What Can We Steal From Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things?

Title of Work and its Form: The Shape of Things, play
Author: Neil LaBute (Cool!  Here’s a list of Mr. LaBute’s favorite ten films from the Criterion Collection.)
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and was published by Faber and Faber.  In 2003, Mr. LaBute released a film version of the play that starred the excellent original cast.  Here is the trailer:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation

Discussion:
Evelyn is a beautiful artist.  Adam is a somewhat plain schlub who works as a security guard in a museum.  The couple meets as Evelyn is about to…customize some art that Adam is supposed to protect.  Why in the world would a hottie like Evelyn want to go out with Adam?  (The audience discovers the truth at the end of the film.)  Through the course of the play, Evelyn convinces Adam to improve himself: to get a haircut, to lose weight, to dress in stylish clothing.  Adam’s friends notice a change in him and wonder about Evelyn’s true motivations, which she reveals in the climax of the play.  (I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t seen it.)

Mr. LaBute’s script is surprisingly sparse.  Mr. LaBute tells you enough about the stage for you to understand what is going on, but the script is really a series of conversations.  It’s clear that the flow of the dialogue and the naturalness of the characters was of primary importance to the playwright.  In real life, people talk over each other and misunderstand each other and interrupt each other all the time.  Mr. LaBute wanted that tone to come through in the dialogue he wrote and, eventually, in the performance of his actors.  What did he do in the script to accomplish this goal?  Let’s take a look at the very first five lines of the play as written by Mr. LaBute:

 ADAM

…you stepped over the line.  miss? / umm, you stepped over…

EVELYN

i know. / it’s ‘ms.’

ADAM

okay, sorry, ms., but, ahh…

EVELYN

i meant to. / step over…

ADAM

what? / yeah, i figured you did.  i mean, the way you did it and all, kinda deliberate like. / you’re not supposed to do that.

I must confess immediately that I usually don’t like it when writers omit quotation marks or refuse to follow capitalization rules.  (After all, those conventions become conventions for a reason!  They make prose easier to read!)  In this instance, I can certainly respect what Mr. LaBute has done by eschewing capitalization.  Doesn’t it make the lines seem like snippets of conversation instead of big pronouncements?  I can imagine that actors at a table read would automatically imbue their performance with an interesting flow, which certainly seems like the playwright’s goal.  I love his other “trick” without hesitation.  What do those slashes mean?  Mr. LaBute tells his reader in an introductory note:

the / in certain lines denotes an attempt at interruption or overlap by a given character

Those forward slashes serve as a green light to the actors to play around with the delivery of the lines a little.  Adam and Evelyn are about to become lovers; shouldn’t there be some kind of awkwardness as they feel each other out?  The forward slashes are also an unobtrusive way to get this point across.

Even better, look at all Mr. LaBute did with just those five first lines.

  1. Evelyn transgresses against societal convention by getting too close to the artwork.  What does this tell us about her?  Adam is wishy-washy in doing his job and asking her not to deface the art.  What does this say about him?
  2. Evelyn knows she’s breaking the rules.  She corrects his pronoun usage.
  3. Adam isn’t really forming a sentence in that third line.
  4. Evelyn states very plainly that she is the kind of person who will ignore societal convention if she feels like it.
  5. Adam is still wishy-washy.  He won’t stand up to her, even when she’s about to break the law.

This brief exchange sums up the play as a whole.  Even though some “crazy” things happen during the narrative, Mr. LaBute has prepared us for all of them by hitting us with the truth in the first twenty seconds of the play.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ alternate punctuation and ignore the rules of writing if it will serve your work.  Reading is a crazy process that goes on between your eyes and your brain (and then between different parts of your brain).  Decide if and when you need to manipulate the reader’s understanding of the words, down to the way they appear on the page.
  • Allow your characters to announce themselves immediately.  First impressions are important, right?  Examine the first things your characters say and do to make sure they arrive with a bang.

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