5.19.2016

The Subversive Greek Chorus

If an author is writing fully from inside a lead character’s head, a scene is charged with that person’s thoughts and desires. The objective of the scene, whether he causes it to happen or it happens to him, is pursued with vigor. As for the others around him? They coalesce around the character’s forward thrust, whether in alliance or opposition.

As a general principle, such uniformity is fine. You don’t want to dawdle in scenes. That would waste the reader’s time. Yet you’re also missing the richness that comes when a scene has multiple strands. You’re forgetting, in your desire to merge with a single character, to take the time to consider what the other players might want out of the same scene.

In real life we work at cross purposes with others all the time. You can’t wait to tell your wife about the weirdo mower repair man, but when she walks in the door, she’s fuming about a cell phone talker on the train. When you put that sort of obstacle in a fictional scene, the reader accepts it. Life does not always run on a straight track.

You don’t want to stop up a scene too severely. If you take the time, though, to consider what a secondary character’s agenda is, you can create cross currents that add fidelity to life. Let’s say Melissa is a detective, and the scenes at home are designed to show that she doesn’t spend enough time with her son. So you stop to think: what does the son do? He wants his mother’s attention. He needs issues to grab her attention.

So during the same scene Melissa gets a phone call that contains a key clue, her son could be concerned about Denise, their plump, ailing cat. He’s not going to let his mother run out the door to save the world. He’s going to keep hounding her about the cat. Now what do you do? Is Melissa so cold she ignores the cat? Worse, she ignores how upset her son is? What kind of mother is she?

All the while, the reader doesn’t really care about the kid or his cat. Neither of them has shown up much in the book. She wants to know what Melissa will do with her hot new clue. But by creating opposition, guess what happens? You can make the clue as unbelievable as you like, because we believe that a son might be upset about his mother’s neglect.

Exercise: Review your scenes with an eye out for what the supporting characters are doing. Can you insert a private agenda that adds depth to the scene? If so, take the time to think through the agenda’s past history. What moment in that building stream have you chosen for that scene? If the lead character acts as though this is an ongoing battle, the reader will accept it as gospel truth.

“Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks.”
—Sid Vicious

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine



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