As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’ve been working for a while on a theater story, working title “The Stage Is a World.” It involves a small community theater and what might be a ghost. And I can’t quite figure out what the climax should be (I had one in an earlier draft, but I decided it didn’t work).
So for inspiration I turned to Fritz Leiber’s short story “Four Ghosts in Hamlet,” another tale of a ghost in a theatrical setting (in the collection You’re All Alone—all rights to the current holder, I don’t know the artist). I thought it might give me some insight how to handle my problems — but I think the only insight I derived is that Leiber’s a better writer than I am. Which I was already aware of.
The story is very much about the setting, rather than the characters or plot. The narrator, a supporting actor in a Shakespearian touring company, tells us up front that it’s a ghost story, but the ghost doesn’t put in an appearance until the climax. It’s not about the haunting, nor is it really about the narrator’s efforts to get together with one of the women in the company, though that’s part of it too. It’s about theater — the people who perform and work backstage, the things they do offstage, the problems, the challenges. Leiber’s father was a Shakespearian actor/manager, so he knows this world and it shows in the story (I agree with an actor friend of mine that people who know theater can write the best fiction about it).
It’s also very much a tell-not-show story. The narrator is constantly telling us about the other actors and their issues (drinking, ego), the financial struggles, the odd superstitions of actors. It violates what I’ve always been told is a fundamental principle of “good” writing, but it works. Not for everyone — reading this as a teen, I was disappointed it was such a low-supernatural ghost story — but even then I could tell my disappointment wasn’t because it was a crappy piece of writing (I think I could, at least. Memory is error-prone).
I doubt I could pull off a tell-don’t-show story that well or make it that interesting (plus I don’t have a thousandth of Leiber’s name recognition and yes, I think that makes a difference when it comes time to submit). Which is a shame, because I’ve been trying to get some of that life-in-theater quality his story has, though community theater, rather than professional (it’s what I know, after all). For example, it’s basically a walk through the theater group’s season, four shows, with the ghost appearing at each one. But in my hands, playing it as primarily a setting story felt a little too inside baseball.
And I can’t seem to see how to tie the theater stuff in with the ghost. Make no mistake, even if the heart of the story is the setting, the ghost is important. It is in Leiber, too — I can’t quite explain why when it’s such a small part of the story, but it definitely adds something that makes it work.
I can’t say I minded rereading “Four Ghosts in Hamlet.” But it may not have the solution.