Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Unseen in the Scene, or Once More with Feeling

The main reason for an editor sending the writer back to revisit a scene in a story or novel has more to do with what has been left unsaid than what has actually been said. The scene in question--to use a baseball metaphor--touches all the bases, touches them in the proper order. Nevertheless, something seems missing the scene reads flat or, worse, reads as though it were some TV Guide two-sentence description. A moody Danish prince sets out to avenge his father's murder and his mother's remarrying the murderer. High concept, low interest. To continue the metaphor, the runner touches home plate, scores. But the score does not change the dynamic or outcome of the game. Ho hum.

Our goal is simplicity defined: No more boring scenes.

The way to make this revision come flying off the page is to give the characters an edge that relates first and foremost to the writer's feelings, which are now followed through, played out in the author's imagination, then set forth on the screen or down on the note pad. By now the writer will know the characters well enough to be able to identify with them. By now the writer will also know quite well the personal feelings resident in the story. Time now to make a dance card, a list of how each character feels about each of the others, a list that could lead to an unanticipated confrontation between two characters not scheduled to be on stage together.

It may be the writer's intention, as an example, that John and Mary intend to marry, but being each involved in an art or profession, marriage is not the priority their art or profession is. At the moment, the glue holding them together beyond the friendship and attraction and, of course, lust, is the glue of comfort. Okay, along comes the writer now to light a fire under that comfort. Let's even stipulate that John and Mary would eventually marry and be even more comfortable together, but for whatever reason the writer devises, one of the two feels constrained to make an issue of getting married, perhaps out of some fear or losing the other. Immediately another emotion is introduced, causing the kettle of comfort to boil over. John, for example, resents having to propose marriage now. His resentment shows in his behavior, leading Mary to think for example, that she is losing John. Suddenly a circumstance (marriage) which is of itself complex, becomes exponentially more complex, imparting a kind of psychological density and authenticity to a fairly common situation. The emphasis shifts from the relative ordinariness of the story into the mounting irony and complexity of the situation, which reminds the readers of the complexity of life, which leads the reader to a deeper sense of the reality of the characters.

It is not the complexity of the plot or indeed even of the conflict between the characters; it is the complexity of the characters and their own backstories, influencing their behavior.

Another way to look at the equation: action is required and recognized, which in turn produces emotion, which in its turn provokes or drives the characters to further action.

How, you ask, do I begin? Make a list of all the characters. Starting with the major characters, compile a list of how each feels about all the others, right down to the guys who deliver the pizza or Chinese takeout. Then start down at the very bottom, with the guys who deliver the pizza or Kung Pao Chicken, the maids who clean the rooms at the motels. You are holding now a template for irony, resentment, misunderstanding, and conflicting agendas, not to mention hidden agendas.

When characters are driven by their feelings (which are extensions of your feelings about the situations and circumstances), their clashes can be splendid and even their apparent agreements are seasoned with the spice of tension.

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