Steve Emmett on Detail and Description

I revealed in my earlier interview that I believe in the overlap of the various art forms. My view was reinforced recently when I was lucky enough to take part in a rare workshop with John Godber. Godber is Britain’s third most performed playwright, after Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn. His gritty portrayals of ordinary life have been performed all over the world. They strike a chord with many who otherwise would not bother with theatre at all. If you don’t know him, take a look at Bouncers, Teechers and Lucky Sods.

Godber’s advice to would-be playwrights made my ears prick up. It sounded so familiar. Know your competition. Make sure your brilliant, new idea hasn’t been done before. Once you’ve got a workable idea, make a simple plan from the opening of the play to the final scene. Do your research. Novelists have to do all these things. Except, perhaps, the plan – or outline as we’d call it. I’ll admit that I tend to be a Pantser, though I always promise myself that I’ll change.

I asked Godber what he saw as the single big difference between writing plays and writing novels. He answered that novels contain too much description; too much going to the door, opening the door, closing the door and entering the room. Too many vases in flowers. In contrast, he said, plays just get on with the action. And getting on with the action is what it’s all about.

This answer both encouraged and surprised me. I wouldn’t say that I write white porcelain prose but I do try to keep irrelevant description and action out of my stories. Sometimes I get asked, “What is the character wearing in this scene?”and my answer is usually “I don’t care what he’s wearing. The reader can imagine it. I care about what he is doing and thinking.” Stories on the other side of the spectrum, where every detail is described until it screams for mercy, also have a huge following. I recently tried to read a novel by a fairly accomplished author, but four solid pages of trees, wild flowers and cows walking up a hill did a better job of putting me to sleep than a handful of Temazepam. Read they may be, but I suspect that Godber had these in mind when he gave his answer.

For me, the answer to my own question is this. A playwright is constrained by the fact that his work must be performable in a theatre and, further, by the cost implications of that. We novelists can do whatever we want, so long as we convince the reader. Our only constraint is our imagination.

Steve Emmett


Steve’s horror novel Diavolino recently released at Etopia Press.

The chance to build a dream home on a private island in Italy’s most beautiful lake offers architect Tom Lupton the fresh start he’s been yearning for. But when he arrives with his family on Diavolino, he finds the terrified locals dead set against his arrival. The island, whose very existence has been shrouded in secrecy for half a millennium, has a dark history that no one cares to remember, and as their opposition to Tom grows, so grows a brooding evil that will lead them to the very doors of hell…


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