Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Day Before

I didn't think ballet was particularly hard last night, but this morning I hurt all over. I may have to wrap up in the electric blanket and use it as a full-body heating pad. Ouch. But hey, that means I'll likely get a lot of writing done because getting up and moving doesn't sound like a fun idea. I've reached a proverbial fork in the road and am still trying to decide what a character's next step will be. I suspect I'm going to have to go back and change one particular conversation earlier to set up what I want to do now. I'm so glad I don't have to write like Dickens and have my books serialized. I'd be in big trouble if the first chapters had already been published before I got to the end.

My writing topic this week is another one of those things where I don't consider myself an expert. I'm just throwing out some ideas I'm playing with. When we create characters we generally develop a backstory -- the relevant information about the characters' pasts that will influence the decisions the characters make during the story. For instance, he witnessed his parents' brutal murder when he was a child and that's what led him to fight crime. But does the character have what, for lack of a more precise word, I'm calling a "past"? Do we know what yesterday was like for him? I would argue that aside from the major turning point decisions, yesterday may be more relevant to the character's overall behavior than that childhood event is. He probably doesn't go through life thinking about his parents' murder. That may come up when he faces other crime scenes, but in most of his life, he's going to be thinking more about what happened yesterday or earlier that day.

To put it another way, my college acting textbook mentioned that when a character makes an entrance in a scene, he's simultaneously making an exit from some other scene we're usually not seeing. He doesn't just materialize from thin air right outside the door before walking in. The character is leaving some other place, where he was doing something else, and he left for a reason. He has attitudes and feelings about the place where he was, the place he's coming to, what he was doing before and why he left. This is important for acting because it affects the way the character enters the scene. Someone coming home from work from a job he hates to a home that's a refuge is going to be different from someone coming home from a job that fulfills him to a home that stifles him. There may be no dialogue about his attitudes about home and work, but it's going to affect the way he comes through that door in his body language, his tone of voice, and in the little behaviors he may go through upon entering. The man who loves his job and hates his home may cling to that work identity longer -- keeping his tie on, bringing his briefcase further into the house and putting it next to his chair -- while the man who hates his job and loves his home may already be pulling his tie off as he comes through the door and may drop his briefcase right at the doorway.

I think this is something you could apply to a novel. It's a subtle thing that will just make the story that much richer, so that the story feels like it extends off the page. What kind of day did your character have before the story began? How much sleep did he get the night before, and was it restful sleep? When was his last meal, and what kind of meal was it? Was he working on anything that was interrupted when the story's initiating event happened, and how does he feel about that interruption? All of those things are going to shape the way the character behaves as the story begins. This could also apply to transitions between scenes. What was the character doing offstage between his appearances in the story? You don't have to tell the reader every detail, but it helps if you know.

If you have characters who already knew each other before the story begins, what is their relationship? What do they like about each other, what are their pet peeves about each other, what do they agree about, what do they disagree about? What was their last encounter before the story started like? Two people who really like each other may have had a disagreement the last time they spoke, and that will affect the way they relate to each other the next time they see each other. There should be a difference between the way people who've known each other for a while interact and the way people who have just met interact. That familiarity should come through.

It might be a fun writing exercise to imagine what the day before your story opens was like for your character and see how changing that day changes the way your character acts in the opening scene. You could also imagine the last time two of your main characters who already know each other got together. What did they do or say, and how does that affect the way they act in their first scene together?

No comments: