Monday, November 7, 2016

Don't Give it another Thought

In recent weeks, you've been telling your writing students (and yourself) to avoid two tendencies in composition. The first of these is not to allow any one character to remain alone on stage for more than a few short moments. The second  target for avoidance relates to synonymous verbs to the great metaphorical tape worm for all writers, the verb "to think."

With the possible exception of a lone character being on stage in a place where she or he oughtn't be and the attendant danger of being caught, a lone character will become self-consciously aware of having none of what stage people call business, the movement necessary to accompany justification for being "there," on stage, in the first place.

A lone character is perhaps waiting for someone who is late or not going to appear at all or, of equal mischief, show up with someone the lone waiter cannot abide. Even the great absurdist, Samuel Beckett, gave us two characters to wait for Godot, who, as a matter of fact, never arrives. 

Two or more characters have someone to talk to or to pointedly ignore. Two characters in a scene can project disharmony by virtue of each speaking to a different subject, certain the other character is understanding him. 

Two characters can plot revenge on a third character, settle differences between themselves (although we readers will soon understand they are each settling different matters of which the other has no clue), plan to disrupt an ongoing agenda or support it.

One character can check his or her watch or Fit Bit so many times, consult an iPhone once or twice, or settle in for a nap. Whatever the decision, all momentum of story comes screeching to a halt. The reader turns pages to see where "the good stuff" resumes; the viewer rustles nervously in his or her seat.

As readers or viewers, we expect movement, not thought.  Jim began to think Mary was not going to keep their appointment. No, thank you; that won't do it. We expect to see Jim do something that will convey his awareness that Mary has opted out and his emotional response to the awareness. Remember that glorious punchline for the play and later motion picture, Mr. Roberts. One character, Ensign Pulver, on stage alone, the stage being the afterdeck of the World War II cargo ship, running toward the stairway to the bridge, shouting, "Hey, Captain, I just threw your goddamned palm trees overboard."

Characters with no relevant actions to perform often do second best, which is to wonder "how it all began," the "it" being the moral or existential position in which the character feels trapped. Thus thinking becomes a speed bump, jolting the reader or viewer out of direct engagement with the story at hand.

The discovery of thinking characters within an early draft denotes the need for more effective movement to demonstrate the growing acceleration of the story to the critical point whence it boils over, streams down the sides of its container.

While it is kosher for the reader to catch the lead characters thinking, we need to remember how the reader now wants to see that character in action, implementing the fruits of his thoughts or plans rather than merely mulling them over.

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