The novelist, film director, and screenwriter John Sayles once told me that he went about town trying out his story ideas on people. This was Newark in the late 1980s, and the ideas were embryonic—inklings from the daily news that sparked his interest and that he thought had narrative possibilities. This was the best time to test things out, he said, before there was much investment. And so up and down the streets he went, chatting with whomever would give him the time.
Newspaper sellers and waitresses, sanitation workers and subway token sellers—once he got them talking, everyone had something to say. He traded opinion, discussed motive, debated, posed questions and theories, and then went off to develop his material.
The contours of it came into focus first, the basic shape. And after that, it was just a matter of clothing the tale.
Whether from a sense of vulnerability to a fiercely protective stance on something we regard as proprietary, some writers don’t try anything out on an audience before it’s done. But in the early stages of a work, as Sayles’ example shows, we might save ourselves a lot of effort and end up with a better product if we spend less time at our desks and more time on the street corner.
Photo Credits: figure and dressmaker dummy, Hannah Webster; dressmaker studio, Sarah-Isua-Amber