In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Blog: What Aliens Taught Me About Writing
Melinda T. Falgoust
Have you ever placed one of your characters in mortal peril? Had them staring down the blue steel barrel of death at the hands of a foreign operative? Had them fleeing from their life through a maze of burning cars as extraterrestrials fire deadly lasers from above? Given them a brush with a vampire, known for his brutal and bloody savagery?
Have you ever written out those scenes and, in draft after draft, the words just fall flat, failing to garner the proper emotion – the smack of reality needed to truly draw readers in and suspend their disbelief and accept your fiction for fact? If your answer is “yes”, you can relax. Stop beating your head against your keyboard, grab an icepack for that nasty lump on your head, and read on.
The reason many writers fail to develop a believable scene is simply a lack of experience. How can you write about rocky mountain oysters if you’ve never even tasted rocky mountain oysters? (Minor confession here: I’ve never eaten rocky mountain oysters either. For the sake of the faint of heart, or stomach, I will not divulge the true nature of this particular dish. Suffice it to say, it is NOT seafood.) The trick to creating believable scenes and dialogues is, of course, the old adage come back to haunt us…WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
Wait, wait, wait! Before you say “I already KNOW that!” and go back to beating your head on the asterisk key…I would like to offer a fresh perspective on an old problem.
Get abducted by aliens.
Okay. I don’t hear crickets chirping, so I guess you’re still here. That’s great. Then let’s get down to business. Of course, I don’t REALLY mean “get abducted by aliens”. One of the most Herculean tasks a writer must accomplish is, though, getting inside the heads of your characters. You have to know your character’s thoughts as clearly as your own, creating an investment in the character and the story. If you, as the writer, can truly “get inside” your characters, then you now have a stake in what happens to them, you are in the events of the story as the character, and not just “along for the ride”, and your readers will be too, instead of merely being casual observers. A unique way to accomplish this is to use acting skills.
Besides being a writer, I am also an actor on stage, film and television. Over the past few years, I have:
- Run screaming from aliens through the streets of L.A.
- Been a detective
- Been a doctor
- Read fortunes with tarot cards in the company of vampires
- Been the ONLY female patron in a strip club (Twelve interesting hours of my life. But that’s a story for another blog post.)
Just to name a few. Now, of course, I’ve never seen a green or a grey. I’ve never been to the police academy. And, I’ve never been to med school. (I live ten minutes from the infamous Bourbon Street and have lots of tourist friends, so mum on the strip club thing). But, acting HAS taught me some skills that can be used as a writer to know my characters and my scenes, and you can use them, too.
Spend some introspective time with your character. Sense where that character is coming from…you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. If you familiarize yourself with the conflicts and successes that your character has had, their “back-story”, you will naturally find the subtext that will bubble under the surface of your scenes. It adds layers to your scene. In writing, this will help you avoid what’s known as “writing on the nose”. Readers don’t want to be beaten over the head with the story – they want to enjoy the accomplishment of discovering it. Let them.
Here’s where you get to be a bloodhound, though I must admit, that’s a part I’ve never been asked to play. Sniff out the details of your character’s surroundings in a scene. Use all five senses. Aliens blowing up cars around you? Feel the waves of heat rolling over you. Smell how acrid the smoke is, burning the sensitive membranes of your nasal passages. Feel the ache in your quadriceps as you dash helter-skelter through the fleeing crowd (That one was fourteen takes for a three block run. Believe me I ached. But, I always skipped back to one, earning me the nickname “Skippy” from several of the production assistants). Feel the sting in your eyes as sweat mixes with the ash showering from your hair. What are the people around you doing? Who’s there with you? EMTs? Police? Firefighters? A military contingency? A mother with a screaming baby? How does it all make you feel? What do you hear?
Writers need to have split personalities. As much as you need to “be” your characters, you also need to be able to distance yourself enough to record the details. So, take a moment to introduce yourself to each character. Say “Hello, my name is ________. I will be recording the details of your life.” Hopefully, they won’t pull a Sean Penn and bop you on the nose for being in their business.
Pretend you’re Barbara Walters. No, I don’t mean make your characters cry. I mean really get to know them as they are at the present moment in the story. Now, I’m not referring to back-story here. This is where you interview your character and ask them questions like:
- What drives you?
- What makes you passionate?
- What has meaning for you?
- What scares you?
- What is valuable to you?
- In what areas of your life are you experiencing the greatest conflict and how does that make you feel?
Realize that your characters are human, and will often answer as humans do – with a grain of truth and what they think you want to hear. As a writer, it is your job to see beyond and realize that what their answer may, in fact, be the complete opposite of what is actually true.
So, when your scene is not feeling “quite right” or your character seems like a “talking head”, let them get abducted by an alien. Your story, and your readers, will thank you for it. H.G. Wells might have been onto something.
(Editor’s Note: No greens or greys were harmed in the typing of this blog.)