Allow me to set the scene for you . . .
A studio classroom in a Midwestern university. Soundproofed walls, carpeted floors, a few chairs lined against the walls. A group of acting students, most in their late teens and early twenties, sit on the floor, dressed in T-shirts, tights or sweats, and leg warmers. I'm one of these students, a sophomore (though I have too much self-respect to wear leg warmers; a man has to draw the line somewhere). This is Dr. Huberman's acting class, and today he tells us we're going to learn about the essence of great drama. He's a tall thin man in his thirties, wearing wireframe glasses, a gray suit, and tie. Standing in the middle of the room like a circus ringmaster, he asks for two volunteers. My friend Doug Blakesly steps forward, as does a woman whose name I've forgotten. Let's call her Katie. Dr. Huberman tells Katie to go stand out in the hall until he comes out to get her. She leaves and shuts the door behind her. Dr. Huberman then gives Doug his instructions.
"We're going to do an improv scene. You're an employee of a company. You've worked there for years. You're wife is very sick, and your insurance won't cover all your medical bills. You've decided to go to your boss and ask for a raise. But you're a proud man, and the one thing you will not do -- under any circumstances -- is tell your boss the real reason you need this raise. You can say anything else you want to say to try to persuade her, but you will not tell her about your wife, and you will not leave her office without getting a raise. Got it?"
Doug nods and Dr. Huberman sends him out in the hall and tells him to send Katie in. She enters and closes the door behind her.
"Katie," Dr. Huberman says, "we're going to do an improv scene. You're a middle-management-level supervisor in a large corporation. Business has been falling off the last year of so, and profits are down significantly. So much so, in fact, that the corporation is in serious jeopardy, though this isn't public knowledge yet. Even most of the company's employees don't know. Because of the current situation, all supervisors have been informed that they cannot grant any raises for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, you're not allowed to discuss the real reason raises are no longer allowed. If someone comes to you and asks for a raise, you can give them any reason you want for turning them down, but the one thing you won't do, under any circumstances, is tell the truth about the company's financial situation. Understand?"
Katie nods. Dr. Huberman goes to the door, opens it, and asks Doug to come in. He then has them pull a couple chairs to the center of the room facing each other, then tells Katie to sit. Doug stands by, ready to enter her imaginary office. Dr. Huberman steps back and gives his customary command for the scene to begin.
The scene begins simply enough. Doug enters and asks if he can speak to Katie. She agrees, he sits and begins making his case for why deserves a raise. He talks about how long he's been with the company, how much time has elapsed since his last raise, and how sales are up in his division because of his leadership. Katie listens, and when Doug is finished, she tells him that while he has been a loyal employee for many years, there are employees with longer tenure who haven't received raises. She goes on to say that while his sales figures are good, others in the company have done better in the last year.
So far, so unremarkable. But then Doug tries again, giving Katie more reasons why he deserves a raise, which she in turn shoots down one by one.
Then something amazing starts to happen. Doug begins to become desperate, and he works harder to convince Katie. And while she clearly sympathizes with Doug, she's beginning to become frustrated with constantly having to rebuff him. The scene goes on like this for several more minutes, with Doug and Katie becoming ever more emotional, to the point where they are close to tears, as are a number of students watching. The atmosphere in the classroom is electric, the air crackling with tension. The scene keeps going -- remember, Dr. Huberman told Doug he can't leave without getting the raise his character so desperately needs, just as he told Katie she can't grant his request. There's no way for the scene to end, not unless one of the actors break the rules. And Doug and Katie refuse to do that. They keep going, keep battling, until they both begin to cry.
Dr. Huberman finally takes pity on them and tells them to stop. Everyone applauds our two emotionally drained classmates, and then Dr. Huberman tells us why what he have just witnessed was so powerful. The essence of good drama is a combination of strongly motivated characters who can not or will not abandon their goals and the conflict that results when those goals are diametrically opposed.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Every basic creative writing text says the same thing, but what I saw that day was that both characters were equally motivated, each just as strongly as the other. And by watching Doug and Katie continually try different approaches to meet their characters' goals, I'd seen an entire dramatic story spun out in front of me from two simple seeds. I learned several vital lessons about writing fiction that day.
- All characters in a story need to be strongly and clearly motivated -- not just the main character.
- These motivations should in some way conflict with each other.
- Characters should not be allowed to abandon their goals, whether because it's in their psychological make-up not to quit or because circumstance won't permit it.
- Characters don't believe they're good guys or bad guys. They all do what they do because they truly believe they have to.
- During the drafting stage, all fiction writing is improv. Given an initial situation and clear motivations, I could improv scenes and entire stories -- hell, even novels.
- Like actors, writers should stay in the moment. During the improv, Doug and Katie didn't know what either of them was going to do next. They had to stay in the moment because they couldn't do otherwise. Each moment of their scene was alive and vital, not rushed through or glossed over. I realized my scenes would be far stronger if I made my characters remain in the moment as well.
- Like actors, writers should play the emotion, not the words. Watching Doug and Katie, I realized that while they were speaking, the true scene was taking place beneath their words, in the emotions that they were feeling and struggling to control and conceal. Emotion is where both character and story live. So I decided that when I wrote, I would always consider what emotion underlies a character's every word and action, and I would make sure to "play" each emotion.
- It's not what you give characters that makes them interesting; it's what you take away from them. Dr. Huberman took away several options from Doug and Katie, and because of this, their characters couldn't take the easy way out of their situation. They couldn't quit, and they had to keep coming up with new tactics to try to achieve their goals. In addition, they each held on to secrets they wouldn't share. All of this forced their scene into ever more intense and powerful directions. I learned to use the power of "can't" when I write, and it's turned out to be one of the most powerful weapons in my creative arsenal.
So the next time you sit down to write, wait for the house lights to dim, for the curtain to rise, and let the show begin.
Department of Shameless Promotion
Ghost Trackers, the novel I wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the TV show Ghost Hunters, should be out in both trade and mass-market paperback any day now. My horror novel Like Death is going to be released from Apex Book Company in a new edition before too long. I recently wrote a three-part blog about writing Like Death, and you can find it at the Apex site: www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/blog. Just scroll down to find my posts.