Every Story Has a Shape
I’ve always been a believer that our stories exist before we write them. Our job as writers, once we stumble upon these tales, is to bring them up into the sunlight in such a way that their best and most truly intended contour is revealed.
What has screwed me up on my current project—the subject of this “Report from the Trenches” series—is that I excavated the story wrong the first time around. If we think of the tale as a giant dinosaur fossil, I inadvertently chopped off the legs and dug so deep under the skull that the whole damn thing collapsed.
The process of readjudicating a story that we’ve written once and that has crashed and burned is kinda like digging up that dinosaur all over again, only revealing the true beast this time.
I said last week that, though I’d been through this process over and over on previous books, I’ve never really watched myself as I did it. I’ve never taken notes on what the hell I’ve done, or if it worked or not.
But I noticed a couple of things last week.
You could call them “tricks of the trade.” (I prefer the term “storytelling techniques.”)
Here’s one that really helped:
Give Character “A” scenes with “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E.” And so on.
If we’ve got a character named Michael, make sure he has scenes with the Don, with Sonny, with Clemenza, with Kay, with Fredo, and with Tom Hagen.
Likewise take Tom Hagen and put him in scenes with the Don, with Sonny, with Kay, and with Michael.
Because each scene acts like a laser beam scanning that as-yet-unearthed dinosaur.
Each scene reveals a new slice of the buried whole.
When we spitball a scene between Michael and Luca Brasi, even if that scene never makes it into the finished book or movie, it lights up an area that had previously been in shadow.
To write or even just to project this scene, we have to ask ourselves, “What would Michael talk about with Luca? What would Michael want? What would Luca want? What if Luca revealed something about the Don from their younger days, something that Michael did not know? Would that change the story? Could Luca betray Michael? Would Michael sell Luca out to another of the Five Families? Why? To gain what? What further scenes and sequences would this lead us to?”
See what I mean about “lighting up” the buried dinosaur?
I watched myself over the past few weeks’ work and I realize that I’ve been doing this unconsciously. I’m using this technique not just with one-on-one scenes but with scenes containing three, four, and five characters.
I’m mixing-and-matching and watching what happens.
And I’m projecting other scenes that this new scene might lead to.
I have two female characters in the story I’m struggling with. One is a detective, Dewey, the junior partner in the team with the protagonist, Manning. The other is the Mystery Woman, Rachel, whom both detectives believe holds the major clues they’re after.
I realized that I had no scenes with these two women together.
Wow. That’s no good.
“Steve, you gotta get these two females in the same room and see what happens.”
What came out was a scene where Rachel had been badly injured in a car chase and had to be taken to the hospital. I sent Dewey with her, to hold her in custody and to watch over her.
The scene opened up a whole sheaf of possibilities. It gave me a chance to see one character in a completely vulnerable position and to have the other, who up to that point had been hostile and antagonistic, find herself in the role of protector.
Sure enough, the two woman bonded—and that plugged in beautifully to the Act Three and Climax that already existed.
The other thing we gain when we mix-and-match characters and give them scenes together is that we tighten the universe of the story. If Tom Hagen has a way he relates to the Don and the Don has a way he relates to Sonny, then when we have a clash in a scene between Sonny and Tom …
Goddamit, if I had a wartime consigliere, a Sicilian,
I wouldn’t be in this mess!
… the exchange is given added weight and dimension because of the other scenes that set it up and now illuminate it.
If Ophelia has had a scene with her father Polonius and her brother Laertes, both on the subject of her infatuation with the melancholy prince Hamlet (and his with her), those scenes add layers of interest when we put Hamlet and Ophelia in the same room and let them struggle to puzzle out their relationship. And when Laertes kills Hamlet in the climax because he believes his friend was the cause of the deaths of his father and sister (as we’ve witnessed in other scenes between and among them), the whole tragedy becomes a tightly-wound hand grenade, exploding with meaning.