April 16, 2012

Writing the Tough Scenes

As authors we should all have those moments where we tell our characters "this is going to hurt me more than its going to hurt you." I remember hearing from someone that when J.K. Rowling walked into her kitchen weeping and she was asked what was wrong, her answer through the tears was "I just killed Dumbledore."

I get it. I really do. Honestly I have to wonder about an author who doesn't experience some level of pain and sympathy when turning the fire up on their characters. There were moments in both my manuscripts that are still hard for me to read because of how deeply they affected me personally when I wrote them. The tough scenes in the second weren't quite as hard on me, and I believe its because I learned some things enduring them in the first that helped.
  1. Prepare mentally for as long as you can prior to writing the scene.
  2. If at all possible, pen the entire first draft in one sitting.
  3. Recognize the strong emotional reaction in you will be shared by the reader.
Plotters have a slight advantage over pantsers when it comes to preparing ahead of time for writing a difficult scene. I mean difficult for your characters, in that someone is about to lose their mother, be forced to shoot a child or let a bomb destroy an entire village, or be diagnosed with stage-four cancer.There was a particularly emotional scene in the manuscript I just finished last month where my hero would endure a brutal beating and the heroine would be wounded by it as much as he would. I saw this scene many, many times in my head, while waiting for the toast to brown, brushing my teeth, and at red-lights. Of course, while lying awake trying to fall a sleep should already be a given. When I reached that place in the manuscript, I still had strong reactions to the actual writing that were a physical and mental burden, but recovered much faster than with my previous manuscript. I believe part of the reason was because I'd lived in those scenes so long already.

Another thing that helped was to get through the scene in one-sitting. The angst, anxiety, depression, all the emotion your channeling for your characters in that moment will make you want to take a break. If you can fight through it, like your character will have to in the scene and keep going in spite of the fact their world is ending or has just ended, do it. This seems counter intuitive after number one, but I found it helped for the same reason not many people cut half their yard, stop and have lunch and watch a little television before cutting the second half. Plow through if you can.

The last is my favorite. If your hurting because your about to break your hero's heart, so will your reader. The power of the reader experience for me as an author is my most sought-after prize. I want the strongest one possible. If I were to write a scene where a man knocks out a hysterical woman for her own safety, I could do that with relative ease. I just need to create names, select a setting and lay the dialogue and action to create the scene. For a reader, that would be like opening up a cover-less book to the same scene and reading it out of context.
However, when I had to write this scene for my hero and heroine in Unseen Love, it was difficult. Let me be clear in that is wasn't difficult to craft. I knew the goal, conflict and motivation of each of them and the basic frame of the action and dialogue but the experience of writing that scene was difficult for me as an author. And in a sick, twisted way, that makes me happy. Because Laelia and Drusus matter to me. Their fears and hopes and disappointments leading up to that moment go with me into the scene. Laelia is endangering her life by refusing to go to safety without Drusus, and the only options my hero sees are to knock her out and let the others carry her to safety or let her keep fighting him, refusing to leave without him while a deadly fire is fast approaching. For an entire novel, my hero has done nothing but keep her safe from harm, especially her physically abusive father.
So for Drusus to be the one to have to hit her wrecks him pretty hard. And doing that to both of them really took a lot out of me as an author. Lena Nelson Dooley said in a workshop I attended last year, "Find the one thing your character would never do, and make them do it." Believe me, it works. The emotion running through me as I typed this was so powerful, I can still recall it easily.

            Laelia yanked free. “No. No! You are not leaving me.” She grabbed for Drusus again, so fast she pitched into his chest. If she could only find his neck, wrap her arms around them and refuse to let go until he—
            “God forgive me.”
            Pain exploded along her skull and everything went silent.
            Drusus caught her with his good arm as she slid down the front of his body. Pain seared his right arm where he'd struck her with the heavy metal brace, but nothing like the agony in his chest. His knees threatened to give way, from her weight and the shame of what he'd just done. “Take her.”
            Alexander gathered Laelia into his arms like a sleeping child. Her head lolled back and her arms lay askew as her limp body sagged against Alexander's chest.
            Otho put a palm to Drusus's shoulder, forcing him to meet his gaze. "She'll forgive you."
            Ignoring both men, he leaned down to kiss her forehead, knowing they were wasting time they did not have. God, protect them. "Take her, now. Go."
            Alexander moved swiftly and in seconds disappeared into the river of people fleeing the city. Otho followed but turned back at the doorway. "She'll forgive you."
            Drusus clutched the arm he'd used as a weapon against his chest. "I won't."

So how about it blog readers? How do you write the tough scenes? Care to share one of them? =)

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