Sunday, April 7, 2013

Raising the Stakes (April Theme by Naomi Kinsman)

My students often look doubtfully at me when I suggest that they make things tougher for their characters. "Give them a fear with history," I suggest, "and then when life becomes rough for your character, add elements of that fear to raise the stakes." So, for instance, if a character is afraid of dogs because of an attack from an unfriendly dog last year, why not have their captors have a few fierce dogs as pets? When students try this tactic in their writing, they find that their scenes deepen and seem more believable. Everyone would react with fear after being captured, but giving that fear a focus makes the fear more specific. Somehow, even if the reader is an absolute dog lover the more specifically focused fear draws empathy. The reader thinks: Oh, for me, if it were spiders... ugh.

I was working with a young writer this week who had a story beautifully mapped out in her head, but who was struggling with pinning the ideas down on the paper in sentences. She's a student I previously directed in a number of plays, and so I asked her to take off her writer hat and put on her actor hat. We talked about scenes, about dialogue and staging. We talked about how the actor playing this character might show their reactions, about what props we might want to make sure we'd put on the stage to set the scene. Suddenly, the story came alive for her... and for me.

The session reminded me that my theatre training is one of the most important skills I draw on when I write. Early drafts of scenes are like early rehearsals, with spotty motivation, and only the basic, essential stage action. Revision is when I have the opportunity to go back through and direct the scenes, and that is where I'm able to discover the reason a character might be saying something, a reason why they might not say anything at all, or a new physical action that shows motivation much better than any words could do.

And as for conflict and difficulty? In theatre, often an actor isn't able to raise a scene to the needed emotional tone by playing exactly what's on the page. It's not their fault. The difficulty is that on stage, action is equally as important as dialogue. In fact, action is probably more important. Strong playwrights leave room in the dialogue so that the actors and directors can make choices to make the scenes their own, instead of trying to control the story through overly specific acting notes. This is where the idea of giving a character a backstory, and fears and passions, and adding those to scenes comes from for me. Often, these layers aren't on the page to begin with--not obviously, anyway. In between the lines, in a simple comment near the end of the show, the groundwork is all laid, and the director and actors can bring out the emotional truth of the story in a variety of ways, based on what they see in the script, and the choices they make.

So, the way I'm most cruel to my characters is by raising the stakes. I don't let the top layer of difficulty become the only issue they're dealing with in any troubling circumstance. I layer and layer until I feel as though I've found the specificity needed to make the scene feel real. And as I write this, I'm realizing that specificity is the missing piece in the chapter I've been puzzling over. So, I'm off to write. Thanks, Smack Dab, for asking such a helpful question!

1 comment:

  1. LOVE this--especially the idea of giving your characters fear...

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