What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970)

Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970; London: 4th Estate, 1998), pp.214

Subject Matter – Maria Wyeth is an actor, in her 30s, divorced from film director Carter Lang, and headed into a whirl of prescription drugs, alcohol and anorexia in a 1960s Hollywood of intoxicated, B-list parties and disillusioned romantic liaisons. The novel primarily describes the events that led up to Maria being treated in hospital following a breakdown, from which location she narrates the introductory chapter. It explores how Maria experiences “peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” (p.100). An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, depicting life on the margins of the movie industry. One of the classic novels – Time magazine included it in its list of the top 100 novels of all time.

Structure/Style – Compared to many “classic-form” novellas-in-flash, Play it As it Lays feels particularly novel-like. Over 200 pages, there are 87 chapters, varying in length from half a page to six pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. Many chapter openings establish a strong sense of “joined-up-ness”, e.g.: “In November the heat broke, and Carter went to New York to cut the picture, and Maria still had the dream.” (p.98) The first chapter, a kind of prologue or introductory piece, runs to eight pages. It is written in the first person, as Maria recovers in hospital in Los Angeles. There follow two brief chapters also in first-person POV (spoken by other characters), and then there are 84 numbered chapters in close third person POV, following the events in Maria’s life leading up to her time in hospital. Even the longer chapters are broken into discrete sections or scenes, and chapter length overall feels deliberately varied– short follows longer, longer follows short etc. Dialogue, often full of conflict or tension, is used frequently throughout. Towards the end of the novel, the linear narration of Maria’s pre-hospital experiences breaks up slightly, as Didion deliciously delays (and prepares us for) a key plot event.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) Significant Events – Play it As it Lays is particularly dominated by two major plot events. The first begins to be announced on p.47 – roughly one quarter of the way through. At once, the whole novel’s energy lifts, and something is urgently at stake in the main character’s life. This plot ingredient casts a shadow over the next 100 pages. One could argue that that until p.47, the novel has almost meandered through the main character’s relationships and situation. Suddenly now, it catches fire, and everything changes. The other major plot point is actually referred to in passing in the second chapter, but isn’t shown happening in real-time until the penultimate chapter. Again, it’s a momentous event, and it retrospectively changes how we interpret the whole novel. Everything else – the divorce from her husband Carter, the casual affairs, the descents into drunkenness and self-medication, Maria’s half-hearted Hollywood career, her eventual breakdown and hospitalisation – does matter, but these ingredients almost feel like supporting context for the two major plot points that shape the meaning of the novel.

  • Invitation: Depending, of course, on the kind of novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash you want to write, might you include one or two seismic plot events that irrevocably change the course of your story? And is there enough at stake yet, in your story situation (again, depending on the aims of your novella)?

(2) Cast of Secondary Characters – Didion locates her central character in a web of relationships – there are at least eight significant secondary characters, each with desires that compete with Maria’s, values that conflict, and motives that tug her in different directions. Didion keeps three prominent secondary characters close to the centre, repeatedly returning to their relationship with Maria over time. But at least five other minor characters still have a significant effect upon Maria. Each of them is prodding her, provoking her, telling her how to live or wanting something from her. Dynamic energy arises from this – and it’s a testament to Didion’s skill that, within 200 pages, she conjures Maria’s network distinctly and somehow keeps a grip on all the moving parts.

  • Invitation: Do your secondary characters crave something from your main character(s), and if so – what? Without overloading your novella, would it help to establish some conflicting desires in your story situation, a tangle of motives and values surrounding your main character(s)?

(3) Dysfunctional main character? – Maria Wyeth is a zone of turmoil: a jumble of addiction, anorexia, sleeplessness, and avoidance of responsibility in work and relationships. She goes AWOL while filming, she vomits drunkenly into a friend’s lap, she casually sleeps with people without being fully present to the experience. Didion is a writer unafraid to explore demons and dysfunctionality, and yet she still salvages something positive and admirable in Maria by the close of the book.

  • Invitation: What elements of vulnerability could you explore within your main character(s)? Would it help the story to make them damaged, in some way? Alternatively, if your characters do feel like a wreckage, what positive qualities can you salvage?

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