4.16.2019

Left Hand, Right Hand

An author has a desire to finish a book. This compulsion—to produce a story that others will want to read—underlies each step of the way. One morning a new scene is started and, depending on how fast the author writes, the goal is set: finish this scene tomorrow, or by the end of the week. That’s done. Let’s move on to the next. And so on and thenceforth.

While progress is made, the task of telling the story in a memorable way is left for later. Once the first draft is done, I’ll go back and edit. Otherwise, I’ll never finish this thing.

That begs the question: what makes storytelling memorable? The narrator’s voice. Are you really going to leave the immense task of retelling the entire story to the end of a draft? More to the point, do you really think you will alter that much of what you’ve already written to fit that new conception?

You might be better off trying a technique similar to that you, or your child, used while learning to play the piano. It is called “hands apart.” For the next week until your next lesson, you play the notes assigned to the right hand all the way through a piece. You practice only that hand. Then you play the notes for the left hand. Only after you have learned the separate lines do you try to combine hands and play the piece as written.

Every scene can be considered a song. The plot moves from Point A to Point B. Your right hand carries the melody, or the plot line. Your left hand carries the point-of-view character, or what underpins the tune. If you write out a first draft of a scene, you’re mainly focused on plot—getting out of your head what happens that moves the book closer to its finish. The characters are like stage actors performing their duties. That is what you will find feels flat when you read it over later.

Rather than wait till the end of a draft, you can write a second draft of the scene right after the first. Your left hand, in this analogy. You pick out your point of view. You go through the scene with a single question in mind: how does the character perceive what’s happening? You add in notes that reframe each one of those points. Then you rewrite the scene, adding in all of the opinions or wry asides or manic thoughts you know that character possesses. Voila, the two hands come together, and now you have a distinctive scene.

Even better, when you start using that practice, you will find, as the draft goes on, that you are writing scenes more from that point of view from the very start. When you write that second draft, you have less to do. And by the time you reach the climax sequence, it will be heavily charged—first time around.

“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.”
—Robert Schumann

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


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