What I’m watching: Good News Week
on the iPod: Crazy by Brittany Spears
The ‘ah HA!’ moment. The moment when an idea or words or scene falls into place just so. The moment where you write something down and just know you’re on a winner. Where you instinctively know you can move on to the next difficult area, confident that this bit will need little to no rewriting. The moment where, as Farmer Hoggett in Babe would say, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.” 😀
It seems to happen every time I write a book, so it should hardly surprise me anymore. Yet it always does and I’m always grateful, relieved and/or excited. I’ll be deep in my story, eating, sleeping and breathing it, stewing on a particular problem, when a solution bubbles forth from my inner story brain, the bit of brain that seems to eventually sort out the chatter and confusion from the real gems.
So here’s what happened the other day.
Original version: My hero (Zac) is estranged from his father. His mother died when he was seven, his father remarried and the hero now has an older step brother. Zac spends his teenage years with serious sibling envy, especially when his father seems to prefer his step brother, grooming him as the heir-apparent. Zac’s father is the autocratic, controlling, overbearing type and expects him to enter the family company, even though Zac has neither the talent nor the desire to. But for a few years he does, and at 26, after Zac finds out his father bribed his fiancee to break up with him, he and Victor argue and Zac walks out.
The problem I had: Zac’s motivation on a few different levels. If he hated the family business, why join it? And I thought his walk out wasn’t strong enough – it made him sound…well… childish and petulant. I also thought it may be a bit over-the-top, that after one little incident, he did something so drastic as turning his back on his family. There was something missing, something I just wasn’t getting.
I stewed on this for ages while I wrote other scenes, trying to get a feel for Zac and what he truly wanted. And finally he began to speak to me 😀
Improved version: Zac’s mother leaves when he is seven years old and his father divorces her immediately. Abandonment issues straight away. Then his father goes and remarries and suddenly Zac has an older step brother, one who seems to bond effortlessly with his father. For everything his brother is, Zac is the opposite – a shy solitary boy, bookish and artistic. He goes to uni, does a degree of his father’s choosing because he can’t fund it himself but while he’s there, he swaps his courses, instead studying architecture and small business practices. Father finds out, is furious. Eventually Zac goes looking for his mother, finds her and they reconnect before she eventually dies. More emphasis on the abandonment issues. Returns home ready to deal with his father, but finds out his father has offered his fiancee money to go away (she’s not good enough in the eyes of his father). Everything blows up, with Zac finally blaming his father for his parents’ divorce. Then he walks out.
Why this works for me: It’s about layering. Remember Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down? How a bunch of little things happen to him that in isolation, wouldn’t amount to much. But all those little things snowball and snowball until that wonderful scene in McDonalds where, two minutes after 10.30, he orders breakfast but they won’t serve him breakfast because it’s “after 10.30”. Everyone can relate to that, which is why it worked so well and made the audience empathize with his character.
In real life, people explode after a build up of stress… you wake up late, your child won’t get dressed quick enough, you spill the cereal, you end up writing a lunch order because you don’t have time to make him lunch, then he wants a particular book but won’t (or can’t) remember where it is, then you forget the permission slip for the swimming carnival and hubby reminds you the car’s going in for service so you can’t get to the gym.. and so you end up screaming at him (or the cat) or the slow driver who won’t bloody-well-move-his-stupid-slow-ASS, God dammit!!
Whew. If there’s going to be a major explosion where your character does something extreme, escalate the tension until something’s got to give. I see it all the time in crime TV – Criminal Minds and the various CSI franchises call it the ‘stressor’ – an incident that disturbs or stresses a person so much that they go over the edge. Depressing, sorry, but this can also be a technique you can use to maximum impact. Where you scribble it down with a grin and think, “That’ll do, writer. That’ll do.”