STRANDED IN PUERTO RICO
You have several story ideas, some of mine and some of your own. Let’s move on to the next section of the Storyboard Exercise (Part II).
Here we are marshaling forth our resources. Under “situation” write your story idea. Under “people” put the characters you’ll use, as far as you know now, to dramatize the piece. Under locations, think about the various options where you can stage the scenes presenting your situation. Write in your choices. In my example based on the cook and his girlfriend who is expecting, under “people” I put; “frightened young man,” “pregnant wife,” “restaurant manager,” “waitress.” I may want to add “customers” later, but for now I’m trying to limit the characters. From the reader’s standpoint the more I can do with fewer characters the better. For “locations” I have: “their apartment,” “the restaurant,” and the “employment office.” Now fill in these categories for your story idea. When you are done move on to Part III.
For the sake of this exercise I arbitrarily decide to tell this story in five major scenes. Now I’m going to spread the people and locations out over these scenes. I’m going to first fill in the scenes for my example, then ask you to do the same for one of your story ideas. When you do this ask yourself: Why am I picking one possibility over another? What will be the primary thing the characters will be reacting to in each scene? What can I do within the scene to heighten its dramatic “opposites.” And finally, what shifts in vantage point could I make within the 3rd person point of view and how would I affect the reader by reordering the sequence of these scenes.
I start my visualizing with Scene B. The man is working as a waiter in a Puerto Rican restaurant (remember a restaurant was the inspiration for my choice of story idea. I’ve changed him to a waiter since I don’t know anything about cooking Puerto Rican food). His presence irritates a table of customers because good paying jobs are scarce–why should this outsider have one? The waiter makes some mistake. The customers insist that the manager fire him. In Scene B I write “restaurant,” “customer,” “manager,” “young man,” “fired.” I could see using 3rd person point of view– showing the waiter’s thoughts only–and quite a bit of dialogue, plus characters reacting to one another.
Now, I have to convey why his losing his job is serious. I’ll do this in Scene A, by showing that his pregnant wife is counting on his getting some money for her care. If she is alone in their apartment, how can I accomplish this? Perhaps she has just received a letter from a friend back in Wisconsin who doesn’t know the woman is pregnant. The friend is expecting a child, herself, and talking about how excited she and her husband are. They live in the suburbs and have a good hospital nearby. I’d play up the differences in their circumstances to heighten the drama. Again, this would be 3rd person, but with the woman’s thoughts. She is reacting to the things in the letter. Under Scene A, I write, “apartment,” “pregnant woman,” “letter–contrasting situations.” I have some reservations about this scene. It seems static, with little chance for action or dialogue. But, on to Scene C.
The reader is probably wondering how they got into this predicament. So am I. A great place to uncover this would be in the employment office. Here’s a chance for the young man to explain how they got there, why they have no money and why they can’t get help from family back home. I write: “employment office,” “clerk,” “young man,” “background.” But this is more than background. These obstacles or “complications” push the basic conflict of the plot to extremes. The great thing about this scene isn’t so much what’s happening, but that it builds the intensity of the plot. We have an expectant mother who needs security and her boyfriend who has just lost his job, but she doesn’t know it yet. It’s like the bomb in the mailroom of my earlier example. Plant the bomb where the audience is aware of it, then build the tension as they wait for it to go off. Inexperienced writers want to place everything on the table right away. But good writing is like fishing. You could get more fish throwing a stick of dynamite into the water, however the idea is to have a lure that can be ignored and a size line that can break to make it sport (at least from the human’s standpoint). The same is true with flirting between a man and a woman. An outright proposition sends a person in jail; but some give and take, some sense of mystery or hint of things unexpressed… this is tantalizing. Let your writing flirt with the reader.
Scene D is the climax. The man and the woman, their worst fears realized, now let out their resentments. The conflict, which we’ve seen from each side as a problem to be solved, now has its full emotional impact. It shakes the foundations of their relationship. She feels betrayed. He feels trapped. They both are drowning. I note: “apartment,” “woman,” “man,” “confrontation.” Using the 3rd person, should I pull back now and not show the thoughts of each? That might be interesting, especially if their words contradict those thoughts we’ve already been privy to. The tension of their circumstances is fully released on each other. A new tension between what they say and what they feel (but don’t express) drives each further inward.
Scene E shows the manager and a waitress talking. The manager realizes he’s been unfair and calls to re-hire the young man. The economic problem has been solved, but the love between the couple has been lost in the process (as dramatized in the scene before). Under Scene E, I write: “manager,” “waitress,” “telephone,” “resolution,” “too late.” I’m not interested in the internal thoughts of these two minor characters, but it would be interesting in the last paragraph to get the thoughts of the man, the woman or both.
I feel confident in considering the sequence of the scenes, but am still bothered by the inactivity of Scene A. Underneath A and B I draw some arrows switching their order. I’m also toying with the idea of an extended symbol which I could introduce in Scene B that would suggest an added level of meaning. To be honest I don’t know much about Puerto Rico. But since conceiving this story I’ve read anything about that country that I find in newspapers and magazines. One of the political issues is whether Puerto Rico should remain independent or become a state. There’s strong feelings and, at heart, some economic issues. To be joined or be separate? Could the dilemma of this couple be played out against this larger political and economic background? It would be interesting to try.
Storyboard Exercise (Part III)
1. It’s time for you to go through the same process we just did on this example for your story idea. This piece doesn’t necessarily have to be a short story, it can be a play, poem, non-fiction article, chapter from a novel…the choice is up to you. Take as much time as you need to complete your storyboard. Do this now!
2. Now that you have your storyboard completed, I want you to jump in and write one of the scenes near the beginning, but not the first one. Don’t plan any more, but sit down and write. Let reactions to earlier events, to people’s words, to the setting, etc. develop the story idea. Let the writing do the writing. If you get stuck, ask yourself: What is the real subject here?
Take some risks, let the characters say and do things without being sure where they will lead. Tell your characters, “Show emotion, listen to other characters, respond with honesty.” If you don’t have a subject you want to work with after all, go back and select a better one. At this point it’s more important that you write to understand your characters in their situations and the conflicts they face than it is to edit for an audience–that will come. The first step is to write, you can always go back to cut and paste later. This will be a first draft. You are going to do many revisions before you are satisfied, but not now. Don’t worry about rough edges the first time through. Write fast! If a word doesn’t come to you, leave a space. If something isn’t going right, skip ahead, but keep writing without taking your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard.
And only write one or two scenes. There are some important elements from Principle #4 and particularly from Principle #5 you need to incorporate into the other scenes. Get ready to write for fifty to sixty minutes. Now dig in.