Wednesday, September 2, 2009

always put your characters somewhere they don't want to be

When we're not discussing Pop Tarts or trying to stump each other with lines from The West Wing, my twin brother and I talk writing. He's the one who always gives me the best advice, all of which he learned from other writers. For example, he told me to "always start as close to the middle of the story as possible". This came to him via Kurt Vonnegut. Like Stephen King, he admonishes me when I litter my manuscript with adverbs. And then there's the advice he gave me from Larry Gelbart: always put your characters somewhere they don't want to be.

Gelbart was likely thinking in terms of comedic effect when he dispensed this advice (and that's how I often use it), but I find it works well for any story that warrants conflict. And really, if there's no conflict, then what kind of story is it?

Think about it: On Northern Exposure, Joel Fleischman is stuck in Cicily, Alaska, away from his beloved New York. On M*A*S*H, Hawkeye is stuck in Korea. On Gilmore Girls, some of the best scenes are "Friday night dinner" at Lorelai's parents' house, a condition of the elder Gilmores paying for granddaughter Rory's tuition. And how can I not include Josh Lyman's disasterous press conference while CJ is forced to sit and watch it in her office, her mouth swollen after emergency dental surgery ("I had woot canow") on The West Wing.

In FAKING IT, there were a number of places Andi didn't want to be, whether it was in Devin's apartment stripped down to her underwear in broad daylight, or a freezing cold movie theatre, or a bad first date. More so, Andi began the novel not even wanting to be in her own skin, not wanting to be Andi. Hence, that someplace doesn't necessarily have to be physical in nature, but situational. Someplace could be a state of mind.

Characters need conflict. They need to have their back against the wall, be put in a position where either fight or flight is required. The funniest characters succumb to fits of temporary insanity, the wrong choice at the wrong moment with a series of consequences that fall like dominos.

Your characters will tell you where they want to go, and if you listen closely, you'll find out exactly where they don't want to be, which is exactly where they belong.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

I've had that Gelbart advice quoted to me - but as advice for directors in how to block a scene. Putting characters in an uncomfortable space creates tension. I've used it often when I was directing. Good for you to apply it more literally to writing!

Elisa said...

I never thought about it from the perspective of a director. Thanks for that insight, and for always taking the time to show up to my blog -- I bow down to you!