King. It seems unbelievable to me that Claude would react this way to this movie. He's obviously a smart guy - chemist, mechanic, and jack-of-all-trades. I don't think he would be so affected by a movie that everyone knows so well. Is there some other way besides watching The Lion King where they can try to catch the killer? Let me know if you want to brainstorm about this or bounce around ideas.
Okay, so, long story short, I thought I was being really clever in the original version when I replaced the little play-within-the-play in "Hamlet" with The Lion King in Something Rotten. The Lion King has lots of Shakespearean elements (it borrows heavily from both "Hamlet" and "Henry IV Parts I & II") and I thought I could get some laughs out of everyone watching it and having only the killer see the connection to his own situation in it.

The problem was that of all the things that happen in "Hamlet," the scene in which Hamlet manages to "catch the conscience of the king" is perhaps the least believeable. (Setting aside for the moment the presence of a ghost.) The scene only works in magical Shakespeare land. I mean, seriously, who would believe that Claudius' guilty conscience would make him turn white and topple over his throne when he sees a pantomime version on stage of him murdering his brother? You'd have to be the world's biggest fool to wear your conscience on your sleeve like that--and certainly a terrible murderer. What worked for Shakespeare was not going to work for me. In my version, I had merely supplanted The Lion King for the mute show the royal family watches in the play, and had Hamilton's Uncle Claude look ill when he saw himself in Scar, the evil lion of the Disney movie.

Liz and company back at Dial didn't buy it. Neither would you. Fact is, I was being too slavish to the play in that scene, and in a couple of others. Where I think the book really started to shine was when I really extrapolated the action and strove more for the mood and result of something from the original play, not a blow-by-blow updating.

So I chucked almost the entire chapter. Horatio does some nice work at the beginning of the chapter outlining his suspects, their motives, and their opportunities, so I salvaged that bit and ended up weaving it a bit more artfully into the new chapter.

But before I did that, I had to figure out what this new chapter was going to be. I knew what had to happen: Horatio and Hamilton had to come away fairly convinced of the actual killer's identity. So instead of going back to the play first, I went back to mystery novels. How, I asked myself, do the great detectives pin a tail on the right suspect?

The answer, of course, is to trap him. Hamlet attempts something of the kind in the play, but as noted it's not a convincing trap today. Instead, Horatio had to make the real killer reveal himself trying to cover up his deed. I fell back on the old mystery gambit of introducing the idea of a fake eye-witness. The detective cooks up the possiblity of an eye-witness where there was none, then drops hints to all the suspects that this eye-witness can finger the killer. The killer then reveals himself when he tries to meet, pay-off, or kill the new witness.

But where to stage this? One of the things I liked about my original movie-watching scene was that all the major suspects were together in one room, all tested at once. Very dramatic. How could I bring them all together again? I played around with the idea of a corporate softball game (I had to get baseball in there somewhere, and I did, but in a different scene) but softball games don't really afford much opportunity for plotting and scheming beyond the occasional stolen sign.

Eventually I fell back on the original play again, and realized that I could use the dramatic backdrop of a community theatre production for my setting. (And I get a Lion King-like joke in: they are watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard's brilliant riff on "Hamlet.") No longer do we see the conscience of the king on his face. Instead we see it through his actions--and so does everyone else in the theater. It turned out to be an even more dramatic scene than the one I began with, and the whole scene is far more believable. Better, Horatio is actually a bit cleverer. Not only does he bring everybody together, he manufactures the fake "threat" to the killer in a subtle and (I hope!) believable way.

So. The biggest rewriting job this round is out of the way, and I'm happy with how it turned out. From here on it's line-editing, and weaving in some elements I introduced in new pieces earlier on. Projected finish time: sometime next week before I leave Thursday for a school visit and a Tennessee Trio signing in Knoxville . . .


Fabricationist,  August 19, 2006 at 3:42 AM  

Guildenstern: All your life you live so close to truth it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye. And when something nudges it into outline, it's like being ambushed by a grotesque.

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