photo by Michel Omar Berrospé
by Vanessa Gebbie
If you are anything like me, the act of writing a first draft includes periods when the work is ‘sticky’ and there is a feeling that the words are having to be forced to come out, a feeling that I am controlling the action. But thankfully, there are also times when the words flow and the characters romp ahead of my typing fingers, and I am blissfully in an out of ‘control’ mode.
Over the years, I have discovered that there are things you can do to liberate your characters from too much control. Below is a writing exercise that works for me, and for many of my students. But first, let me tell you exactly where the exercise came from:
I was trying to write a particular scene in which a father comes home from work having heard that his son has been killed in an accident. His little daughter is waiting for him — we see the scene through her eyes. In my first draft, the father does all those things we expect of someone who is grief-stricken. He opens the door slowly. He puts his bag down, sits at the table and puts his head in his hands. He weeps. His shoulders heave a bit — you know, how grief-stricken shoulders ought to heave…his fist pounds on the table like grief-stricken fists do… oh, then the daughter goes to him and puts her hand on his arm…
I was moving those characters round the kitchen like puppets. It felt ‘sticky’ — and I hate that. So I just highlighted the whole scene and hit delete. I tried again. And hit delete a couple more times.
But then — at wits’ end, I asked myself what would I have done in that situation when I was very young? Would I have done the same as that child on the page? No. I wouldn’t have. And I certainly would NOT have put my hand on my father’s arm. I would not have engaged at all — it would have been too hard to watch a parent in distress. In my story, both the girl and her father were only doing the stuff I was ‘making’ them do…
I wrote the scene yet again, starting with the child, and I waited for her to do exactly what she wanted. Without any conscious planning from me, she went and hid. She heard her father coming and she hid in the kitchen pantry where she could watch him through a split in the door. She watched him come into the room, and he just stood there, looking around as though he was lost. As if he didn’t recognise where he was. The girl watched as he let the bag he was carrying fall to the floor. And then, as SHE watched, not me — he sat at the table, picked up the plate from where his son’s place was set ready for supper, covered his face with it, and howled.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I reckon that’s a more emotionally true sequence of events — I was allowing the little girl and her father to be themselves. They were no longer ‘my’ characters.
So — here’s the exercise:
Take a scene you have already written, but which you are not quite at ease with — for the same reasons described above. Hide a child where they can see what’s happening, and rewrite the scene, as the child watches.
Sure, you may have to try this a couple of times — but chances are that the scene you end up with will hold more emotional truth for your characters than that first draft did.
Use the ‘hidden child’ exercise when writing a first draft and see what happens. If you don’t want the child there, you can always take her out later.