One Word and Done
I did an Instagram “live” a few days ago with the thriller writer Jack Carr. Do you know him? He’s a former Navy SEAL sniper and task force commander, who is a natural-born teller of ripping yarns that grow out of his own experience in the hot political and military spots around the globe.
We were talking about writing and Jack shared a one-word trick that that I had never thought of before.
I’ve adopted his practice now completely.
We were talking about theme. Jack was citing something I had said on a Joe Rogan podcast a few years ago that, Jack said, had helped him tremendously on his first three novels.
What I said was this:
I was quoting Robert McKee who, as a young theater director, once got to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the great playwright and novelist and the only three-time solo Oscar winner for original and adapted screenplays (for Marty, The Hospital, and Network.)
Chayefsky told Robert McKee, “As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.”
As soon as I heard that from McKee I incorporated it into my own writing practice. (Only then it was onto my computer screen instead of a typewriter.)
Here’s the twist Jack Carr puts on this idea. He doesn’t write out a multi-word theme statement, like “The rich get away with murder” or “A character’s past catches up with her, no matter how far or hard she flees from it.”
Jack boils it down to one word.
‘Revenge.’ If that’s my theme word, I write it on a Post-it and stick it in the upper right hand corner of my screen. Or ‘Redemption,’ say. Or ‘Love.’
I immediately decided to do that myself from now on.
Of course in my head I will know the fuller version. ‘Revenge is a dish better served cold’ or whatever I’ve decided my theme is.
But I love the concision and simplicity of a one-word statement.
If you and I are writing The Godfather, for example, our Post-it might say:
If we’re writing The Bridge on the River Kwai, it could be:
(That word would work pretty well for Moby Dick, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and many others.)
So … thanks to Paddy Chayefsky and Robert McKee and Jack Carr!
P.S. At the risk of flogging a friend’s stuff, Jack Carr’s third thriller, Savage Son, just came out. If you like military/hardware/political thrillers, this is textbook, break-it-down-and-study-it, state-of-the-art work. Five stars from a new and rising star in this genre who, I’ve got a feeling, is going to be evolving way, way beyond it.