The questions used in the last exercise are based on material from a book for actors, titled Audition, by Michael Shurtleff.  It’s also an excellent source for writers on how to develop characters.  Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to lose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do much more.               

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel this with the intensity that you do, don’t rush through the details.  What is the temperature?  How does the light shine in through the window?  When she makes that remark, does her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships? The scene, the characters are a means to express your (and my) fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.” And how can you do this?               

In everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond the ordinary.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for and tell what the consequences will be for them if they fail. Your job is to explore the opposites that exist within each character. When you write you have many creative choices in what to include and what to exclude. Make choices that intensify real life drama. Look for romance, the inexplicable, people’s secret fears and dreams. Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, we’re always being surprised by their doing something we didn’t expect.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino (at least in their early work) interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”              

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.               

Character Development Exercise (Part B):

Pick three of the scenes you identified on the right-hand side of your list and use each as the basis for a scene that will last a page or two.  If the same scene illuminates two of your answers, that’s fine.  It means you have a rich scene.  Likewise don’t be surprised if some of the elements from answers you have not chosen to work with find their way into your scenes. But make sure when you are done that each of the three scenes communicates through reactions of the characters rather than telling the audience the primary point.  If you do your job well, a reader finishing the scenes should be able to identify which of the questions each is dramatizing and conclude from the material what your answer on the left side of the page would have been to the question. These are little mini-portraits or scenes from a life. They may or may not be seem connected.  However, remember mere reality is never enough.  Neither is truth.  It must be heightened reality, selective truth, made dramatic by the choices of the writer.                 

OK stop reading and start to write.

HE SAID, SHE SAID               

A question you may have had in doing this last exercise is: Should I write in first person, using myself as narrator; or should I use one of the variations of third person (“He said this.  She did that”)?  Here are examples done in class of parts of the last exercise.  Example 8 is in first person; Example 9 is in third person.  Look at them and compare the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Example 8

Scene 1 

I’m sitting at the kitchen table. I just got home from work. I’m eating tuna salad and some yogurt. Leigh comes in without Rich. They’ve been on a date. She has her hand behind her and a smile on her face.

I say, “Hi.  What’s up?”


She holds out her hand.  She has a tiny diamond engagement ring on her finger.


“Leigh Ann!  No!  You’re not even 18 yet.  I won’t let you do this.

She says,”Mom, I’m going to stay engaged to Rich.  I love you so much and I always try to do what you want.  But, if I don’t stand up to you now, I may never be able to.”

 I‘m shocked to silence. 

 Scene 2

The phone rings.  It’s late on a weekday night.  I pick it up and it’s Leigh speaking in a very low voice.  We usually talk on Sunday evenings, around 9:00, after the kids are in bed.  I call her so the call is on my bill, not hers.  This has been our habit the whole four years I’ve been in St. Louis.  So I know something is up.   

Her voice is low.  “Mom, I’m calling from the basement so Rich can’t hear me.  I want to fill you in because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  I told him last night either he has to get into a treatment program or I’m getting a divorce.  He refuses to get treatment and he got so mad and yelled so loud I got really scared.  He yelled so loud he woke Kyle up and Kyle was crying.  Mom, it’s getting worse.  He’s taking money out of my purse.  He even robbed Kyle’s piggy bank.”

I murmur some sympathetic thing. 

She says, “I just wanted to warn you so you’ll know what to expect.  Mom, when we came down at Thanksgiving he was drunk. He almost killed us.  I think he fell asleep at the wheel.  I said, ‘Rich! Stop! There’s a car ahead at the stop sign!’  He braked so hard, we almost crashed.  The kids were screaming because I was crying.  It was awful.”

Scene 3    

Leigh is moving to Jack’s house.  She’s having a garage sale.  She and Matt (her dad) are big on garage sales.  I hate them, but I’ve agreed to help.  The boys are with Rich.  Jack, his dad and two other guys are loading all Leigh’s stuff in a rental truck.  Matt is there, too.  It’s drizzling.  We run back and forth between the house and garage.  Matt has brought cheese Danish (his favorite sweet rolls, I remember).  He’s also made his homemade chili for lunch.  When we split up, he asked me for some recipes of his favorite foods that I used to cook.  One of them was chili.  He has improvised on my recipe until his no longer resembles mine.  For example he uses small black beans instead of kidney beans. It even tastes spicy.

So there we sit in the garage on old chairs and a sofa, all of us who love Leigh, all of us building our whole Saturday around Leigh: me (her mom). Matt (her dad) Jack (her new husband); and now, I can tell even Jack’s dad loves her.  And there she sits in her sweatshirt and jeans, surrounded with love and broken and mended families…eating Matt’s chili and my chocolate chip cookies.                                                                               ―Jane Matthews               

The first scene answers the question, “Who is the love in this person’s life?”  The last gives us a characteristic place or location.  The middle scene center’s on Leigh’s revelation that she has married the wrong man.  The beginning of Example 8shows the disadvantages of first person point of view. It’s harder for me as a reader to get involved because I’m not sure whether I want to assume the personality and values of the narrator.  With autobiography it is a little different.  We are already drawn to the subject, predisposed to seeing things from his or her viewpoint.  Here I’m not sure I want to commit, yet I’m not given the option of observing first.  Secondly, as a reader I don’t have the physical details that place me in the scene.  Certainly they could be added, but why would someone sitting in her kitchen, as she does day after day, suddenly be conscious of descriptive detail.  The narrator would be straining to accommodate the reader.  Finally, it’s more difficult to show physical reaction.  The last line, “I’m shocked to silence.” is telling the reader she felt shock, rather than showing the reader reactions that communicate shock.  The choice of first person point of view brings with it a whole set of challenges.           

On the other hand, advantages start to appear with the second scene.  We feel the tragedy of Leigh’s marriage heightened because we see it through the eyes of her mother who knew this was a mistake, yet is too caring to say, “I told you so.”  I feel for both of them, and experience that anguish of having a child in trouble I am helpless to save. If this were third person, perhaps I would feel less directly involved. But, notice what makes this work is that the emphasis is on Leigh.  We hear her voice, feel her panic, worry about what will happen to her in her next confrontation with Rich.                 

Even though all three scenes are first person, there seems to be a progression–from narrator in the first scene, to Leigh in the second, to an almost third person perspective with many characters in the third.  Now we get location, description, and some authenticating detail missing up until now (e.g. black beans for kidney beans).  We’re sitting with them on an old sofa, watching the drizzle through the open garage door, smelling the chili.  The problem with first person is that the writer often takes for granted detail of both place and character that the reader needs.  The third person point of view tends to keep the writer honest.  When first person works, the writer has made a well-rounded character out of the narrator (Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield) and has figured out a way to present a setting with the same kind of detail as if the writer were using third person (as in Bright Lights, Big City).               

Here are two scenes in third person by a different writer doing the same exercise.

Example 9

Scene 1 

It was Tuesday evening, eight o’clock, Rob and Jean were finally alone.  Jean’s tiny second floor walk-up was warm and inviting.

“Where’s Marilyn tonight?” she asked him.

Rob was quiet.  No answer.  In fact, Marilyn was home with the kids, believing he was at the Bull’s game with Rick.  At this time of night, Rob would usually be reading them a bedtime story.  He missed that.  He loved seeing them at the end of the day, and first thing in the morning.  But being with Marilyn…that was a whole new deal these days.

Finally he replied, “Home.”  The message was clear.  He didn’t want to discuss it.  No way. Not tonight.  Not with Jean.  Or with Marilyn, either, for that matter.  Tonight, no arguments, no endless discussions about “this affair he appeared to be having”–no talk about “the next time.”  Things were tough all over, and Rob was hoping that for at least a few hours, he could enjoy a respite from the pressures coming from too many directions.  Maybe the Bull’s game with Rick would have been the right choice.  Too bad Rick had given the extra ticket to Julie.  He could hear Jean in the kitchen fixing drinks.  Scotch for him, straight up; gin and tonic for her.  God, she looked great tonight.  Long legs, short skirt, one of his old flannel shirts and no make-up.  She was always just Jean.  That much he could count on.

 Scene 2

 It wasn’t quite five o’clock on a Friday evening when Don walked into Rob’s office.  He sat down in the comfortable armchair facing the large, imposing work desk that Rob had recently acquired for his new corner office.  The lights of the city played outside the windows that reflected the two men: one still hard at work; the other, hands folded, thoughtfully observing his friend.  Though Rob was rushing to complete his project so it could be FedEx’ed by five, a thought flashed through his mind about where they planned to meet later on.

 “Drake or the Knickerbocker?” Rob asked.    

“The shortest walk from here to there wins my business,” Don answered.  “And I’m planning on doing a lot of business over the next few hours.  It could mean quite a piece of change for the bartender.  I’ll meet you in the C’og D’or in the Drake at six.”  Don was looking straight down at his shoes.

“Sounds good.  I’ll be there.  Don’t get too far ahead of me if I’m running late.  You sound like a man with a beer in each hand already.” Rob spoke quickly.  Much as his friend seemed to want to stay put in the easy chair, Rob was on deadline, and every minute mattered

“It’s over, Rob.”  Don spoke quietly, deliberating on each word.  Then, even slower, “Phil just fired me.  I’m out.The air was thick and still.  Rob looked into his buddy’s eyes, where despair was all he could see.  He dropped the papers he had been frantically organizing and asked a one word question.


“I’m gone, Rob.  You ask Phil about that.  He gave me his reasons, but I didn’t get any answers.  Maybe you will.  And maybe after that you’ll get another promotion.”

 Don was bitter.  Before Rob could say a word–of support, of surprise, of anger–his friend abruptly got up.

 “See you at six.  The Drake.  I’m going over there now.”

 Don was gone.  Outside the lights looked menacing.  And in the reflection the office appeared hard, hard and cold.                                                                                                ―Kelan Putnam                                                                             



Non-fiction also uses people’s reactions. Years ago The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal would have scoffed at a feature article containing anything besides verifiable fact (presented in an inverted pyramid style).  Along came USA Today with a new approach–telling the news as if it were a story using people’s reactions and quotes–presenting them in a way that stimulates reader curiosity.  Today if you pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal you’ll see this kind of human-interest piece on the front page.  The reason newspapers and television have shifted to this “magazine” style, is that it is what modern audiences want.  They want more than documented fact; they want a model showing how to feel about those facts.  It’s one of the reasons attorneys, John Grisham and Scott Turow, have sold so well.  They not only present points of law, but also emotional ramifications for humans caught in the throws of the legal structure.    

Look at some of the shapers of our Western heritage: Plato, Christ, Newton, Freud, Darwin, Einstein.  Their purpose was more than to have people understand their ideas.  They wanted to change the way people acted.  To do this they used stories.   They gave us scenes to visualize and people to identify with who were discovering something about the universe outside themselves and the universe within themselves.               

I did a business plan for a corporation that owns five banks. The CEO came to me rather than to a “numbers” person, because he had a certain vision for the future he wanted me to make tangible to his staff. Who are the characters? The customers, staff, potential customers, competitors. What are the scenes?  Banking in the past, banking in the present time, and banking in the future. I placed the different “characters” together in the three “scenes” to get their reactions. The conclusion: target the things that create desirable reactions, avoid those that result in undesirable reactions. The corporation didn’t end up with anything as profound as Plato or Freud, but it had a plan with more value than one that would gather dust on a shelf–the CEO had a model through which his people could experience the benefits of change, instead of being threatened by it.                       

With this type of writing we create a miniature world and assemble a cast of players to people it.  They act out the story, rather than the author carrying on a one-person monologue.  And the reactions of the characters give us, in the audience, a means of experiencing a range of emotions that is greater than those we feel in everyday life.  But as writers, if we are going to do this, we need to discover aspects of those characters’ personalities that are different from our own.  Otherwise we are like a bad ventriloquist.  No matter which dummy’s mouth is moving, the same voice is coming out from all of them. 

This second exercise works to find some of the unique aspects of a character’s personality.     

1. On a half piece of paper list 5 people you know or have met who intrigue you. These can include relatives,business acquaintances, neighbors, someone you went to school with, someone you dated or wanted to be more involved with, a person you have envied or even a person you don’t like. Your choices don’t have to be people you admire; just ones with whom you’re intrigued. Don’t use celebrities. If you are having trouble getting five names perhaps your standards are too high. This is only an exercise. After you have done this go on to the next step. 

2. Now, take this list and rank the names from 1 to 5 (number 1 you find most intriguing, number 5 the least).       

3. On a full sheet of paper at the top of the page write the name (or fictionalized name) of the 3rd person on your list.  Tear up the other list.     

4.  Draw a line down the center of the page (vertically).  I’m going to give you ten questions. Think about the answers to each and write them in an abbreviated form on the left side of the line. Skip five or six lines between each. Your answers should fit the person you’ve chosen as a subject. You are like an actor trying to get inside a role you are playing. Put down whatever comes into your head. You are voicing answers that are not, in all probability, literally correct for the person on your list, but they should be consistent with your perceptions of that person…and they are correct for the fictionalized character you are now creating. You don’t have to write more than a sentence or a few phrases. The important thing is to consider the answer and then put down enough to remind you of it when you return to it later. I’ll give you some examples as we go along.     

5. Comment on each of these questions from the standpoint of the person who is your subject: A.    Who is the love in this person’s life?  Limit your answer to a single choice. In my example, the subject is married and has children, but if I think about what the answer to this question would be for him, I’d say his mother has always had a dominant place in his life.  I would write down on the left-hand side of this vertical line, “A. His mother.”  Do that for your answer.   B.     What is this person fighting for?  And what or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals?  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.  When I think of my subject I feel that more than anything he would like to be a good father, particularly to his boys–a better father than he had.  I write, “B. A good father to his sons.”  C.   What of special significance has happened to this person the year before (or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?)  My subject had to lose very much weight for medical reasons, and almost overnight looked fifteen years older–not an easy thing to come to terms with.  Write about what this would be for your subject?   D. Describe the humor in this person’s life. 

Often we alleviate the burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines).  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous. E. What opposites exist in this person?  What fascinates us about human are their inconsistencies (if there is strong love, there is bound to be strong hate too; if there’ exists a great need for someone or something, there is usually a resentment of that need as well).  New writers tend to use stereotypes.  A great writer, such as Shakespeare, maintains that inconsistency that always keeps the audience guessing, “What’s going to happen?”  The character could act one way or do the opposite.  What are the inconsistencies within your subject?  F. What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?  Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?  What is it? G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she interacts?  Think of this with regard to those people the subject cares about.  Is this someone who is sensitive or, for example, is the person like a boss who says, “I would be nothing without my employees,” then dumps a long report to be typed on his secretary’s desk at 5pm expecting her to have it done by tomorrow morning? H. What is the source of this person’s importance?  Reputation, money, power, a title?  Give the best answer for your subject. I.  With what place does the person have a close association?  The answer can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car. J. What is intriguing about this person?  How did he or she end up on your list?  When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and, at the same time, how different.      

6.    Now on the right side of the paper describe a scene and the type of reactions that would show, rather than tell somebody the answer to each question.  For example, with my subject, his mother was the love of his life.  On the left-hand side I have, “his mother;” but if I couldn’t tell you this directly how could I show that to you if you were my reader?  I can think of many different scenes that might accomplish this.  One that comes to mind is his taking his mother to the retirement home where she was going to live. Here is an opportunity for them to reminisce, to deal with the present, to look ahead to the future.  Through this scene I could communicate the answer indirectly (through the subject’s reactions to the event, to the location, to another’s feelings), so that you as a reader would conclude, “The love of his life is his mother.”  For question B, the scene I would choose is my subject’s sitting at the dining room table with his wife and youngest daughter planning a high school graduation party for his son.  Do this for each of your answers to these questions. On the right hand side think of a scene that dramatizes your phrase or sentence to the right.  One column is the “tell,” the one on the right is the “show.”  Figure out the best way to show your audience the character traits you have labeled.      

Take about twenty minutes to complete this part of the exercise now.


If we have difficulty tackling a subject “head on” in real life, what makes it possible to do this through writing?  The answer is: When I describe writing as being “reaction,” I don’t mean your direct reaction as the writer, but rather the reaction of the characters in your writing to the events that are unfolding.  We don’t subject ourselves to the conflict, but use personalities of people who are projections of different aspects of ourselves–projections we can push beyond a point we, ourselves, would go.  This is what the reader is looking for also.  In this the writer and the reader are similar.  We’re on the same journey, except one of us is driving, the other is riding.  Here is Principle #2 of the Lehman Method:    

Principle #2DRAMATIZE: A story or article comes to life through the reactions of characters, not through the judgments of the writer.  Characters rooted in scenes respond to events, people, places, and feelings–past, current or anticipated.  Demand details.

This use of characters in place of yourself may seem like writing with one hand tied behind your back.  But let me give you an example that may help explain how this works.  My daughter graduated from New York University in theater.  She also attended The Actor’s Studio awhile and studied the Stanislavsky Method.  Here is how the “Method” works.  A number of actors and would be actors are gathered together in a room–not to talk about scripts or playwrights, but to talk about the feelings and emotions of the people present in the room.  I remember one time my daughter called home and said, “I’m so sick of being reduced to tears each day.  I thought I was a happy person.  I go into these sessions and they say, ‘Why do you hate your parents?’  `Why do you have a hard time keeping a relationship going with a boyfriend?’  `How can you expect to ever be a success in life?'”  The facilitators continue this emotional badgering for almost a month.  At the end of that time they say to the group: “OK, you’ve talked with each other about emotions, relationships…what’s good, what’s bad in your life; and you have done this in a straightforward way.  From this point on you can never express those feelings again.  At least you can never express those feelings directly again.  You have to do it through the parts you play, through the characters you assume in films or in plays.”  At first this seems like a tremendous limitation: you can never be yourself.  But, is it a limitation?  Under the guise of these characters, under the license of playing these roles, as an actor or as a writer you have complete freedom, maybe for the first time, to let go and really be yourself.  You are liberated to express feelings inside of you that you might not say or even think in real life for fear of hurting others.  That’s the benefit we get from using characters, rather than writing our direct reactions.                 

Let me further illustrate this with some examples from literature that use character reaction.  An obvious one is the role played by Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  He is a perfect stand-in for Firtzgerald and for us, the audience.  Through his reactions to Daisy, Tom and Gatsby we experience the destructiveness of their lives.  A different kind of an example is a movie that’s been around many years–Citizen Kane.  Think about it for a minute.  What do you remember?  “Rosebud.”  Didn’t its significance catch you by surprise at the end?  Here we thought that Kane’s life was driven by his need for adulation and control.  In reality his life was a reaction to a childhood loss of family love as symbolized by the sled.  But do you remember what happens after the dying man whispers “Rosebud” at the start of the film.  There’s a six-minute newsreel.  It gives the highlights of the Hearst-like figure’s accomplishments. Those are the “facts.”  What the rest of the 120 minutes of the film does is get the reactions of different characters to those events—the story lies in their reactions.  There is one element the reporter can’t uncover, that is Kane’s humanity.  The newspaperman concludes Kane’s a monster; but we in the audience–in the wonderful anti-climax–discover the love he has been seeking to regain all along. That realization is so powerful, it stays with us 50 years after the movie was made.               

Another example, some three centuries earlier, is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  “Who’s there?” the play ominously begins. And, it’s almost as if the playwright said, “I’m going to develop my central character by having him react to every possible type of human relationship coming apart.  There’s Hamlet’s relationship to the state…as represented by his uncle, the king; his relationship to his mother, to his lover, Ophelia, to his friends and even his relationship to his teacher, Polonius.  Each of these crumbles before him and yet he doesn’t act, he reacts.  And he reacts, and he reacts until we can’t stand it any more.  We feel like screaming, “Hamlet, they’re dumping on you, DO SOMETHING!”  Shakespeare pushes “his character” beyond the endurance any of us in the audience would ever want to experience in our lives.  And yet, by not acting, Hamlet becomes the archetype of a tragic hero for Western civilization.                 

He finally does act, of course.  Do you recall how that comes about?  There happens to be a group of players on the grounds.  Hamlet commandeers these actors to recreate the murder of his father.  By their reactions to this play within a play, the king and queen reveal who they are and Hamlet now can bring about the bloody retribution of the ending. This mechanism has a double function.  Shakespeare is saying to us, “Let me show you how a play works through the example of a play within a play.  I’ll use some of my characters on stage as a model audience.  Just as they reveal themselves in reaction to the events of that mini-play, you in the audience of Hamlet react to these human relationships that are the play’s theme and reveal, to yourselves, who you are.”  “Who’s there?”  We are.  But who are we?  We define ourselves in terms of how we feel about authority, parents, friends, lovers, etc.  We are using Hamlet to explore the extremes of these relationships to find out about ourselves.            

My last example goes back to 5 BC, Oedipus Rex.  The interesting thing about Greek drama is that the audience knew the plots before they went to the plays.  No suspense as to what would happen. These were the stories of their history and religion. But what they experienced were the characters’ reactions to the plot (another word for fate) as they pondered how to react to their own.  The play that best epitomizes this process is Oedipus Rex.  It starts, not with a newsreel or play within a play, but with the riddle of the Sphinx.  There is a plague in the land.  It will go away only if someone correctly answers a riddle.  Whoever can answer this riddle will become the king.  Of course, to give the wrong answer means instant death.  The riddle of the Sphinx is:  “What goes on four feet, two feet and then three feet?”  Would you care to try…for the prize of a kingdom?  Oedipus does.  The answer is “man.”  Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and as an old person uses a cane–the third “foot.” Oedipus knows the answer and understands it intellectually, as does the audience.  But he hasn’t lived it.  And internalizing the meaning for oneself, is what this play (and literature) is all about.                 

Years before, an oracle had proclaimed that a new child, Oedipus, would one day kill his father.  His father, the king of Thebes, instead had a servant destroy the boy.  The servant shackled the child’s ankles and left him on the mountain to die.  A servant of the king of neighboring Corinth finds the baby.  The servant’s master raises Oedipus, until Oedipus, himself, hears the oracle.  Thinking the king of Corinth is his real father he crosses the mountain to Thebes to escape his fate…ending up right where he started, as a child.  In the process he kills his real father, solves the riddle of the Sphinx and becomes king.  As the play unfolds, the truth about the hidden part of his life is painfully revealed to a proud, disbelieving Oedipus–including the fact that his queen is in reality his mother.  Incest was the one unforgivable sin for the Greeks.  In agony Oedipus plucks out his eyes as a reaction to this terrible truth.  Oedipus goes from a shackled baby, to a man, to a blind person walking with a cane.  He now has experienced the three phases of being a human, as have we  watching him.                

The Greeks understood that we all know our fate.  We are born, we live, we die.  There’s no escaping this…no matter how hard we may try.  But, who we are depends upon how we live out our lives.  Drama is a way of our discovering this about ourselves.  We empathize with a character, then react with that character to the events of the play.  Our reactions will differ from those of the protagonist, but that shows us how we are, each of us, unique.  This discovery is what we gain through art.


The next step is a big one for a new writer.  And, it’s an essential one.  Remember in the allegory of the private screening room how at one point you felt uneasy…because you were not alone.  Well, you aren’t alone.  Find a neighbor, friend, your husband or wife, a classmate or someone at work willing to help you for a few minutes either in person or on the phone.  Kids love doing this!  Explain what you’re doing.  Then read the exercise you’ve written to that person.  
1. Now ask your partner to pretend he or she is the intruder you’ve just introduced in the last part of the exercise.  Your partner can alter the gender, age or background of the person entering the scene to fit his or her own comfort level.  This person should realize he or she is play acting this role, not trying to guess what the character you had in mind would say.  You want “make-believe” input.  If you absolutely can’t find a partner for this exercise, put your writing aside for a day.  Come back to it tomorrow and take on the secondary role yourself (you will have changed perspective enough in 24 hours to make this work). 

Ask your exercise partner how he or she would greet you as the person approaching you in the story?  The person might notice you are preoccupied, though not address the subject directly.  How would your partner acknowledge your mood in the opening give and take?  Write down that person’s responses. If you are both doing the complete exercise together, read what you have written to one another, then exchange papers and each of you continue the piece for your partner–not as the narrator, but as the person who has entered the scene.  For example, if I were writing about an encounter with my ex-father-in-law, my writing partner would become this person, and say and do things verbally (or on my paper) he or she thinks an ex-father-in-law would do under the circumstances.  Don’t worry whether this is done in 1st or 3rd person point of view, most of this will be through dialogue anyway.  Here’s an example of the greeting and initial comment one writer received:  
Example 4:
“Hey, BAKER!” hollered Randy from across the bar.  “I almost missed you in the corner over there.”  He came over and sat with him. “We must be the first ones here.  Ralph and Larry said they were coming and Mick of course–it’s his birthday he better show.”  Randy looked at Jack, “Bad day?”                             
                                                                               Shelley White    
This is an example of how we use “small talk” in real life–not just in writing.  If a person I meet seems downcast, I’d say, “Thank God it’s Friday!”  If I sense someone’s in a good mood, I might say instead, “What a wonderful, sunny morning.”  And, once this acknowledgment of each other’s feelings is out of the way–we’re on the same wave length–I switch to what is important in my life…”Enough about you, now on to me.”

And that’s what should happen next in the writing exercise, after the initial exchange.  Your partner is to shift the mood…tell you about something he or she is anticipating.  Your partner should make it plausible–a special date, a doctor’s appointment, trip, project for school, vacation.  Have the person talk about it directly.  Jot down their words in quotation marks. Here’s an example in which a friend of the narrator’s daughter happens upon the two of them as the daughter is trying on dresses in a department store.  Once you’ve read it go to your written exercise and have your partner give the response of the person you meet:      

Example 5:

“Judy!”“Hi, Andrea.”

“Mom, this is Judy–she lives across the hall from me at IU.” Hi, Mrs. Pyne.  Andrea, guess what?  I’m going next week.  Our whole family’s going to Madrid.  Daddy got the tickets yesterday.  I’m so excited.  Oh, that looks cute on you.  Does this make me look fat?  I need something brighter, don’t you think, brighter–maybe yellow.”                                                             Teresa Elquezabal   

2.At this point you should have recorded the input from a friend or written on your partner’s paper if you’re both doing this exercise together or have waited another 24 hours and made your own response if you’re doing the exercise by yourself.  

When I do this by pairing people up in a seminar, I notice participants really get involved responding to someone else’s character and situation—even more so than they were with their initial writing in this exercise.  Why?  It’s reaction.  And at the point of exchanging papers back again, I tell them, “Whether or not your partner’s response lives up to your expectations, notice that it is your curiosity about their reaction that stimulates your interest.  You want to know how your partner has reacted to your piece.”     

3.Now to finish this exercise.  In the next paragraph have the person who entered the scene, depart.  Use any excuse: a phone call, the person’s order comes and he or she has to get back to their table in the restaurant…whatever.  Much of writing is how to plausibly get your characters on stage, and then get them off stage.  Look at plot in Shakespeare as an excuse for assembling and reassembling different characters in scenes on stage.  Respond briefly to this person who has approached you, told you about something about themselves and has now left.                    

Your mind is free of this interruption so in the next paragraph go back to the emotions with which you started.   You can refer to the source of this emotion directly now if you choose or keep it still hidden.  Finally write a short final paragraph describing your physical movements as you leave or stay at the location.               

Here is an example of a writer responding in her thoughts to someone who has left (an example of the first paragraph of a conclusion):               

Example 6:

As she strolled to the exit I thought of Mother’s analysis of her walk: “She moves like one of those tall ships that we saw at the Bi-Centennial celebration in New York…billowing gracefully, but sure of her direction.”             

How accurate that is right now, I thought as I watched her progress to the door.  She brings a lot of joie de vivre to this business, more than enough for both of us, even when I’m behaving like a drag anchor. She’s good for me…keeps me from hiding in my research all the time.                               Margo Ahrens    

Here is an example of the second paragraph of a conclusion–a writer returning to her original feelings (the woman has received a letter from a friend that arrives after that friend’s death).                 

Example 7:

I moved the magazine from the top of the pile of mail, and picked up a Kleenex to wipe the cellophane of the cover. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small envelope and reached for it.  It was in Betts’ handwriting and the envelope had the familiar red rose on one corner.  My hands started to shake–and I told myself, “This is silly, open it up!”  I opened the letter and read about her anticipation of our trip, the joy she felt that Paul had finally retired, and about the trip to Switzerland–they had planned to visit their oldest son.  She said how often she remembered our days together at school and how much our friendship had always meant to her.                                           Bonnie Louther    

Finally here are these two writers telling about leaving or staying at their locations (examples of final concluding paragraphs):           

Example 6 (cont.): 

Having fished out money for the wine and tip, I pushed back my stool and walked to the door.  Trying to find my keys, I was re-running the interview in my head and had the  ar door unlocked before I recalled that I had meant to stop in the biff before leaving. “To go or not to go,” I mumbled as I put the key in the ignition and turned it.  I can make it, I told myself and my confidence was rewarded as   one green light after another greased my path to the dry cleaners.                               Margo Ahrens   

and, Example 7 (cont.):  

I sat back in my chair and sighed–and suddenly felt better.  Maybe it was because I had received the letter today.  A true friend is never lost.                                                                                                                                 Bonnie Louther 

It’s your turn.  Write your three paragraphs: having the other person exit (and reacting to the person), returning to your original emotion–now being free to discuss that feeling directly if you choose–and concluding by giving a physical description of leaving the location (if that isn’t appropriate, describe staying).  Do this on your paper now.    

4.When you have finished it is your task to take this exercise and rework it.  Use as much or as little of it as you like.  You can add or subtract…change the part your exercise partner wrote or any part you wrote. There are certain dynamics at work; try not to lose these.  There’s a past event contrasted with an anticipated one; your personality contrasted with that of the intruder (your partner); thoughts contrasted with spoken words; and motions of people coming together contrasted with those of people departing.  These dynamics add reader interest, regardless of content.  But, don’t label these things…show them by dramatizing them for your reader.                

The best way of doing this revision of the exercise is to go to the place where the scene happens.  Incorporate real detail into the fictional account.  This establishes instant credibility.  You should end up with a little scene that seems complete in itself.  It can be one paragraph long or five pages long.  Type it up and show it to your exercise partner who will marvel at the result. Here are the revised exercises of two beginning writers you’ve already sampled.  You might take a look at the chart (Figure 1).  It lists different types of reactions.  There can be reactions to events that are in the past, in the present or are anticipated.  Reactions can also be to people, places, feelings, dialogue, etc., in the past, present or anticipated in the future. 

As you read this revised example try to identify the different types of reactions that convey emotion in each.                

Example 3 (complete):

The wind tugged the heavy glass door as Jack entered Schmitty’s.  He stood blindly.  His yes adjusting to the dark interior, his glasses fogging in the warmth.  He ordered a beer, checking the bar for familiar faces.                                    

The cold draft tasted good and he realized he hadn’t eaten anything today. His appetite was gone and he hadn’t slept the night before. Wandering across the bar he found himself in front of the jukebox, his eyes resting on B6–“Just Like a Woman.”        

They had heard Rod Stewart sing it in person at an outdoor concert the summer he and Louise first met.  He remembered how bright the stars were that clear night as they lay on their backs in the grass, holding hands and  listening to music. The sweet smell of pot hung in the air, in those days nobody bothered about reefer.  After the concert they had a picnic while they waited for the huge crowd to clear. Louise had packed cold chicken, watermelon,  and chocolate chip cookies–his favorite.  By the time  they got home, streaks of pink and orange were slicing the morning sky.  A slight smile crossed Jack’s face.        

“Hey, BAKER!” hollered Randy from across the bar.  “I almost missed you in the corner over there.”  He came over and sat with him. “We must be the first ones here.  Ralph and Larry said they were coming and Mick of course–it’s his birthday he better show.”  Randy looked at Jack, “Bad day?”                   

“No, bad marriage,” said Jack.  “Louise told me last night that she wants out.” 

What kind of person wrote this piece?  Example 3 was done by a 19-year-old girl.  It shows you don’t need to be limited to your age or gender.  She is very perceptive, and though she might never have been left by her spouse, I guarantee there is some sense of genuine loss she is making use of here.   

In doing this exercise in a seminar setting, people are often surprised that they are into a story before they realize it and that they are writing about subjects they care about, even though that isn’t what they thought they were going to write about.  Exchanging papers quickens this development and takes things in a less predictable direction.  Sometimes people are fearful of this exchange, and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s essential for less experienced writers to do it.               

When you give your story to another, you lose control.  The same situation occurs whenever a writer lets another read what he or she has written. The reader may misunderstand the piece or interpret it to mean something beyond what the writer intended. One way to avoid this fear is to not show your writing to others.  Another way is for the writer to simply not write.               

The same thing happens when characters take on a life of their own, leading the writer into areas where the writer is uncomfortable–again there is a possible loss of control.  But counterbalancing this are tremendous advantages: Throwing ourselves a curve sometimes tricks the truth out of us.  We might not choose the challenges of a given day, but these challenges bring out the real us.  Further, an audience can give us feedback that helps us clarify what we’re writing, not only for them, but also more importantly, for ourselves.  That’s invaluable.  In sharing what we write, we also discover that people have much more in common than we usually think they do.  That feeling of fellowship encourages us to be less defensive, to open up even more.


It’s the element of surprise–the things you discover about yourself through your reactions during writing–that drives your writing forward.  Often when talking of others we’ll say, “I can hardly wait to hear what his reaction will be.”  Or, “I was very surprised by her reaction.”  Why do we make these statements?  A person’s reaction (or lack of it) reveals something about the way we think of that other person.  It confirms our preconceived notions of this individual or we discover something new through his or her reactions.  The same is true of the writing process, except we are discovering something about ourselves through our reactions, not something about someone else.  This also applies to your readers.  An audience is interested in your subject and the genuineness of the characters you’re presenting; but what they’re really looking for is a sense of discovery, the chance that they might find out something about themselves that they didn’t know.  Robert Frost said it well in talking about poetry: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader; no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”           

Let me finish this introduction to the first principle with something that happened to me a number of years ago.  I was teaching a poetry class, and it was the second from last day.  I told the students, “Tomorrow, why don’t you just bring in something that you wrote, or something meaningful that someone else has written, and let’s just read these to one another, give each other a verbal pat on the back and go happily on our separate ways.”  We’d criticized each other’s work enough during the semester.

The day came, and people read their pieces.  One of the students was a woman named, “Mary Kay.”  She said, “Let me read a poem that I wrote last night to my daughter.”  We all looked at each other–during the course of this class she had written at least twenty poems about her daughter.  Here was number twenty-one.  She read the poem, and as she did, there was something that was missing.  It was flat, it didn’t work.  When she was done we all offered suggestions.  Change this image.  Move the last verse up to the front.  Band-Aid solutions that didn’t really make much difference.  I have to admit I was disappointed.  Here was a writer with fire and energy in her writing, and I had worked with her for an entire year first in a short story class and then in this poetry class.  Now it was painfully obvious that after all that instruction she had written a piece that was not succeeding at all.             

I was inspired to ask her how she happened to write this particular poem.  She said, “I sat down to write something about my son…” Our jaws dropped.  Over the course of the year she shared everything with us–told us about her sex life, her frustrating job, her relationship with her mother–all, in the most intimate details.  She had never once mentioned a son.  As it turned out she was estranged from this son; they hadn’t communicated in five years.  This was the most difficult problem in her life.  When I look back at her piece of writing, I think that the real subject was that son.  It was a difficult subject for her to face, she hadn’t been able to confront it in her real life for a long time.  Now she had become confident enough in her writing about other subjects to address it.  She wasn’t succeeding, at least at first, and that’s what caused her to retreat to her past successes of writing about her daughter.  But, the language wouldn’t let her.  The language threw up a red flag that said: Wait a minute, there’s more here.  There’s something more important than this beneath the surface that needs to be addressed.  I said just that to her–that the real subject was her son and that’s where the poem waited.  About two weeks later I received a nice letter from Mary Kay, and in it was the poem.  It was incredible.  It had all the fire and energy of her earlier work, but also a new depth of feeling that was quite moving.           

As we get back to the writing exercise the task for you is to find the subject beneath the surface and react to it genuinely, on paper, in such a way that allows a reader to participate in that reaction.  The difficulties of writing have less to do with the form words take, and everything to do with the subject’s being relevant to you, now.  Vague detail, garbled word order, even poor grammar are symptoms that there is no urgency in the subject for you.  Correcting these exterior things won’t help–any more than altering a metaphor in Mary Kay’s poem about her daughter would have helped.  On the other hand, if the subject is vital, you will make it vivid, precise and grammatically clear.  Your life depends on it.  Language, not only recreates things we care about, it tips us off when we are wasting time on subjects that we have already exhausted.  These subjects (no matter how weighty) are boring to us as writers and boring to our readers.  There’s nothing new in them for us to learn.