If you are close to my age, or even a decade or so younger, you may remember a professional athlete whose career spanned the late eighties and early nineties. His name was Bo Jackson. He won college football’s Heisman Trophy in 1985, made his major league debut with the Kansas City Royals in 1987, and became a multi-sport sensation later that year when, at the conclusion of baseball season, he joined the Oakland Raiders for the remainder of the NFL season.
Of course, Nike quickly capitalized on Bo Jackson’s notoriety with the “Bo Knows” campaign. The original television commercial opened with Bo playing baseball and fellow major leaguer Kirk Gibson saying “Bo knows baseball.” The next scene shows Bo on the gridiron with quarterback Jim Everett, who says “Bo knows football.” Jackson then plays basketball with Michael Jordan, tennis with John McEnroe, ice hockey with Wayne Gretzky, and runs with Mary Decker, all of whom profess Bo’s knowledge of their sport.
What does this have to do with Dennis Lehane? Simply stated, Dennis knows drama. He’s published ten novels, a collection of short stories, a play, and has served as a staff writer for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Three of his books have been made into films directed by Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck and Martin Scorcese. His characters have been portrayed by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s taught fiction and literature at Harvard, Tufts and Stonecoast. He’s been writer-in-residence at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, is co-director of the Writers in Paradise conference there, and is currently fiction writer-in-residence at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Boston. (If you’ve read my bio, you know I hold an MFA from Solstice, and was mentored by Dennis for a semester.)
Now, this is all very impressive, but even if you were unaware of these accomplishments you would still come away from a Dennis Lehane workshop thinking, “Man, that guy knows drama.” That’s because he doesn’t teach writing. He does not give a clinic on writing a best seller. Instead, he teaches story and character. Story impacts character, and character impacts story, whether it takes place on the big screen, television, in novels, stories or on the stage. He knows Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, postmodern lit and urban crime. He’ll tell you to study poetry to learn language, and film to learn structure. He will also tell you that as a fiction writer, you are engaged in fierce competition with these other forms of media, and the only way to maintain even a mere toehold is to add depth to your story.
On day one of our workshop, Dennis stated that a quality piece of fiction must have depth of story, depth of character, depth of insight, and depth of language—which I promptly designated the four D’s. This was a seminal moment in my writing career. Up to that point something had been missing from my work. I had a vague sense of what it was but had been unable to clearly define it. With his statement, Dennis defined it for me. He gave me a set of criteria that reduced fiction to its essence, a set of rules that I could put on an index card and hang over my desk. For me, it was as if I had discovered the unified theory of drama, and I’d like to share it with you. In future posts I will define depth of story, character, language and insight, and I will give you examples of each from page and screen. Hopefully, some of you will find this useful, and your writing will be better for it. First up: What is Depth?
The Four D’s series of posts have now been completed. Go here to find them all in one place.