Friday, September 16, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 6

Sidebar: I LOVE this illustration. Should I put it on a T-shirt, do you think?

I used to have a real problem writing dialogue. My characters sounded like they were taking turns to give their speeches, and that’s a boring way to write. I finally stumbled upon two pieces of advice that helped me write chapters like this one—almost nothing but talking, and I’ll bet you weren’t bored.

The first piece of advice I got was from Sol Stein, author of the excellent Stein on Writing. Seriously, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want to be a reader, go buy it and read it NOW. Anyway, Stein’s method was based on an experience of his at the Actor’s Studio in New York (Stein started out as a playwright, not a novelist).

Elia Kazan was directing Stein and an actress named Rona Jaffe in a scene they were improvising. They were supposed to be playing the principal of a private school and the mother of a student who’s about to be expelled. Then Kazan stopped pulled each actor aside for a private word. He told Stein that the boy was an incorrigible terror, a menace to every class he was in, and under no circumstances was Stein to let this kid back into his school. When Stein and Jaffe got onstage, they were suddenly shouting at each other, red in the face, going at it hammer and tongs. The audience was mesmerized

Kazan stopped the performance and asked each actor to tell the audience what he or she had been told. Stein told his story--and then Jaffe said that she had been told her “son” was a bright, well-behaved boy and that the headmaster was prejudiced against him, so she had to fight like mad to get the youngster back into school. Actors are taught never to directly deny another actor’s statement when they’re improvising—it damages the audience’s illusion of reality—so instead the actor and actress fought subtly and ferociously to determine whose version of the truth would win out.Their scene was electric because they had been given different scripts.

Have you ever had an argument of someone who seemed to have a view of the world so different from your own that you might have been from different planets? How well did you guys get along? I’ve found that one of the keys to writing an engaging scene is to figure out how the two characters see the situation, and remember that they have different scripts.

The second tip came from my thesis advisor in grad school, who reminded me that in any given conversation, one conversant usually has more power than the other. Both characters want something (even if it's only to avoid something unpleasant), and usually the conversation wouldn't be happening unless someone's desire was in someone else's hands. The balance of power may shift as the conversation goes on, but usually there’s only one dominant person at a time. The characters may be struggling for conversational power, or trying to avoid it, or one character may be trying to give it to the other, but that power is a factor. And that’s where this scene came from.

Inthis chapter, Trevor has the power at the beginning. He views Rae as a potential threat, but he also finds her fascinating. He’s testing her, trying to figure out what she can do for him and how he might have to deal with her. In his mind, this scene is going to be a polite interrogation, and he’s going to vanish into the night mysteriously just like his mentor always did. (His hormones get in the way of that a bit, of course.) Rae, meanwhile, sees Trevor as a potential resource, and hopes to use him to learn what John Lawrence won’t teach her. That means she has to prove herself—and that includes turning the tables on him halfway through the chapter. That’s when the power shifts from Trevor to Rae, and eventually ends up being shared between them. This is the kind of thing Rae does best: she comes across rather unsure of herself at first, then goes in for the kill when you least expect it. She’s also a little flattered by Trevor’s attention, and has that slightly girlish uncertainty about what she’s going to do about it.

Of course, Rae has no idea how her little stunt connects to how Trevor got his sidekick wings—but that’s all part of having two different scripts, isn’t it? Sometimes you say just the right thing, or just the wrong thing, and the whole world changes. The more layers you give your characters, the easier it is to trigger moments like that. (Fun fact: this piece of Trevor’s origin story long predates this scene. He's always become a sidekick this way, but only recently have I written Rae doing the same thing to him. I didn’t realize until I was outlining this chapter that Rae’s turnabout connected to how Trevor had become a sidekick—but it was lots of fun making the connection for you guys.)

Then we come to the no-name rule, something that will have serious ramifications in later parts of the book. I knew I wanted to keep my leads’ names from each other, but I weighed several ways to do it. I finally settled on having Trevor set the condition because he’s the more paranoid of the two, and sees himself as having more to lose if his true identity becomes even a little bit public. Rae agrees because of her famous father, and thinks it’s all about secret identities and classic superhero schtick … and believe me, both characters will have reason to regret that choice later.

Fun fact: the eye-color nicknames came from my outlining method. At one point, several drafts ago, all the index cards in my deck signifying scenes from Rae’s point of view had scribbles of green marker at one end, and all of Trevor’s had blue scribbles. (Those were the markers I had handy when I made the deck.) The system made keeping their multiple-name problem straight a little easier, and eventually worked its way into the narrative. You’ll see other symbols attached to those colors as the story goes on, never fear.

The soundtrack to this chapter is a bit of a mulligan. I'm a fan of a Canadian band called Captain Tractor, and while this isn't their best song (or even in the top 20), it tends to get stuck in my head while I'm writing dialogue-heavy scenes. I have no idea what the deal with the mime is doing in the video, though.

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