Digging into relationships
If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.
Goals = actions
Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.
To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.
- I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
- I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
- I want my cheerleader (role) to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
- I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).
This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.
The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.
Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:
Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.
Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.
Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.
Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.
Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.
Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)
Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.
Watch for negative goals
Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:
- To get away from…
- Want nothing do with…
- To want the other person to crawl up and die…
Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?
They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).
There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.
One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:
The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" is not about three sisters who didn't make it to Moscow; it's about three sisters who fight like hell to get there.
Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.