Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #125: Let Them Sleep On It

Yesterday, I talked about those situations where a scene generates a lot more emotional friction than you thought it would, and your characters start refusing to do what the outline says they’re supposed to do.

One classic version of this, which I encounter all the time, involves pride.  In my outline, I’ve got two characters who are hashing out a heated disagreement.  Each character passionately argues their side, until finally my hero pulls out a devastating argument that demolishes all opposition.  The obstacle character has no choice but to admit that they were wrong.  Now they’ll come clean, admit the truth, and help the hero after all... 

...Except something goes wrong.  My hero delivers the coup de grace, and the obstacle character does realize that he or she is wrong, but then they won’t admit it.  Their defenses have been destroyed, but their pride is still getting in the way.  I try to write the ending of the scene, where the obstacle character says, “You’re right, I’m wrong, now let me tell you the truth,” but the character just won’t say those words. 

Luckily, I have one simple trick to get out of this situation: split the scene in half and cut to the next morning.  This is how life works.  I know that every time anyone has convinced me that I was wrong (which is to say, both times) I haven’t been willing to admit it until I’ve slept on it.  By the time the sun comes up, my last lingering illusions are gone. 

More than once, I written a scene and workshopped it with a writing group where all the writers said that the victory came too easily.  In response, heres all I did: After the hero delivers the coup de grace, the obstacle storms out and says “Go to hell!”  leaving the hero to lament that they’ve lost this battle.  The next morning, the obstacle sheepishly knocks on the door and comes clean.  Every time, this two-day version of the scene received no complaints from the workshop. 

I noticed an example of this in Winter’s Bone, when Jennifer Lawrence is trying to borrow her friend’s car, over the objections of the friend’s abusive husband.  Lawrence pulls out all the stops to convince her friend, but can’t.  In the morning the friend shows up with the keys… and a black eye.

On a cheerier note, that scene where a girl awkwardly rejects a guy’s profession of love at night only to think better of it and jump his bones the next day always works, because we all know cases where that’s happened in real life.
These are examples of the way that friction can slow stories down, which is ultimately a good thing.  You never want things to be too easy for your hero.  If your characters object, listen to those objections and accommodate them.    

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