Visualizing tool: The Morgue

I have always said the more preparation you do when developing your script or novel, if that’s your chosen vehicle, the less work you’ll have to do when it’s time to actually write it.  Anything you can do to pre-determine the life and adversity of your characters, their inner motivations and conflicts, etc. will ALWAYS help an author stay focused on his or her voice when the actual writing begins.

Not every one, however, has the ability to develop and pre-plan their work.  For some people, they are more comfortable simply deciding character names and jumping into the first scene or chapter.  Doing that actually makes me break out in hives.  I remember my youthful days when I started writing stories, that’s how I would get started.  The result would be some of my worst and most immature, from a construction stand point, works ever.

My favorite example of an author who knew the importance of development and preparation of a new work is Agatha Christie (Murder On the Orient Express, Death On the Nile).  Christie described much of her process in an autobiography and noted her process over arguably her most popular work, “Ten Little Indians,” originally titled “Ten Little Niggers,” which was re-named for obvious offensive reasons. The book has now been re-titled “And Then There Were None,” because the mention of Indians in the previous title has also become offensive among present-day American culture.

“I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning,” Christie said about that work. “It was clear, straight forward, baffling, and yet had an epilogue in order to explain it.

“It was well received and reviewed, but the person  who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

She knew the work prior to writing was deeply important, but it was most important to her before any reader or critic.  My early failures due to a lack of preparation did however serve a purpose.

Those early works helped create what is my process today.  I have also come to realize the biggest reason why I rely on all my preparation.  The key for me is visualization.  Visualization refers to an author’s ability to see their work being “acted” out.  Whether its a movie, stageplay or novel, I’m convinced every author must actually see the “scenes,” places and people described and interacting with each other in their minds prior or as it is being written.  Some authors have no struggle with this and it comes as natural as breathing.

For me, it’s usually easy to see my strongest scenes acted out in my mind.  However, occasionally I get stuck.  So again, I devised a step in my development process which helps me make sure I don’t have issues visualizing my work as I’m writing it.  Although I have several steps which I will probably post about down the road, this step is what I refer to as The Morgue, or what I used to call a “Cast Concept.”

In The Morgue, what I’m actually doing is casting the production or movie in my head with whomever actor or actress I feel best matches the character in my head.  Those actors usually have a style all their own, and it helps me find patterns for the way my characters speak, knowing who will be playing them.

When I’m casting, I’m combing Google or images of celebrity actors whom are the same age range of my characters.  I find headshots of them and I take them from the web and put them in a Word file with the character’s name.  When The Morgue is done, I have a visual spreadsheet of the faces of my new play or movie.  I only cast the single speaking roles.  I do not bother with faces of The Company, if one of my shows have one like my musical “Dadly Intentions.”  If one of my roles is the only role an actor in that show is devoted to playing, then I cast it.  Otherwise, I don’t bother.

This usually helps me if I get stuck with a scene of multiple characters.  If the conversation is overlapped and lengthy, I use The Morgue I created to visually see everyone talking in my head.  It’s a simple tool to keep me focused, and putting The Morgue together in the first place is an incredibly fun activity for me which helps me get excited for actually writing my newest project.

I have several other visualization tools which I use but none of the others are a permanent staple of my development process as The Morgue, with the exception of designing a conceptual set.  That is a must for me as well.  When I was working on Fat Farm, I found myself getting lost in some scene with so many characters moving around the commons area.  I started to lose track of where everyone was, so I actually drew out a scale layout of my conceptual set design and I took a small amount of toy Army soldiers and taped little flags to their backs with the names of my characters written on them.

Then as I was writing the most technical scenes, I used the action figures to keep track of where I last physically put characters within a scene.  Basically, I was staging the scene with the action figures as I was writing it.  It slowed down the actual writing of the play, but it saved me hours in the editing process, having to correct the conceptual blocking in later drafts.

Anyways, I feel visualization of your work is a key component to making the actual work flow as easily and with the upmost quality as possible.  I’ve been stuck on a work of writing so many times, I couldn’t even count them or even remember ALL the reasons why, but what I have been able to do is figure out a solution to prevent it from happening again.  I suggest you figure out yours, and since it’s a lot of fun anyways, give The Morgue a try on your next project.



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