I was very intimidated about working this way, but it's proving to be so invaluable I'm considering the idea of always hiring actors to help me work through difficult scenes. First, there is going over the scene with the actors and having to define for them what's happening for this character, then, there are the questions they ask, which further helps define the scene and the character.
On Thursday, I brought in a scene I'd adapted from Choice. It isn't actually in Choice, but it probably will be. I wrote it because I needed to get Matt and his mother in one place and keep them there - my greatest challenge with Rachelle is that she keeps leaving the room whenever she's alone with Matt. I understand why she does this, and it works for the novel, but, I have to have times when they interact. So I wrote this scene, following Matt's first meeting with his public defender. They're in the grocery store:
Rachelle :What do you want to get for dinner?
Matt:Why didn’t you tell me all that stuff about Denny?
Rachelle:Chicken? No. The thought of it makes me sick.
Matt:Mom, why didn’t you tell me about Denny?
Rachelle:Tell you what about Denny? (pause) Spaghetti? I should have made a list before we left the house. I should have thought about stopping at the grocery store. We don’t have anything in the house. I should have remembered.
Matt:All that stuff you said. In the PD’s office. Did you know all that shit or were you making it up?
Rachelle:All these things I keep forgetting. Did Alan say he was coming home tonight? Do you remember, Matt? Did Alan say if he was going to be home for dinner?
Matt:Forget it. I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.
Rachelle:I don’t know. I can’t remember if he told me.
Matt:It’s not like I don’t know what goes on in the house.
Rachelle:We never plan these things, you know. Things happen. Things come up. We go for weeks without grocery shopping and then there’s nothing in the house to cook. I could call him.
Matt:You think I don’t know, but I do.
Rachelle:Of course you do. Of course you know. Were there noodles in the cupboard? Matt? Noodles? I could do a tuna casserole if there were noodles.
Matt:I know everything. I live in the house, too, you know.
Rachelle:But you don’t know if there were noodles.
Matt:I mean, I may not know everything. There’s stuff I still can’t figure out, but I know enough to know you weren’t making it up in the PD’s office. Denny was into some serious shit, and that was fine with you. You just let him go.
Rachelle:What else could I do?
Rachelle:What? I can’t even keep enough food in the house to make dinner. What was I supposed to do? Denny was going to do what Denny was going to do.
Matt:You could have stopped him. You could have told him you didn’t want him going out with Ray and doing all that stuff he was doing.
Rachelle:(directly) Like I can stop you doing the same thing. Like you don’t think I know you’re following your brother down the same path? Tell me how I’m supposed to stop you. Tell me that I know everything you’re doing. Tell me the pot was Ray’s, I’ll believe you because that’s what I do. I want to believe you so I’ll jump on whatever little piece of hope you offer me because that’s what I do.
Matt: It was Ray’s, mom. He thought he was doing me a favor by giving it to me. It was just my stupid luck to get caught with it before I could give it back to him. What else do you want me to do?
Rachelle: Tell me what you want for dinner.
While the scene was being acted, I was busy taking notes on the physicality of the actors - how were they moving in relationship to each other. Matt kept trying to get in front of Rachelle, to get her to look at him, and she keeps turning away, moving away from him, until she speaks to him directly and then she moves toward him. Those are things that will make their way into the prose rendering of the scene.
But also, what I appreciated was hearing the audience reaction and understanding that I'd hit the moment correctly.
I think writers get scared of letting the character speak the truth too blatantly, we want to make it apparent to the reader, but not to let the character know it and speak it. Somehow that seems more honest and realistic. But here, when Rachelle speaks her truth "Tell me and I'll believe you because that's what I do. I want to believe you" it worked for her to articulate it because it shows that her denial, her refusal to deal directly with Matt is intentional. She's conscious of what she's doing, and, because she knows, it becomes that much more potent and powerful.
Another thing I did in this scene that I think worked really well was to take the Pantoum form from poetry and adapt it to this dialogue (with some modifications, of course.) A Pantoum repeats whole lines so there becomes a kind of call and response sense to the poem. What I found was that having the characters echo each other's words but keeping the subject of what they were saying on different tracks, worked really well to portraying the parallel nature of this relationship. They're living in the same house, have gone through the experience of Denny's death, and yet, they are not having the same conversation at all.
So, now I've got to get back to work so I can pages to Nona on Tuesday. I love deadlines. I will so hate leaving school and not having deadlines to make me focus.