The Scene: "Ellen--" Greg began, but she had gone. Darkness pressed in on him, and the silence was an accusation. He hefted the grip of his flashlight and turned it on. He could see by the trembling of the beam that his hands were shaking. But no other part of him would move. He was held, balanced between his concern for Ellen and that gnawing fear.
He didn't know how long he sat there before he could get up.
Decisions. Our fictional characters make them all the time. In our heads and in our plot outlines, we know exactly what we want that decision to be. Yet, like many writers, it's precisely these moments in my stories that find me most likely to block and stall.
The above scene is from a story of mine titled "Flamestone" (published in the anthology AFTERWAR, edited by Janet Morris; Baen Books, 1985). Greg and Ellen have been hiding from a band of cutthroats who are ransacking Greg's rooms. Ellen is sick and tired of hiding; Greg's quite willing to wait them out. I knew that for the sake of the plot outline I'd written, Greg had to get up NOW and go after Ellen, because in the next scene he was going to save Ellen from the ruffians.
I wrote the scene, but it was tough to write. I had to force myself to put the words on paper. I looked for excuses right and left to get up from the desk and walk away. I did the dishes, I cut the grass. I would've painted the house if it I'd felt energetic enough to get out the ladders. After a few hours of this, I finally sat down and just kept typing until the scene was done.
The trouble was that I was unsatisfied with the results. The story didn't feel 'right', the movement of the plot was somehow warped. I sent it out anyway. Fortunately or unfortunately, Janet Morris agreed with me about the tale: she asked for a rewrite, saying that "I'm still not sure what's wrong here myself. It's not the style, for sure.... But I can't use it as it is and I'm not going to ask you to type it again unless and until I have some substantive suggestions."
I read the story, read it again. And again. Every time, I could feel myself stumbling over The Scene, and I finally realized that what I'd done was to turn a deaf ear to Greg's protests. The reason I'd blocked on that scene was because I was dragging Greg, kicking and screaming, out of character.
I hadn't been role-playing.
I'll admit it now: I'm a role-playing game junkie. I love letting my imagination run free for an evening to pretend that I'm a sword-swinging adventurer or a planet-roaming entrepenuer. I enjoy letting different characters roam the stage of my mind. Given the popularity of these games, I expect that many of you out there have at least tried them. If you have, then you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, then let me quickly explain that role-playing games are entirely different from Monopoly or chess. First you must create a character. For the duration of the game, you respond to game situations (the plot) as that character would respond. With the help of paper, pencil, and copious numbers of dice, you become that character, limited in action only by your imagination...
But the intent here isn't to convert you. There's a aid for every writer in the concept of role-playing. Role-playing is a wonderfully creative recreation and . . .
It has also given me a tool for writing.
An editor once told me that whenever someone in your story was forced to make a decision, the writer should ask the internal question "What would I do if I were in that situation?" If you can answer that question, the plot situation is resolved believably. I considered this good advice at the time, and it is -- except that the question's slightly misworded. What you should ask yourself is:
"If I were my character, with all the strengths, weaknesses, and habits of that character, what would I do?" And that, very simply, is role-playing. What you or I would do in a given situation isn't particularly important unless our characters are reflections of ourselves. Mine often aren't. The tool for writing that you borrow from gaming is the ability to shift into character. When you block on a story, when you have that nagging feeling that something just doesn't ring true, role-play. Put your fictional situation in your mind like a stage setting. Let yourself be the character. Walk out on the stage and into your own plot. Act out the part of someone timid and afraid, someone polite but insistent, or someone rude and irritating -- whatever your character's like. Ask yourself that crucial question, and then examine your options.
You may well find that you're blocked because of what you've forced your character to do. That nagging sense of unease is a whisper in your ear: "No. I don't want to do that." You may find that the plot you slaved over won't work. Even if you followed it through, it won't sell because that crucial element -- believability -- will be gone. If that's the case, you must make the changes, no matter how hard you worked on the outline.
A story depends on its characters. That's true no matter what type of fiction you write: mainstream, romance, mystery, science fiction. So role-play. Get inside your characters' skins and listen to their thoughts. When a crucial decision must be made, you'll have the answer to the question: "But would he really do that?"
Do this not only for your protagonist, but for the rest of the cast. We've all seen the clichè situation where the villian sits and gloats over the poor helpless hero, just incidentally spilling hidden details of the plot and giving the hero and/or the 'cavalry' time to save the day. Tell me, does that make sense? No -- what any halfway intelligent villian's going to do is plug the hero while he's helpless. Quickly. He isn't going to talk the guy to death. Yes, we've all seen situations like this in stories and film, but why copy mediocrity? Why send your story out with one strike against it? By role-playing all your important characters, they'll move realistically and act sanely; you'll have an advantage over your competition.
Now, what about poor Greg in Scene Two? Greg wasn't a brave man. He was middle-aged and portly, someone who'd never had a physical confrontation in his life. It was simply too abrupt a change for Greg to suddenly get up and be a hero. He wanted to wait and cower back in the dark for awhile. I had to rearrange the plot a bit so that this wasn't a fatal mistake on his part, but that was easy enough. I realized that the epiphany on Greg's part was not to be a hero, but to simply take the first step toward conquering his fears. That was accomplishment enough for him in this story.
I sent the revised story back to Janet. "I'm particularly happy with this story," she replied in her acceptance letter, "because of the work you did and the distance it came."
Frankly, the only work I'd done was to finally listen to Greg and Ellen and follow their logical reactions.
All of us have people inhabiting our heads: giggling, laughing, shouting, raging. Get to know them. You'll find that they know better than the you what they need to do in the story. When you block and when you stall, throw away the iron corset of your plot outline. Instead, role-play. Listen to your characters. You'll have far fewer failures.
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