Exercises

Here are a few scene ideas. Pick one and see what you can do with it.

• Blind date. First is getting set up, including the character's worries, fears, and hopes. Then the first contact on the telephone, which needs to raise both anxiety and hopes. The want is to have a wonderful lover. The obstacle is having to go through the anxiety and sense of humiliation to find out if this person is the one or is even worth the effort.

• Going home to visit family (parents, siblings, etc.) for a holiday visit or after having been away for an extended time. Now, if it's a wonderful family, don't bother. It has to be difficult. The character needs to be anticipating trouble and trying to figure out how to avoid it. The want is to get through the visit avoiding trouble/pain. The obstacle is the difficult family, who are going to give the character a hard time about as much as possible.

• Trapped on a ski lift, on an airplane, or in a taxi with someone who starts talking or acting strange. The want is to be left alone, to be at peace, to be safe. The obstacle is this weird person who is acting strange and maybe is dangerous.

Now, if none of those grab you, here's a much looser exercise. I'm going to give you three sets of unrelated words. You'll pick one set of the three and write a scene using the three-word set you pick. Here they are:

• Albino, pistol, strawberry.

The thing to do is to just hang loose and let the words stimulate you. Here's another exercise to do if you don't want to do any of the above. In this, I'll give you a list of settings. You pick a setting that strikes your fancy. Then I'll give you a list of characters. You pick two or more of the characters and have them interact in the setting.

• Settings: Cemetery, gas station, pawnshop, porn shop, porn theater, tavern, ballpark, church, train, doctor's office, dentist's office, airplane.

• Characters: Priest, cop, prostitute, nurse, vampire, doctor, burglar, tramp, cab driver, baby, mayor, gangster.

Don't worry about the story form, unless you feel like trying it. It's new, so it's not going to (and is not supposed to) feel comfortable. If you want to try it, see if you can establish a want and an obstacle (or obstacle first, then want, as in the Larry scene) and an initial action. But the main thing is to write. If trying to create want and obstacle gets in the way, forget it and just write. If you're using your own project and you feel up to it, work to create a want and an obstacle. On the other hand, if it takes off, after you create a want and an obstacle, go on and have your character take action, confront the problem, and push it through to a resolution (victory or defeat).

Here's the piece, from the writer who wrote the spider piece that appeared earlier.

As near as Clayton could recall, they had been talking about God when he mentioned the spider, no larger than an infant's thumbnail, that lives in mid-air at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet. This particular type of spider, in spite of the extreme cold and buffeting of air currents, is able to stride in the thin atmosphere like a pond insect using the water's surface tension, and even weaves webs, using water droplets or crystals of ice as anchors for the mooring threads. These free-floating webs, wet with woven rain or white with frost, have been known to dance across the windshields of airplanes, like handkerchiefs dropped by flirtatious angels-there and gone so quickly that pilots often never even noticed them.

Not until the dawn of aviation was there any record of these spiders (the first recorded sighting being that of a balloonist who had gone far too high and encountered what he called "a bright cathedral window in the air." Reaching out to touch it, his fingertips broke the tenuous film of water in the interstices of the web and he came away with only a few thin strands on his dampened fingertips). Not until the early 1920s was the first specimen captured. Clayton remembered that a controversy still surrounded the origins of the spiders: How had they come to live at those altitudes? Had a few daring arachnids stepped off a Himalayan mountainside thousands of years ago? How did they live? Did they draw nourishment from the air as some orchids did?

Clayton's point had been that until the advent of a particular type of technology, any knowledge of these spiders or their webs had been the subject of myth or superstition. Every so often, these webs slipped through a trough in the atmosphere, perhaps down through an eddy of air current. At sunset or sunrise, especially in the Western states, you may catch a glimpse of a web spiraling down to the earth, glittering at all its dewy points. The Navaho and Sioux told tales of Grandmother Spider.

As usual, her response to his argument had been unexpected. The thought that there was a type of spider that could, at any moment, fall upon her, web and all, kept her in the house for days. When he suggested that she might be overreacting, she answered: "You know I hate spiders. Why did you ever tell me about that one?" In some odd way, he felt she was right. He knew she was afraid of spiders and snakes and fiberglass insulation and empty metal boxes.

So, there's the spider again. When I read this, I asked this author if there was such a spider. He said, "Hell no. I made it up." Not only was the image of this spider vivid and real, but the author turned it into a bone of contention between the narrator and his wife. The image, as striking as it is, is not enough to make a story. For that we must have want, obstacle, and action. The author went on to raise the tension and drama with the following:

Tonight, he had planned on telling her about the place where people fear the rain (who knows what effect that might have had on her), but when he drove up the driveway, he found the house dark. When he entered the house, he found that she had not gone to bed early. And when he went into the kitchen to have a beer and call her mother, he found the note written on a piece of brown paper shopping bag, secured with two red magnetic letters to the freezer.

I can't take it any longer. I'm sorry.

I'm taking the baby with me.

-Hugh Schulze

You should know that this author had been writing for years. Don't get intimidated by someone else's writing. You can do this. The next chapter gets into the finer points of how it's done.

Fine-Tuning

After a Bulls game, a reporter asked Michael Jordan how one of the new players, Luke Longley, was doing. Jordan said that Longley was doing fine, but that he had to learn their system. The Bulls have a plan, Michael said. Everyone who comes to the Bulls must learn their plan, their system. Every player has to know the plan inside and out, forward and backward so it becomes part of him and he doesn't have to think about it. When the team is winning, they just play basketball. They don't worry about the plan or anything else. They just go. But when they're losing, when they're in trouble, they switch to the plan immediately. Everyone knows where to go and what to do. Everyone focuses on doing his job. Then, when they're back on track, they just play basketball again.

All right, why do I tell you this anecdote, and what does it have to do with writing? First of all, what I gave you in the last chapter, which is also what I'm refining in this chapter, is your plan—a plan you will use for the rest of your writing life. When things are going well, when you're writing and loving it, don't bother with the plan. Just go. But when you get into trouble (and you'll get into trouble a lot, as did the Chicago Bulls), go to it immediately. Go to want, obstacle, action first—always. If those elements aren't in place, aren't set up and working properly, nothing else you do can make up for it. If you don't attend to them first, you will waste an enormous amount of energy working on something that will not fix the problem, and your story will shut down no matter how hard you work to keep it going.

So, when things aren't going right, do not let yourself get distracted by anything else—go to your plan (want, obstacle, action) immediately. Ask first, "Who wants what?" If no one wants anything, that's your problem. Nothing can happen without that. You'll be wasting your time if you work elsewhere. Once you have the character's want established, ask, "What's the obstacle?" If there is no obstacle, you have no conflict and no dramatic tension to move the story. After you've created a threatening obstacle, ask, "What's the character doing (action) to overcome the obstacle and fulfill his want?"

If you have these three story elements working, your story will be moving, and you won't be wondering what's wrong. I've never seen a story that was failing where the problem wasn't in one of these three story elements. They are the one, two, three of dramatic movement.

Getting into trouble is inevitable. The important thing is how quickly you get out of it. How fast you get out of trouble and back on track determines whether you spend a month to a year writing a novel or whether you spend three to five to ten years doing it. The difference between writers who write novels quickly and those who take years and years isn't how much time they spend writing, but how much time they waste trying to write. Your greatest weapon is understanding the story form and the story elements—mastering the plan.

In order to master the plan, we need to revisit the theory, to take another look at it from a couple of other perspectives, then define the story elements more precisely. Normally, the stricter a definition, the more limiting and restrictive it is. In this case, it's the opposite. The more specific the definition, the more ideally you understand each element, the more choices you'll have, and the easier it'll be to get to the energy and drama of your characters and your story. Understanding the tools and how they work is the key to using them successfully.

In the last chapter, we examined identification—what it is and what part it plays in stories and in life. Identification is the goal not only of every story but of every life. It's our deepest social need. It's at the heart of all meaningful social interaction. It's what makes life worthwhile. It's what we're all after. We don't think of it that way. We don't say, "I'm going out tonight to find someone to identify with," but that's what we're doing.

But why? Why do we need it? Remember, in stories we ask why of everything to push it to the deepest level, to find the root cause, to get to the very bottom of it. It being the character. That's what stories do—get to the bottom, reach the limit, of the characters. We get to the limit of Ahab and Gatsby and Scarlett and Romeo and Hamlet. No one ever accused any of them (or the authors) of not going all the way. No one ever accused Romeo of not loving and pursuing Juliet with all his heart or Hamlet of not agonizing enough over his problems or Ahab of not going all-out to get Moby-Dick. If you want your characters and your stories to go all the way, you, the author, must do the same. You must push them as far as you can at every chance. One way of going all the way is to ask why, why, and why of everything.

So, why do we need to identify? What does it do for us? A good way to see what something does is to see what happens when we take it away. It's always easiest to see things in the extreme. Stories are about the extremes, always. Even if it's about an old lady fussing at her dog to be more polite and considerate of her, it needs to be extreme in terms of who she and her dog are.

So, an extreme case of taking away identification can be reached by asking: what's the worst punishment we can legally give someone in prison, short of execution? Got the answer? Of course. You know instantly. We all do. Solitary confinement. We don't have to have been there to know. Imagining is enough.

But why? What's so bad about it? Why is it painful? It's painful because you're alone, because you have no contact with others. OK, but what's bad about that? What happens when we have no contact with others? Well, we get nutty. Stir-crazy. We flip out. We lose our emotional balance. If we're not connected to others, we lose our connection to ourselves.

Psychologists have done isolation studies in which they put people in special tanks—each person in a separate tank. Their hands were padded so that the sense of touch was cut off and they floated in a special heavy liquid so they were as weightless as possible. They were cut off from everything except their own minds. What happened to them? In short order, everyone, even those with the strongest character, began hallucinating. They deteriorated. They lost touch with reality—with themselves. They couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, where they began and where they ended.

So, if you're not in touch with others, you're not in touch with yourself. The purpose of stories, of identification, is to put us (and keep us) in touch with ourselves. Identification is what must happen before you can like someone, form a friendship, or fall in love. It's what holds the world together. Civilization could not survive without it. Lofty stuff? Well, it's still theory, so you don't have to swallow it all to write a strong story—as long as you understand the importance of identification.

Connecting with others is connecting with ourselves. The purpose of stories is to make this connection —to create identification. Identification is how we experience characters, how we feel what they feel, how we become them and, in doing so, experience more of ourselves. But we cannot identify unless the character is revealed. Revealing character is a new phrase. It's what leads to identification. REVEALING CHARACTER IS YOUR ONGOING PURPOSE AT ALL TIMES. You make all story choices based on this rule. When faced with a choice, ask yourself: Which way reveals more character? If it reveals more character, do it.

As I said, this is still theory. Identification and revealing character are the effects of a story. They're the results of a successful story. They're what stories do, but not how they do it. How they do it is the cause. Writers work with causes, not effects. Creating identification is the goal of every story. Showing you how to create identification is the continual goal of this course.

So, how do you reveal character? Well, the character can only be revealed if he acts. Action is character. The most wonderful character in the world will not get to us unless he does something. The character will not act unless he has to, unless he's challenged. Like the rest of us, he's not going to get up and push himself to the limit for no reason. He has to be urged, prodded, challenged. That challenge is CONFLICT, which brings us back to the story elements and the basic story form, which is:

CONFLICT, ACTION, RESOLUTION

CONFLICT is the first, the number-one critical ingredient, but it's important not for what it is, but for what it does. What conflict does is force the character to ACT—whether he likes it or not, and he will not like it, he cannot. Ahab, Scarlett, Hamlet, Lear, Gatsby did not like what was happening to them or what they had to do. They were trying to enjoy themselves, but they were frustrated at every turn. The character cannot enjoy himself. You, the author, cannot let him, because if he's enjoying himself, the reader is not. So, conflict is what we use to make the character act, to use himself, to reveal himself. Revealing character is what must happen before identification can occur.

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