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“Collaboration is not the first thing in mind for the average writer. Should it be? The process isn’t one of working together on a single story (although it may be). It is more about working together toward a common goal. Having many people contribute diverse types of material, all keeping readers interested. There are distinct types of stories — from writing advice to memoirs, poetry to blogging. All add value to the online world.”
Editor’s Note: The Big Announcement
The months of October through November have been a whirlwind of activity and excitement here at Two Drops of Ink.
In mid-September, we did a poll asking our audience to express their opinions about the blog’s content, their thoughts about future content, favorite posts, and what they’d like to see moving forward. The overwhelming response was that we should hold a fiction writing contest using visual prompts inspiring writers to embrace the challenge and submit stories.
During the course of the Fiction Writing Challenge, which took the better part of October and November to complete, we were approached by Penguin Random House about a possible collaboration project with one of their websites, called Signature.
They have recently published a downloadable writer’s guide titled: The 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide—”featuring essays from twenty-two seasoned authors to help writers of all stripes on their own, personal writing journeys,” (Signature’s Julianne Jones: Consumer Events, Apps, and Partnerships Assistant – Consumer Marketing Development, Penguin Random House)
The result of our exchanges was to publish one of the guide’s essays: Alice Mattison’s advice “On Writing Climatic Moments” which we are thrilled to present to you in this post. For those tenacious, hungry writers that long for more, feel free to download the entire guide by following this link: Ultimate Writing Guide
Two People and a Thing: On Writing Climactic Moments
You’re ready to write the big emotional scene at the end of your book. You’re writing memoir or fiction, and it’s about, maybe, family life, love (or love gone bad), work. You’ve arrived at the pages in which the lovers will decide to stay together or break up, the narrator will tell her mother at last that she’s lost her faith, the worker will confront the unjust boss—whatever matters most. A big scene, that is, but one that’s primarily talk: an argument, the revelation of a secret, a confession. In many books the big scene near the end involves violence, destruction, capture, escape: dramatic action. But in others, talk does the job, and maybe yours is one of those. You write the scene, and the characters look at each other and speak—but the more you reread it the sillier it gets. Now what?
When I was learning to write, I didn’t know how to make that scene happen at all. My stories often ended with a woman alone in a room arguing with herself, then realizing or deciding something, and it took me years to understand that to make a reader feel the intensity of my character’s experience, I needed more of the visible, tangible world. I needed another person—a lover, a parent, a boss, a friend—who would argue, scorn, or forbid. The resolution would emerge out of conflict, a conflict using words, not guns, but a conflict nonetheless.
So I put two people into the big scene, not just one. But then what? Two unhappy people looked at each other. They recited arguments, or blurted out painful truths. Maybe they cried. But the scenes felt artificial, as if they came from the kind of instructive film in which a teenager says, “What’s wrong with drinking and driving, Dad?” and the father says, “Billy, let me tell you about a mistake I made when I was your age.”
Two people at the climactic moment instead of one was important, but not quite enough. What worked, I discovered, was two people and a thing: a gesture, an object, or an action—not an action that would be the main event, but an action that could precipitate the main event: the intense, definitive talk.
“Two people at the climactic moment instead of one was important, but not quite enough.” TWEET THIS QUOTE
Watching strangers in a public place, you can tell how they feel by their gestures—what their hands do as they speak, how they turn their bodies or step back. The way they hold themselves shows whether they know each other well or have just met, whether they’re getting along. Let your characters’ bodies show the reader how the characters feel. Let them gesture, handle objects, and move in a way that’s revelatory, and I don’t mean making them shudder or feel their hearts pound. You don’t need to prove that an upsetting remark is upsetting. If one character says, “I don’t love you,” the reader knows how the other character feels—you don’t need to make that character get a stomach ache. But what does the rejected person do? What does he reach for or handle? Does he sink back in a chair or jump up?
Bodies reveal more than words do. A character says she wants something—but what she does next may suggest that she has mixed feelings. Let tangible objects into your big scene—furniture, kitchen utensils, tools, articles of clothing. Choose things that aren’t already dripping with meaning—not a photograph of the place where the lovers met, not grandmother’s wedding ring, not the trophy the team won before they cheated. Something that starts out neutral.
Or, instead of making two people do nothing but talk, let the confrontation come slantwise, while they do something else, something that lets intense feelings emerge. Relatives cooking a dinner may find themselves facing their religious or political differences; a boss and employee, in the stress of a crisis—a deadline, a mistake, someone’s racism or dishonesty—may voice hard feelings that haven’t come out before. Lovers who are out in public may have to deal with a rejected credit card, an angry stranger, a crime. Maybe one of them makes a mistake while driving and gets a ticket. Any of these events may release feelings that have been waiting to break out. Hasn’t a minor mishap in your own life ever led to someone blurting out an important secret, or expressing feelings that hadn’t been acknowledged before?
So—when it’s time to write the big scene, bring two people together, and then look around to see what else is there, or what might happen peripherally. Finally, wait. This is a hard moment; the people in your book need to gather their courage, and so do you. Then let the frightening, life-changing, inevitable confrontation happen.
Want more on writing? Download Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide.
Alice Mattison is a widely acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. She has published six novels—including The Book Borrower, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and When We Argued All Night, a New York Times Book ReviewEditors’ Choice. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Yale University, and, for the last twenty-one years, in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the MFA program at Bennington College.
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