“B” Speaks for “A”

Quick announcement…

For years, people have asked me, “When are you going to do an in-person speaking gig about The War of Art, Resistance, etc.?” I’ve always said no. But a part of me never stopped thinking, “Well, maybe one day … “

Short version: That day has come.

It’ll be an intimate event, informal, just one day — September 15 in Nashville. I’m going to talk about the artist’s inner world (or at least my own), the self-discipline, the source of creativity, and the interior war that we all have to fight to bring our books and ideas into the world. I’ll do a morning on that and an afternoon taking questions and just seeing where the mutual conversation goes.

We’re only making 35 spots available and I’m not sure if I’ll ever do this sort of event again.

Click here to see more details and I’ll see you in September.


The Western genre presents a number of unique problems for us as writers.

Jean Arthur as Marian in “Shane”

First is the convention that most of the characters in a Western are men (or women) of few words. The strong silent type.

In a Western (and in cop stories and thrillers and even many love stories), we in the audience get few Shakespearean soliloquys.

 

BUTCH

How long you figure we’ve been waiting?

SUNDANCE

A while.

BUTCH

How much longer you think we have to wait?

SUNDANCE

While longer.

 

For sure in many of these genres, our hero (or most other characters) is never going to have a moment when he or she breaks down and reveals in intense emotional detail the reason he or she is a) a killer, b) a broken soul, or c) a mangy, low-down, lying skunk.

This leaves us as writers with a problem, to which we have a limited number of solutions.

One, the character reveals him or herself in clipped, terse, oblique dialogue.

Two, the character reveals him or herself in action.

Nothing wrong with either of these. (In fact, it’s great discipline for us as writers to have to limit ourselves to these options.)

But there’s a third way.

A different character speaks for our character.

The writers in Shane use this over and over, and it works every time. In one early scene, Marian (Jean Arthur) is putting her six-year-old son Joey (Brandon deWilde) to bed after a day in which Shane has stood up bravely for Joey’s father, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin.)

 

LITTLE JOE (BRANDON DEWILDE)

Ma, don’t you just love Shane? I think, next to Pa, I love him more than anybody! Don’t you just love him?

Brandon deWilde as Joey and Alan Ladd as Shane

 

The writers do this again in a scene between Shane (Alan Ladd) and the villainous cattleman Rufe Ryker (Emile Meyer). The moment takes place in town, in Grafton’s General Store. Ryker knows Shane is a gunfighter. He can’t figure out why he’s working as a low-paid ranch hand for sodbuster Joe Starrett.

 

RYKER

You don’t belong on the end of shovel.

 

Ryker offers to double Shane’s pay if he’ll come work for him. Shane turns him down.

 

RYKER

What are you lookin’ for?

SHANE

Nothing.

RYKER

Pretty wife Starrett’s got …

 

Or again with little Joe in the final scene as Shane rides away.

LITTLE JOE

Pa’s got work for you, Shane! And mother wants you. I know she does!

 

But the greatest moment in Shane of one character speaking for another comes in a scene between the stalwart, honorable homesteader Joe Starrett and his wife Marian. The scene takes place in the kitchen of their little cabin. It’s night, just minutes from the climax of the story. Joe, who’s a brave man but no gunslinger, is about to ride into town to face the professional gunfighter Wilson (Jack Palance) who has been hired by the evil cattlemen to run Joe and his fellow homesteaders off their claims.

In the audience we know Joe doesn’t stand a chance against Wilson.

He is riding to certain death.

Marian has been pleading with Joe desperately and passionately not to go.

 

MARIAN

(with intense emotion)

Don’t I mean anything to you, Joe? Doesn’t Joey?

JOE

Honey, it’s because you mean so much to me that I’ve got to go.

 

Joe explains that he could never face Marian again as her husband and protector and the father of their son if he “showed yellow” in this critical moment.

 

JOE

I know I’m kinda slow sometimes. But I see things. And I know if anything happened to me that you’d be took care of. You’d be took care of, better than I could do it myself. I never thought I’d live to hear myself say that … but I guess now’s a pretty good time to lay things bare.

 

Marian buries her face in her hands and breaks down.

 

In all three of these moments, other characters speak for Marian.

It’s tremendously powerful and effective.

But they all build to the moment when Marian herself speaks for another character. In this ultimate moment, which follows the previous bit of dialogue almost immediately, Shane has fought Joe hand-to-hand to prevent him from riding into town to face Wilson. Shane has knocked Joe unconscious with a blow from his six-gun. Instead Shane will face Wilson.

In this scene Joe lies on the ground in Marian’s arms, woozy and virtually unconscious. Clearly Marian realizes that Shane, by taking on the fight in town, is giving up the last of his dreams. Win or lose, he is sacrificing everything. Marian has not spoken to Shane through the whole movie of her own thoughts or emotions about him … nor has he said a word about his for her.

 

MARIAN

You were through with gunfighting.

 

Shane answers with only, “I changed my mind.” Marian absorbs this with profound empathy and grief.

 

MARIAN

Shane, are you doing this for me?

 

What’s great about this manner of conveying emotion is that even in this climactic moment, neither character speaks for her or himself. Instead, either one character verbalizes the other’s emotions or he or she responds to the other in the simplest, least overtly emotional way.

What gives this its power is it makes you and me in the audience figure it out on our own. It makes us participate. No expression in the script is “on the nose,” i.e. relayed overtly by the character about his or her own feelings. Everything is indirect or conveyed in response (or non-response) to something expressed by another.

It works here in a Western. More importantly, it works in this Western as love story, which is, in the end, the most emotional type of drama we can write.

Character “B” speaks for Character “A.”