Tips to Maximize a Scene's Potential
So we need a working definition of what conflict is. We know what conflict is in our day to day life, but what is conflict mean when we're actually putting stuff on the page? So narrative conflict is gonna be this collision where a character's wants are gonna be in direct fighting with the obstacles that we're putting in her path. So to come back to what Grace Paley was saying, we want to make sure that somebody wants something externally. We think about a scene, we say like okay, stuff needs to happen 'cause stuff happening is plot. And we wanna make sure that our stories have plots 'cause that can oftentimes be that narrative time that really attracts the reader's curiosity, propels her to keep on reading. But we also wanna think about the emotional wants. How can we use these two things to our advantage, something that's literal, something that's external, and then something that's gonna be private. The thing that we can't dramatize, the something that's going on in her heart, or wh...
at the particulars are in her day to day life. And we'll use a specific example here to sorta kinda decode of this stuff. I would make the argument that this is a really bad sentence for your next essay or short story to start with. I'm sad. Why doesn't that work? Why can't we just come right on the stage and say I'm sad, I'm angry, I'm happy. 'Cause when we do that, when we rely on these abstractions, we deprive the reader the pleasure of putting the pieces together for herself. What we wanna do is find an external way to dramatize this sadness. So the reader then, she has the opportunity to interact with it, and she can draw these conclusions for herself rather than us offering some sort of authorial superimposition where we're basically saying hey reader, I don't trust you that you're smart enough to put the pieces together. So I'm just gonna tell you I'm sad. Whereas if we know that I'm sad is gonna be the emotional essence of the piece, but we're never going to explicitly state it. We're gonna let I'm sad exist solely in the subtext and then it becomes our chief task as storytellers to find a way to literally embody that sadness. Does that make sense what I'm saying so far? So instead of I'm sad, ah, espresso. Instead of I'm sad, let's say that there's a woman named Debbie. And Debbie is in a public park. It's three o'clock in the morning. Debbie's in a park, by herself, sitting on the grass. Three o'clock in the morning, Debbie's sitting on the grass in a public park all by herself drinking red wine out of the bottle. (slurps) That's the noise I make when I'm drinking wine. If you wanna come to like a cocktail party at my house, it's loud. Debbie, three o'clock in the morning sitting on the grass drinking red wine out of the bottle, and all of a sudden (snaps fingers) the sprinklers go on. So I don't know about you, but when I'm having a one-person secret wine-drinking party in the park and the sprinklers go on, I get up. I move to the nearest bench. And then I obviously keep drinking the wine, but I would at least get out of the way of the sprinklers. But this woman, this one woman, Debbie, three o'clock in the morning sitting in the grass in the park by herself, drinking red wine out of the bottle, sprinklers go on. She doesn't even move. I'm getting wet, so what? It's just water. Why does it matter? And the scene ends with Debbie sitting on the grass, still drinking, getting doused, and that's it. We have never given the reader any direct emotional clue. Like we resisted that very easy bait to editorialize, you know for us to kind of stand back and be like, hey, I'm not totally sure that you're getting this reader, so I'm just gonna tell you at the end of it, like oh by the way Debbie's sad. You know what I mean? Like if we picked the right image, and we turn the image loose to do its worse, we never have to say I'm sad. If we can try to not rely on emotional abstractions. If we can push ourselves to know that this person's sad, to know that another person's happy, to know that another person's angry and it's up to us to find that image. I call this mapping images where we're trying to set up some sort of relationship between her inner conflicts, what's causing the sadness, the root of what's going on for her personally and then bringing it to life in an external way. I know she's sad. I know that I wanna launch this story in a way that I'm dramatizing and embodying that sadness, but I don't wanna come out and just say it. 'Cause if I say it that's boring. If I'm saying it, I'm depriving the reader of that pleasure. This is why we got to literature, to interact with these images and sort of draw our own conclusions. And maybe that image isn't enough to completely get a beat on sadness. But certainly we've truncated our list of emotional options. I don't think any of you would see that moment with Debbie drinking in the park, sprinklers go on and no one would say like, things seem like they're going really well in Debbie's world right now. Gimme some of that. So maybe it's three or four options instead of or 20 options. And because your reader doesn't exactly know why she's sad yet, notice that we haven't included that piece of information. We're trying to arouse the reader's curiosity. We're trying to create that appetite for her to try to figure out what's going on. She becomes some sort of emotional detective to try to decode, to try to decrypt precisely what's going on in Debbie's life that's making her behave this way. A story from that sense becomes a system of postponements and payoffs. Like when are we gonna give her the goods on why Debbie's so sad. Well if we know she wants that, let's push it off a little bit. Let's not give that away in scene one. Let's use this really cool image to entice the reader closer. And then we'll postpone that for a scene, or we'll postpone that for two scenes. We'll get to it obviously. These are things that the reader has to know. But because we know that she wants that piece of information, we can push it off just a little bit. So in this particular example, I made the argument earlier that conflict is this collision point between wants and obstacles. Debbie wants to drink wine. Debbie wants to be left alone. And there was no obstacle in that scene until the sprinklers went off. And the sprinklers went off, that was that obstacle. So think about it in your own writing. If you do in fact know what they want. You know what they want from an external perspective and you know what they want from an internal perspective that's great. But just makes sure that you're also taking the time to dote on the other side of the conflict equation, that's those obstacles. And our working definition of obstacles can be what we're putting in a character's path to either impede or prevent them from getting what they want. So obstacles are either preventions or impediments. Does that make sense so far? And what's cool about this is it makes you think about that Grace Paley axiom, two stories. The literal story, Debbie's in the park. Debbie's drinking wine. The sprinkler's go on, and then the story under the story, the story that you can never explicitly state. It has to remain subvocal, and that's the I'm sad part of things. But we can't say it. If our subtext ever crosses over to the literal text, that's when we're crossing what I call the Steven Spielberg line. That's when we're sort of spoon feeding, you know we're telling our audience exactly how she should feel about X or how she should feel about Y, or she should feel about Z. So when I'm putting a scene together, and I know that I wanna have these two planes of my story, the vocalized story and then the subvocal story, it doesn't matter which one you start with. I think that's really important for us to stop and ponder for a minute. It doesn't matter whether you start in the subtext and build your story up, or if you want to start literally with an image and then build down into the subtext, the only thing that matters is that you're taking the time to dote on both of those planes so your reader has the opportunity to see that you've really thought about the emotional assignments of a scene, but then also brought them to life. And you brought them to life in a weird way. I think that's an important word for us is idiosyncratic, pushing past cliches, pushing past these like off the rack images that your reader has already seen 10,000 times. We don't want that. If your character's mad, I don't wanna see her punch a hole in the wall. That's too easy. Your job is to find that idiosyncratic moment that only works for that particular person's programming, like Debbie in the park. 99 people out of 100, when the sprinklers go off move. But whatever the particulars are in Debbie's world right now, she can't. There's something preventing her from taking care of herself. There's something going on so drastically paralyzing from an existential perspective or a spiritual perspective that she can't find the motivation to get out of the way. And if we wanna keep pushing this, maybe she gets pneumonia. Maybe she calls in sick to work the next day. Maybe she gets fired. We're starting to think about consequences of the decisions that our characters have been making earlier in the story and making sure that we're setting up that causality, that scene one's leading to scene two, and scene two is leading to scene three and so on and so forth. So we're building on the things that we've already introduced. That's how we can build suspense. That's how we can build drama. I think also in this conflict discussion, an exercise I do a lot with my own novels, and hopefully this can help you too, is this idea about tension. And I think about tension being just a little bit different than conflict. And tension in this case is the discrepancy or the dissonance between the realities of your protagonist's status quo, and how she would like her life to be. So this actually what her day to day life looks like. But if she totally got her way, her life would look like this. I just need this promotion. I just need to fall in love. I just need to move. I just need to get divorced. Whatever that happens to be, I think it's important for us to know these things. A lot of these things won't actually make it into the story. But it's important for us to start to gather as much active data about our characters as we possibly can so we get a chance to kind of see them in motion. Again, emotional motion but then also literal motion at the same time. The offshoot of tension, this is an exercise I do with every character in every novel I've ever put together, and I like to call this super tension. It's sorta fun to say at your house. You can do it like a game show host, super tension! Maybe that's just around my house. Anyways, super tension is this. Identify the thing that your character cannot live without, and then immediately take that away from them. Sometimes that's a person. Sometimes that's a commodity, a pet, whatever. It might not make it into the story, but I promise you that if you kinda take the time to gather these pieces of evidence. Like one of the things that we're trying to do in early drafts of a new story is just to gather as much active data as we can and fill this vast reservoir of information. And then from there, once we know kind of the whole story, then we'll start to cherry pick the relevant and the juicy details. And that's what we're gonna share with the end reader. The end reader doesn't necessarily have to know the whole story, but we have to know the whole story. So sometimes super tension is just for my own edification so I can do my job right as the person who's putting this narrative together. But sometimes it can surprise you and all of a sudden you'll do a super tension kind of free write and voila. It'll totally have that sizzle. It'll have that pop on the page that you know the reader's gonna be flipping pages and having fun. You wanna make sure to include those things as well. So we've got conflict, tension and super tension. Being really conscious of image, image selection, not allowing ourselves to be reliant on abstraction. I'm sad, I don't think I'm sad actually means anything anymore. We've heard that word so many times that it's lost value. It's depreciated in such a way, like for example, I was getting chili earlier this week and I swear to you I said, how's the chili, and the waitress said, "It's brilliant." Have you ever had brilliant chili? I've never had brilliant, you know who's brilliant? Virginia Wolfe is brilliant. A bowl of chili, not brilliant. But what I'm getting at is that we've devalued these words in such a way that they don't carry the same heft that they once did. So if you're trying to convey to your reader that somebody's sad, you can't just tell 'em that or they'll be like, all right. But if you embody it, Debbie, alone in the park, three o'clock in the morning, drinking wine by herself, sprinklers go on, doesn't move, scene's over. That's action and it's action that means something. I think that's an important point for us to think about as well. Action that doesn't mean anything is a Michael Bay movie. And please don't write Michael Bay movies. You're breaking my heart. But action that is getting at somebody's heart, somebody's brain, somebody's consciousness, that's what literature is all about. That's empathy. Literature's one of the few art forms, maybe the only art form where you can actually inhabit a thought process that's not your own. A consciousness that's not your own. And you get to embed yourself in this flow, in this logic system, in this moral center. I mean that's one of the really great pleasures about reading and the way that we can start to do those things is never to be reliant on the abstractions, the I'm sads, the I'm angry, you know whatever that particular scene is about, but doing it via the image. Picking the right image. And I stress that don't expect this to be like super easy. It would definitely be easier to start your essay I'm sad. But I also will not read that. (laughs) If you take the time, and it will take you a couple weeks, a couple months. Carry it around. Think about it. Gosh, what would be this person's nuanced and idiosyncratic way to express her sadness. I've never seen pathos expressed from this one person's heart, from this one person's mind. How can you bring it to life? And if you do take the time to find those right images, or do what I called them earlier, to find those mapping images, the images that creates this kind of correlation between the emotional struggle and then the external, what we're dramatizing on the stage or on the page. If you take the time, that's when the reader is just gonna be eating out of the palm of your hand. 'Cause we love scene. We live in scene, we experience in scene. We're visceral, five sense creatures. And we wanna try to replicate that ecosystem that we all know outside the walls of the studio on the page. We want that ecosystem to be alive and inhabitable. You know when we think about setting, it's one of these things like, well are they inside, are they outside, is it raining. I mean yeah, I agree that's setting too. But think about the minds, or the consciousness as also being this place for your reader to inhabit. How can you bring alive this thought process, and we'll talk a lot about that over the course of the course of the day. As we're diving into this, I wanted to share a quick story about why I'm such an advocate of timed writing exercises. And when I was under contract for my last novel, my daughter was born. And all of a sudden I couldn't write anymore 'cause there was so much to do. But I was on the verge of getting sued to like have to give the money back. So it was like I have to figure out a way to finish this book. So what I did was every morning I would say to my wife, can I do the laundry? And she would look at me like I was an insane person and be like why do you wanna do the laundry so much, sure, go ahead. And we live above a laundromat in San Francisco. So I would schlep down there with the clothes, throw 'em in there, and I knew that I had 22 minutes when the clothes were in the washing machine, and I had 30 minutes while the clothes were in the dryer. And because there was that ticking clock, it sort of turned down the volume of the mean, inner editor that we all have living in our psyches. More often than not this person is not super nice to us. This is the person who says oh, who are you, why are you writing a story, why is anybody gonna care about the story that you're writing. And I've found that the ticking clock sort of turns the volume down on this voice, 'cause there's just no time. The clothes are gonna be done in the washing machine. The clothes are gonna be done in the dryer. So when I do timed exercises, I don't correct grammar. I don't correct spelling. Just use this as vehicles to generate as much content as you possibly can. Let your imagination feel completely liberated to make mistakes. We want mistakes. Oftentimes the mistakes lead you to the most fertile terrain on the page. And if you didn't give yourself sort of that latitude or that leniency to allow yourself to make mistakes, you might not have found this kinda blossoming patch over here. So I do this in my day to day writing life all the time. If I'm stuck in a scene, or I can't figure it out, I'll just throw like 10 minutes on my iPhone and I just scribble, scribble, scribble. And I found this to be a really effective method to like silence that mean inner editor and it just allows us to feel free. (takes deep breath) It's just 10 minutes. There's no pressure, you know have fun, scribble. 'Cause seriously, somebody told me once that writing is supposed to be fun. Can you even imagine that? (laughs) And anything we can do to embrace these slights of hand to allow ourselves to feel that beautiful freedom where our imagination can just go crazy on the page, that's what we're trying to do. So for our first writing exercise, you heard my version of an image mapping to somebody's sadness. Now I would like to see you guys create this compelling image of sadness. So we know what the subtext is of the moment. I'm supplying that. You're saying to yourself, I know that I want this particular story to launch with the emotional first impression for the audience being that this character is sad. I'm the sort of writer who's not gonna rely on pat or sloppy abstractions. I'm the sort of writer that's gonna push myself to find the idiosyncratic, to find the finessed, to find the nuance. And you're gonna bring this person's sadness to life. Does that make sense what we're gonna do for the first exercise? You know what the subtext is, and now we're gonna dramatize it in an external way. Are there any questions about that before we keep going? Drew, do you have any questions?
I don't, well how long, so for everybody online, you get to participate in this too. So we want you to do this exercise right along with us realtime. So how long's it gonna be? How long are we gonna be writing for?
We'll write between six to eight minutes. Once I start seeing some butts wiggle I'll know that it's time to call time for the first one, and then we'll launch into topic two. Does that make sense? All right, happy writing. Why don't you guys grab the mics. I'd like to hear from you just in terms of like what it was like in terms of doing the first timed exercise. How did it feel? What was going on? I know it's such a compressed amount of time, were you able to kind of stumble upon an image that you thought really kind of conveyed the moment's subtext? And then I would also like it if one of you would volunteer to read. I think if you want, everybody would have the opportunity to read one during the course of the day. I think it's helpful for us to start sharing our arts. I know if feels a little bit awkward at first, but when you sell your first book and they send you on tour, you're going to be in bookstores, assuming there still are book stores, around the country. And then you wanna be practiced enough to be able to do it with some confidence rather than just stand up there and read to your bellybutton. Have you ever seen an author just read to his or her bellybutton? It's pretty exciting. You know I would rather watch somebody whittle wood shoes than like watch that person read another sentence. So again, writers are also readers. So it's sort of good to get in that habit. Anyone want to share in terms of like what did the first one feel like? How did it go for you?
And make sure you guys email, too.
Oh yes, sorry about that.
I actually enjoyed, I found it very sort of nerveracking in a sense I think that under a sort of 10-minute period where I hadn't really thought about anything. I've got to admit, I felt, it's quite hard to sum up any story. I had an idea but I think a lot of it got lost in the sort of subtext (mumbles) my writing, but I was surprised how much I could write when I had a very short deadline. And yeah, a lot of my sort of guards that normally I go back, and I'm dyslexic so I tend to go back and sort of wordsmith, just like sort of like Tourette's I keep jumping back and sort of correcting things.
That's a really interesting point too for us 'cause I think often times we can use the kind of the premature editing to kind of keep us from making progress where you can like be spit polishing scene two when in fact there's no proof that scene two is actually gonna be in the story yet. So what you'd wanna do is like let it be sloppy for the first couple drafts until you've dialed in the perfect trajectory. This is my beginning, this is my middle, this is my ending. And then start to dote on every syllable. That's when you read it out loud to make sure every line has the sonnet potential, to have the capacity to move an audience. So again, I think the ticking clock can be our best friend. It sounds very counter intuitive 'cause at first when a clock goes off it feels punitive, like ah, the sentences are disappearing. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? But when we just buy into the model like look, it's just 10 minutes. It's just eight minutes. It's just six minutes. There's no pressure. And these will just be germs. You know these are the things that you can then go back to later today or over the weekend, however, and see if there's anything there. Anybody else wanna way in on what the first exercise was like?
I had to physically close my eyes so I would stop going back. (laughing) I needed to stop going back to rewrite the words that the grammar, the spelling. My fingers weren't as fast as my brain. And so I needed to physically close my eyes so that I wouldn't go back and do it.
And did that work?
It did, it did. I also felt like I had run out of the things that I wanted to say. So I was like well, okay what else is there. What else is there? So and I had to keep closing my eyes so that I wouldn't go back to read what I had to try to come up with something else.
But those are the great questions to be asking yourself 'cause it just means your wheels are spinning in terms of like how can I make this story more complicated. How can I make this story more unctuous experience that it can possibly be for my readers. I think all those things are really good signs for sure. Who's gonna be our first brave volunteer of the day? Would you like to share?
So when you first mentioned that this was happening, these words came into my head, all the bandaids. I couldn't wait for you to kinda let us go.
(laughs) Shut up, Josh. I didn't know what was gonna happen, but I was like all the bandaids, and it's like what's gonna happen with all the bandaids. I don't know but it's like all the bandaids and I'm just excited to find out what's gonna happen. So I found myself doing what both people before me said, but then I kinda stopped because things just kept coming in my head. And I just had to stop trying to get off of it and just let what was coming in my head come through. So here's what came through. All the bandaids fell out of the box. Well not all, as there weren't any. How much more was gonna happen in just a five-hour stretch? It wasn't bad enough that the AC stopped working and the garbage disposal ate my grandmother's spoon that was her grandmother's spoon, and at the same time there was a puddle on the floor seeping closer and closer to the cats sleeping in the fuzzy slipper I once had loved. Pink, what was I thinking anyway. So you think that's not so rough, really Jane, get ahold of yourself. It's just a few things happening at once. While I stand there with my finger bleeding into the cake batter that was supposed to be lemon chiffon, but now looked something rosy and fun, well devilish to be sure. Perhaps I should get some chocolate and make that red velvet cake, or the one with the root beer I think. But how can I get online to find a recipe when the internet stopped working last week. Now what I ask, now what. A knock on the door, maybe a friendly neighbor or someone with a package for me. Maybe a birthday present. So I go to the door, finger bleeding into the T-shirt I took off to use as a kind of bandage since there are no bandaids. It's a bill collector, I wonder. No, a political activist. No, a kid wanting to mow the lawn that's now over a foot tall in some places and patchy brown. No one is there. It's just the wind blowing hard on that tree limb I should not have cut down.
I can't believe you did all that in seven minutes. Right, that's crazy.
It just came.
What's so interesting too is that you really thrust us right into that person's anxiety. So if feels like we're kind of right in the throws of that panic right along with her. I thought that was really well done. Cool, thanks. And thank you for being the first brave volunteer. That's always hard to get the first one out. But I'm gonna have number two, number two, number two. Next time we'll see. We'll do another exercise and then another one of you will get a chance to share with us in a little bit.