If you’re a cinema person, or if you’ve ever worked in or near a sales office, you’ve seen the Glengarry Glenn Ross speech. You know the one I mean. This one. (Warning: NSFW / language)
I once worked with a sales team that could recite this speech from memory. One guy told me, voice swollen with pride, that his four-year-old walked into the kitchen while he was pouring coffee one morning, glared at him, and said: “Daddy, coffee is for closers!”
Mamet wrote this speech for the film adaption of GGR—but it proved so popular he grafted it back onto the stage show, even though it’s a pain to stage, since you have to cast a whole actor for one scene. Common reactions on first exposure to the scene include rage, horror, frustration, scorn, all the emotions we read from Baldwin’s audience of broken-down real estate salesmen. But the speech is also, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this, selling something; Baldwin’s character wants to sell these salesmen on being a salesman of a particular sort. He grabs attention with rhetoric, bluster, and status. (“This watch cost more than your car.”) He promises them, implicitly, that good salesmen get rich, that good salesmen get respect, that good salesmen get that greatest (macho) privilege, the right to shout at people and know they have to listen. It’s effective as it is gross. By the end of that scene, every man in that room wants to murder Baldwin—but since that’s not legal, they’ll settle for beating him at his own game. He’s sold them through their anger. They want to win, or at least to defend themselves. Attention. Interest. Decision. Action.
Last night, as the Attorney and I chatted about the differences between legal writing and fiction, I found myself thinking about this scene in a new light. Writers—writers of fiction especially—always have to be closing.
People are busy, and they live in a world filled with art. (I mean, in its loosest sense: any intentional work that captures the mind. Games obviously qualify, as do sports, either the kind you watch or the kind you play. So does the social web—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. etc. etc., are all built to make you pay attention.) Writers come to people saying, “read this story!” And the people answer: why? I mean, really, why?
Readers do want to engage with stories—they want to be swept away, they want to be enlightened, they want to forget their lives or have their mind blown, they want to escape either in the flighty sense or the LeGuinian sense of liberation from a prison camp. But readers also want, or need, to (watch the latest episode of $Cool_TV_Show_All_Their_Friends_Watch | finish their essay | go to the gym | cook dinner | pick up the kids | answer email | plan their wedding | do $pressing_chore | play a Batman video game). Time is real estate. No one’s making any more of it. A storyteller has to convince readers that her story is worth the time it takes to hear.
And by “convince,” I mean “sell.”
This is where AIDA comes in—the Attention, Interest, Decision, Action cycle, it seems to me, holds for reader and character alike. We’re used to thinking about character motivation on a beat-by-beat level. Attention: how did the character get to this scene? Interest: why does the character care about these events? Decision: what decision does she make? Action: how does she carry out that decision? So far, so good—we’re solidly in Robert McKee territory.
But the reader goes through a similar cycle. So, when editing or breaking story, seems to me we can ask ourselves a similar list of questions about the reader. Attention: why would a reader pay attention to this? (Possible answers: because the book’s funny; because it scared the crap out of her; because it’s wise; because she wants to puzzle out some tangled prose; because the book offers an escape; because she’s angry; because she’s bemused.) Interest: why would a reader continue? (Will the villain get a comeuppance? Will Our Heroine’s scheme collapse around her? Does the reader see an echo of her own struggle? Are you fulfilling wishes, realizing nightmares, offering a laugh or a shoulder to cry on? Is your writing just that good on a line by line level?) Decision: will the reader keep going? (Yes; no; yes, but the next time you fuck up, she’s gone; yes, ecstatically; yes, but she’ll skim through each scene of endless clunky unrealistic politicical argument; yes, but only so she can rant about the book afterward) And action: the page turn. The closing book. The book, hurled with great force over Niagra Falls. The book, in a blender.
This would be a dangerous way for, e.g., me to think during composition, since my first drafts involve a lot of telling the story to myself, complete with false starts and stops, tics, and coffee breaks. First drafts are that night before a speech, pacing in my hotel room, stammering through the roughest shape of what I mean to say. Composition is about selling myself on the story. (If I worked more to Hollywood spec, I’d do this at the breaking / pitch stage.)
But once composition’s done, and I’m editing a draft—well. Time to sell the reader. Time to be the best kind of scum: fearless and inventive. Time to go through the manuscript and ask, at every turn: am I always closing? What does this line do for me? This word? This exchange?
The great thing about these AIDA questions, to my mind, is that there are many different good answers, especially to the first two. Often story structure advice boils down to “DO THIS OR ELSE YOUR BOOK WILL CATCH ON FIRE AND YOUR READERS DESERT YOU,” with implied scorn for hard writing, quiet scenes, or anything “literary.” (For a good example, see the Screenplay Seminar scene in Adaptation.) But different things interest different readers—hell, different things interest the same reader. I love Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I love Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and I love Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, but these are, to put it mildly, different books, deploying a broad range of techniques to hold the reader’s mind. Is the reader interested in your swordfight? In your prose? In your Kantian ruminations? In all of the above? What reason have you given her, in this beat, to turn the page?
Maybe this helps you. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, I’m interested. I’ll use this angle as I revise the first draft I finished yesterday; you’ll see how it goes.