Friday, August 17, 2012
A Physical Experiment
by R.S. Mellette
Let's play a game. It should take about 10 minutes, and be fun for you and educational for us all. I'll explain why after the game.
Here are the rules:
1. Read the following few words of a work in progress.
"You're in a lot of trouble, young lady."
Adults say the stupidest things sometimes. Of course twelve-year-old Suzy Quinofski was in trouble. She was covered in dirt and dried tears. Her fingers were cracked and bloody from digging in the ground, and she was being questioned in a police interrogation room. The man informing her of the obvious was Detective Mark Danner.
"You don't know the half of it," she said to him. Actually, he didn't know a tenth of it. He didn't know a millionth of it.
"Then why don't you fill me in?"
"Because you couldn't comprehend it if I did."
"Suzy!" Janice Quinofski, a.k.a. Mom, used what Suzy called her "bad dog!" voice, reserved for those rare occasions when Suzy needed disciplining. Obviously, Mom wasn't accustomed to seeing her sweet, straight-A, multiple-scholarship-contender, daughter acting like a street kid. This was a whole new world for both of them.
"What, Mom? It's true." Then to Danner, "No offense. I don't think there's anyone on the planet who could understand it."
"It's not that complicated. I just want to know what happened to Billy Bobble."
"I told you. He disappeared."
"Disappeared to where?" asked Danner.
"If I knew that he wouldn't be 'disappeared,' would he?"
"There was an explosion," said Danner.
"No, there was an endoplasmic eruption of what we think might be Bose-Einstein condensate on an OTC scale."
When Suzy didn't answer, Danner turned to her mother. "Off the chart."
"Out of all of that what you didn't get was OTC?" asked Suzy.
"Maybe I'm not as dumb as you think."
Suzy nodded her head toward the two-way mirror that filled a wall of the interrogation room. "Maybe you've had too many lawyers complain about abbreviations in your transcripts."
"Call it what you want," said Danner to Suzy ... "Something blew up and it took Billy with it."
"Maybe so," said Suzy, "but not in the way you think."
"If Billy exploded his guts would be all over the school yard. Did you find any bloody remains in Linda Lubinski's hair?"
"Suzy! Billy was your friend."
"Is my friend, Mom. Billy is my friend and I wish they would let me out of here so I could help get him back."
"How would you do that?" asked Danner.
She hung her head. "I don't know."
"Okay, good. That was honest. Keep it up and together we can find Billy." Suzy's silence passed as capitulation.
"Your friends have told us—"
"They aren't my friends."
Danner stopped to acknowledge what she said, then went on. "They told us you and Billy were working on some sort of elaborate magic trick."
"Not a trick. Actual magic."
"Hey, I need that honesty. You're smart enough to know there's no such thing as actual magic."
"Okay, if you want to get all Arthur C. Clarke on me; 'Technology advanced to the point of being indistinguishable from magic' - which for you would probably be a cell phone."
"That's all right, Ms. Quinofski. Suzy, you can be as surly and sarcastic as you like, so long as you tell me what happened. How did Billy disappear?"
"It's a long story."
"I get paid by the hour."
"You won't believe me."
"Okay." Suzy glared at him with as cold of a stare as she could muster and told the truth. "Billy Bobble has a magic wand."
Done? Good. Now:
2. In the comments section write a sentence or two describing what the characters in the excerpt look like WITHOUT GOING BACK TO RE-READ IT and WITHOUT READING ANYONE ELSE'S DESCRIPTION.
3. When you've done that, read the rest of this blog, then feel free to add another comment at the end and read the other descriptions.
You've had to go through this experiment because I am still bitter about something a high school teacher did to me grade-wise decades ago.
It was my senior year. English Composition. We were told to write a paper describing a person we knew. I'm sure our teacher – whose name escapes me – was just following along in the lesson plan. I don't think she'd been out of college a full year yet. We were supposed to learn about descriptive paragraphs, so the assignment was to describe a person.
I happened to have an afterschool job in an ice cream shop at the time, and a girl I worked with was extremely annoying, so I wrote about her. Thing is, I never wrote about what she looked like, only what she said. The story was nothing but dialogue.
My teacher gave me a B+. I think. I do remember she thought I'd be all excited about the plus. "It's really good," she told me, "but you didn't do the assignment. You didn't describe the character."
"Sure I did," I complained. "Tell me what she looks like."
I kid you not, a police sketch artist could have drawn a picture from her description, and you'd have sworn it was a photo of this girl. I nailed it. I put the image of the character in her mind.
No go. Still a C+. Or B+. Whatever it was, it wasn't an A.
Flash forward years later to someone giving me advice on screenwriting. "You don't want to paint too clear of a physical picture of the character because you don't know what star might read the script. If you say she looks like Pamela Anderson, and the script lands on Meryl Streep's desk, then you've screwed up."
But now I write novels as well as screenplays, and I like using actions and dialogue to make the reader think I've told them what the character looks like, when in fact, I've only given them clues and they've filled in the rest.
I'm fooling myself and what I think is style is simply laziness. Honestly, I don't know, which is why I created this experiment.
If you wrote a description in the comments – and I hope you have, because this post will be embarrassing without them – go back and re-read the excerpt to see if you can find where you got your ideas from. The writing is from my latest WIP, Billy Bobble Has A Magic Wand. I'm curious if the magic has worked.
R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.