A few days ago I sent off the manuscript of my next book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT, to my publisher. I’ve co-written this one with Columbia film professor David McKenna, with whom I’ve been puzzling out the mysteries of story for many years. It will be published in the summer of 2011 by Michael Wiese Productions. Looking over the manuscript I saw that David off-handedly mentions a nickname of mine, “Harry the Explainer”, in reference to my tendency to lead him down various rabbit holes of arcane knowledge. I thought it was time to explain the concept of Harry the Explainer, an alter ego of mine, an expression of one side of my personality and part of my professional “brand”.
I was always good at explaining things. I loved “show-and-tell” days at school and would lug in my plastic Viking ship model to explain all about Vikings to the class. At an early age I pieced together a theory of evaporation based on observing that the sun somehow sucked the water out of the clothes hanging on my mother’s wash line. I asked my mother “But where does the water go?” and she said “Up in the clouds, I guess.” From this I reasoned out the whole cycle of rainfall, evaporation, cloud formation, etc. and in school the next day explained it to Sister Mary Patrick, who was so astonished by my Carl Sagan act that she made me repeat it in front of the whole class for their edification. Then she marched me down the hall to the next class and had me repeat it for them. Explaining things had gained me status and recognition. Thus a ham was born.
But the term “Harry the Explainer” didn’t enter my consciousness until much later when I was at the USC film school. An important teacher of screenwriting there was Mort Zarkoff, a colorful, larger-than-life veteran of TV and movie writing. Mort terrified us with the realities of show business, but he also inspired us with his willingness to share a vast heritage of practical show biz know-how.
I remember he was telling us how to get a story started, laying down principles of story construction that I still use today. He was making the point that exposition, the presentation of the necessary facts for the audience to understand the story, should be cleverly inserted in a casual way, so as not to bash the audience over the head with blunt information. As an absurd example, he said it was a mark of bad plays that they began with an appearance by a “Harry the Explainer” type, a character such as a butler in a nobleman’s household, who tells the chambermaid “We must hurry because Sir Edward Toffington is arriving on the noon train for the engagement party of his daughter Edna and Lord Botheringshot’s son Nigel. Also arriving will be the actress Lily Mcintyre who was once in love with Nigel, and the American explorer, Mr. Daniel Blaine, who was briefly engaged to Miss Edna,” and so on until the entire cast of characters and all their relationships are bluntly recited to the audience.
I took Mort’s point and have since tried not to play Harry the Explainer when setting up a story or a scene. But something about the name resonated with me as a compulsive explainer. In film school and in just clowning around with my friends, I often found myself concocting long, elaborate explanations of things like how the days of the week got their names or why the military needed spy-in-the-sky satellites. At one point, and David can confirm this, I took several years to develop a gigantic explanation of the significance of diatomaceous earth that was so complex it required pages of diagrams to unravel it. (Diatomaceous earth may be the most important substance on the planet, by the way. Someday I’ll explain why.)
When I would launch into one of these rants, it was almost as if I were immersing myself in a character, Harry the Explainer. He was a more positive form of the archetype Mort Zarkoff described, a guy who explained things but in a painless way, with a wry, irreverent show-biz voice not unlike Mort’s own. Eventually I found an outlet for the Harry persona when I started teaching, with classes on story analysis and the hero’s journey concept at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Harry came in handy many times in my studio career, too, where I won a reputation for being able to absorb a large amount of material quickly and spit back a concise, coherent synopsis conveying the essence of the idea, in what I hoped was an entertaining way.
Harry the Explainer gets a workout in the new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT: Secrets of Structure and Character, where I lay out some of the story-cracking tools that I use in addition to the Hero’s Journey and the Archetypes of character. David’s voice is quite different from mine but he, too, is an entertaining explainer, and in a voice even more irreverent than mine he has set down some of his “Director’s prep” techniques and other useful tools he’s acquired.
And Harry the Explainer will be fully employed for the next few months, because I’ll be on the road for much of the fall, with trips coming up to Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand to speak to writers’ groups, to South Korea to teach workshop at a university, to New Mexico and old Mexico for conferences, and to London for a seminar put on by the Raindance Institute.