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Writing Double, Or Why You Should Try to Kill Two or More Birds With One Scene

So one of the things I’ve stressed a few times to my Creative Writing class — and I’m impressed, it only took a few times, now they’re calling on one another to try do it more — is killing several birds with one stone. If you’re writing a scene, you should always have more than one thing going on… something explicit, and something implicit. There’s the surface and then there’s the subtext. That’s the minimum.

There’s a scene in the 2007 Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters1 where this is played out beautifully. One of the main characters, having just discovered that he’s made the college debate team, rushes home to tell his father. His mom tells him to be quiet, as his father is writing a lecture, and the boy rushes to his father’s study anyway. When we see the father, he’s standing pensively, looking in some sort of book, and he turns to his son and says not, “Hello, son,” or “What’s going on, why do you look about ready to burst with pride?” but instead, “Junior, what is the greatest weakness of man?”

The son replies that it is, “Not believing? Doubt?” When the father happily seizes on a scriptural line that links to this theme of doubt, wandering off to write the lecture, his son says, “Dad?” There’s a sense of the son pleading for his father’s interest and approval.

The father realizes this, and asks what it is his son wants to tell him, he son tells him about the team, and the father first asks who is ahead of him (since he’s an alternate), followed by an expression of concern regarding the female debater on the team. In previous scenes, we’ve seen that the son has an obvious crush on her, but he tells his father that he hasn’t really noticed whether she is pretty or not. As he tells his son not to “take your eye of the ball” — the boy’s mother is in the other room, peeling potatoes, and pauses to listen carefully. Then the father asks the son, “What do we do here?” The son replies with a formulaic phrase that the father uses in lectures, “We do what we have to do, so we can do what we want to be.”

Now, some unsubtle viewers will fail to see the deeper undercurrents of the scene. For example, the father asking the son what humanity’s greatest weakness is may or may not be ironic, but certainly the father’s self-absorption in the face of a son ecstatic with good news he things will get his father’s approval suggests that perhaps it is not doubt but rather selfishness that is humanity’s greatest weakness. And even so, his father — eagerly about to write a (sermon-like) “lecture” on doubt as humanity’s greatest weakness — seems to consider the greatest danger his son is facing something much less sanitized than doubt, namely the temptations and distractions of lust and love, when they serve to distract a young man (or and older man?) from what he “must do.”

The quick jump-cut to the mother, in the next room, listening carefully and considering the father’s words (and there’s a hint of disapproval near the end of our glimpse of her) suggests another, deeper undercurrent of problems. The father is a little too worried about his son’s blossoming sexuality (the boy is about 14): is he perhaps he is also something of a prude? Or is there something further back in their own story that is being subtly hinted at here? Perhaps the father was distracted from his PhD studies by the mother, and that’s how they ended up in Texas? Or perhaps she thinks he is too tough on the kid for having a crush — we certainly see him being tough on his son later on. We can’t know what is going on, but we absolutely do know, without a shadow of a doubt, that something is up here, and that it likely will be paid off eventually in the story.

It’s not clear at that point in the film whether the boy will have these kinds of problems, though we have seen another male character (who seems to be the boy’s competition with the female debate team member) get into trouble that could have cost his life, because of what could have become a sexual indiscretion, if it had not been interrupted. There’s an echo there of lust, and that scene itself was shown alternating in jumps with a a scene of the father “lecturing” somewhere else in town.

Effective writing, as I’ve told my Creative Writing students, often means creating a kind of webwork of connections between as many elements as possible within a story. I’ve mentioned this before, how it is something I probably first encountered in an explicit sense when Nalo Hopkinson showed us (at Clarion West back in 2006) a neat technique one can use to thicken the broth of connections in a text. If I remember right, she wrote a list of characters, and a list of scenes (or themes? it’s fuzzy in my memory), and then worked out how each character (or theme) connected to each scene. If two characters meet by chance, its one thing, but what if they were connected through something else, like a college they’re both attending, or a workplace at which they both applied but were turned down?

There probably is a potential for overkill, if things are so hyperconnected that a text becomes overrun with the linkages. The line is hard to draw, though. A blogger who links only to posts on his or her own website can grow tiresome, but if you only read the site once a year, it can be interesting. Stories are concentrated, distilled crucibles of connectivity, and for that reason, they’re stylized representations of human lives, just as characters are stylized representations of human beings. Like with written dialog, we appreciate written characters because they somehow feel “real” to us — but they feel that way precisely because of how unreal, how particularly stylized they are. Just so, stories can and should have a greater set of cohesive connections than a normal person’s life likely would have.

There’s a greater sense of order in stories than there really is in life. Of course, most people don’t want to perceive that randomness. It makes them nervous. It makes us all nervous, on some level. When we fall in love, we feel as if we were meant to be together. When we fall out of love, we rationalize it as just a feeling, because we need to repudiate the sense of order. But if we look at our lives, really look at them — or look at the lives of other people we know — it hardly looks as if it were something guided, something laid out for the person. The people we admire most in real life build their life stories by decisions, or seem to be driven to make bad and self-destructive choices by their weaknesses, their laziness, or their attraction to the specific weaknesses of others — but usually the world does not seem to be laying out the red carpet for them, throwing people at them who are connected to them implicitly in some way. Usually, there’s a fair degree of stochastic variation in the unfolding of a real human life, but in a story, this is something we seem to perceive as a sort of disorganization.

This is an interesting paradox, isn’t it? We generally want and need and expect characters to make decisions, to face the implications of those decisions, and to change and grow because of this process. Yet we also seem on some level to see them experience this in a controlled environment. Sure, in one author’s stories, it’s a Manichean environment, while in another’s it’s basically a benevolent World Order. But very rarely, even in supposedly rationalist hard-SF, do we see worlds where the narrative representation of the world actually has anything like the degree of randomness we seem to see in the lives of other people in our real world.

And the more birds we can kill with the fewer stones, somehow the richer writing is — not just in poetry, but in fiction too.

1. I’m thinking of showing The Great Debaters in my Understanding English and American Popular Culture, since we’re discussing the Harlem Renaissance now and since the students will be zombied out after exams next week. There are references to the Harlem Renaissance and to Langston Hughes, whose poetry we discussed for a couple of hours in class. And there’s a sense of how poetry and art can link meaningfully to people’s intellectual and emotional lives, to the struggle that so much of African-American art of the era so deeply and ceaselessly embodies.

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