The ‘Twenty Questions” Writers’ Exercise.

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This photo has nothing to do with this little exercise, it’s just me looking like a know-it-all which is, of course, perfect for a writer deigning to give advice to other writers.

So, let’s play Twenty Questions.

I’m not talking about how you come up with your ideas for a whole novel, or even your characters, but how to make an encounter or any ‘scene’ in your book work for you. It’s simple, but one of the most functional exercises I’ve found. It’s actually from a screen writing class I took, long ago, which means that it’s designed to create the best picture for both your scenario and your characters.

So let’s get started. You have your idea, you’ve done your homework on your characters, now you need them to encounter each other or perhaps some other obstacle that will forward your story. The very best books and screen plays establish their characters distinctly the first time we meet them. My favorite example of this is in “The Professional.” Jean Reno plays a hit man. The movie opens with him getting to his mark who is highly protected in a hotel room. About 19 people die, very creatively, and then, this ruthless killer, goes home to his empty apartment, sits alone at his table, and drinks a glass of milk in silence.

And we feel sorry for him.

What a great set up. Now, how the heck did Luc Besson pull this off? How in the heck did he create a ruthless killer, and then make us relate to him and feel for him, before he ever speaks a word?

I think it’s pretty clear that he didn’t just go with the first thing that came to mind. But it can be confusing to sit at a desk and try to force yourself to be interesting.

Try this: You have two characters who need to meet, your romantic leads, let’s say.

Your first idea, is, they should meet in a bar. Great.

You are not done. Write that down. Now, make a list of twenty other ways that they could meet, and do not stop until you reach twenty, no matter how stupid they get. You will be amazed at how many mental doors this will open for you. Even if you decide that number 12 is terrific, finish your list. They meet at a bar. They meet at a funeral. They both have kids in the same playschool. They are both given gift certificates to go sky diving, and one is afraid of heights. Etc. Don’t stop, get to twenty.

But perhaps you are writing characters who really should meet in a bar. They are alcoholics, say, or desperate singles. Fine. They meet in a bar. Now make a list of twenty ways they can meet in the bar.

He spills his drink on her. She forgot her wallet and tries to nab his change to pay for her drink. He accidentally goes into the ladies room, and she is in a stall, thinking it’s another woman, she asks if he has a tampax in his purse. She sees an old boyfriend and tries to hide under his table. Etc. Don’t stop until you have twenty!!

Now you have choices, mostly choices that will help you establish your character and story. And I’m willing to bet that you’ve opened up opportunities for dialogue and emotional exchanges, ways to show your character’s traits and not just tell us.

I.E. Instead of saying your male lead is preoccupied and not very observant, his going into the ladies’ room can be a repeated action that defines him. He’s always going through the wrong door, walking into closets at home and kitchens at restaurants. This tells your readers quite a bit about him without you writing down, “Bob was absent minded.”

Which is boring.

Which you don’t want to be.

It’s a simple, but effective technique and best of all, it’s really quite easy.

So there you go!! I’m going to wrap presents now. Unless the ceiling in my office is leaking, or the dog gets into a fight with a skunk outside, or all the gifts have been stolen by the UPS man, or…

Well, you get the idea.

Happy listing!!

Shari. December 12, 2012

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