For a few years I worked as a props maker in the Welsh National Opera. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. At the time, I had no fixed abode, just travelling around the country, visiting friends and doing whatever work turned up. In Cardiff, a friend who was an assistant stage manager at the Opera asked me if I wanted a job in Props. I said, “Yes,” without even knowing what Props was.
When I went to the Props Department, I opened the door and a severed head swung out of the air to stop within inches of my face. Throughout the next few days I became inured to the screams of various visitors. For my first job, I was asked to make a marble bench with a griffin at each end. For the next job I had to make a full-sized tree. I also made hundreds of mackerel, piles of files with desks stuck on their tops and lots more, mostly out of foam, paint, wire, latex and wood.
I attended the dress rehearsal for every new opera, because we had to see if the props looked right. One of the effects of this was I realised for the most part I hated opera. If I’d stayed in Props for any longer, and perhaps moved up towards management there, I don’t think this attitude would have helped. As a worker/builder, it probably didn’t matter too much if I liked and understood Billy Budd in order to manufacture dozens of realistic-looking mackerel. But if I was responsible for whole sets’ worth of props, then love and understanding would be essential.
Love and understanding means you invest your soul into what you make, and you do so on the production’s terms, not your own. I don’t see it to be any different for a writer building his story’s sets.
However, what he also has to do is take into account every element of what makes up a set. The only difference between all the elements of an opera company and a writer is that in the latter they’re all inside one person.
So it is, then, that a writer has to fully accept into himself the following (not an exhaustive list):
- Class differences – in the Welsh Opera, the singers and producers drank in one pub while the props-makers, electricians, costume-makers drank in the pub on the other side of the road.
- Irritating people you hate and wish would not keep ruining your perfect set-up.
- People who are irritating because they’re cleverer than you.
- Genius artists who keep going off plot.
- Working people who are often brighter than the people they’re working for but less ambitious.
- The ever-disrupting flow of non-company people, especially the audience/reader.
You’ll notice that the only set components I’ve listed here are people, not objects. This is because I believe the first and most important aspect to internal set-building for a writer is how he includes other people in his work, both his made-up characters and the people who will read it or advise on it or criticise it.
In life, we have a tendency to select those people to take seriously based on little more than whether or not we like them. It is fatal for a writer to do this. Also to do what is often done in life when a disliked person can’t be avoided, which is to smooth over their rough bits in our minds and make them digestible.
It occurs to me now that these are the qualities which a writer must have if he or she is to build convincing sets:
In football, a player can be a well-paid professional without much creativity. A central defender, for example, is probably going to be more successful if he’s good at anticipating the moves of the forward he’s marking, rather try to be creative and presume said forward is going to move in X or Y fashion, when he’s actually going to do Z.
But the crowd doesn’t really pay to watch central defenders. Most of them pay to see the forwards or the creative midfielders. Who generally get paid more than defenders.
A central defender has experience, it’s true, and he usually has courage. He also has a good instinct. However, all three of these qualities tend to be reactive. Whereas a creative forward also has these qualities but for him the first two serve as a platform and propellant for his instinct. And when his instinct is fully switched on, well, that’s when the magic happens.
I think I’m saying that set-building a story takes place within oneself as the writer. It’s mostly about how you view other people – not personally but as part of the whole world of your story, both its fictional being and the effect it has on those who experience it. Next, the set has to be enacted. I realise that sound strange: surely a set is stationary, sedentary, solid thing? Well, maybe a real street is; maybe a real bus station is; but fictional sets have the potential to embody the life the author and his characters give them.
So, just as an opera set is not really meant to be realistic but more a reflection of the characters and their emotions and the composer and his/her emotions, I believe the best story sets are constructed from similar materials.
How to writer this? Well, I don’t think there’s any trick as such. You have to invest yourself, your love and understanding, into your sets.