Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Friday, December 3, 2010

Foiled at Every Turn

"We are what we are." Felix Ungar to Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple

Sick with stuffy nose and post-Thanksgiving collapse, I flipped the channel to Turner Classic Movies so I could zone out with some soft lighting, calm music, and old-school story. I got that plus a great lesson in characterization. If you aspire to write great characters, see the 1968 film or read the frequently reprised play, The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.

Watch Felix move through a scene without saying more than twenty words--how he throws out his back in the midst of a suicide attempt or clears his sinuses with OCD flair in the middle of a diner. You'll see how Simon paints character through wonderfully excessive physicality.

Observe the poker game in Oscar Madison's disgusting home full of ancient pizza slices and dust bunnies the size of cats, and see how a group of secondary characters (at first just sweaty, surly, unimpressive men) become a gaggle of high-drama hysterics at the prospect of Felix being suicidal. Simon understands how to sweep broad strokes with his brush, then come back and fill in the shadows, the light, the muscles, the heart and soul. Each man is unique with every word, twitch, grunt. We end up caring about all of them. Not one character is needless background, merely warming a seat. Everyone matters.

But the main reason The Odd Couple should be subject of study for all writers is how it serves metaphorically for a golden rule of characterization, every time a conversation erupts in your story. Oscar and Felix are drawn together, magnetically, for a reason, so this story can be told: they push and pull upon each other, yanking the blinders off, hot lamping and shadowing, lifting up and squashing down. These guys go from friendship to enemies in the course of a conflict that peaks in silent stand-off (yet another instance of Simon's slapstick, purely physical comedy that says more than any words). These guys foil one another in mere movement--even in every breath Felix takes. Who can't relate to that? There has been at least one person in our lives whose neck we wanted to wring.

Watch Oscar and Felix at work. They are what they are in perfect contrast to each other, and in their short stint as each other's "wives" they learn how they each need to grow a little bit more each other's direction. Then go write your next dialogue between any two characters. What's at stake? Who's wanting what, and how are each in the way of these wants?

Foil, foil, foil each other, all you characters in our fiction. Let that fresh conflict ensue in every scene. Even two best friends in a story should enhance each other's differences; how?

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is another fantastic read for studying just this skill. Beneatha, Ruth, Walter, and Mama are masters of foiling another, and like Oscar and Felix, their entrapment in a small space escalates the conflicts. Even if you're not much into writing dialogue, remember that when your characters do speak and when scenes do unfold, foil is the operative word. Someone must be stopped in the achievement of his goal; someone must be prevented from getting exactly what she wants. Otherwise, we won't stick around till the end.

If you just can't pick up another book this holiday rush, make a New Year's resolution to support your local community theater. Consider seeing a play like taking a class in characterization. Playwrights get the complete urgency of foiled characters with the restless audience waiting to be entertained. I personally can't wait to see Amadeus from PlayMakers along with the NC Symphony this weekend. I know I won't only get fabulous theater and incredible music; I'll get another example of character foiled again: Mozart, full of mania and graceless humor, but so genius the world itself could not bear him. Talk about obstacles. Man versus self, man versus world. Foils everywhere you look.

Watch a play, see a film, and take note. See what these characters are and make that black and white in the places where you can. You are already doing this in your writing, or you wouldn't feel the momentum, and no doubt, you need to do it more.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who is interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

1. Who or what in your life is your biggest foil? Why? How?
2. Think of a favorite character in your book and write about who foils him or her the most. Write a letter to the character about how to handle this foil, or, write a letter of complaint ot the foil.
3. Start a story with this line, "Curses! (Insert your own expletive) Foiled again!"
4. Make a list of how your protagonist is a hero to some and a villain to others. Every character has a beef with someone. Then make a list of how your protagonist is a foil to every person s/he meets. Write a scene exploring at least of these items on the list.
5. The Day from Hell happens to everyone. What's one day where you were foiled at every turn? Write that story.
6. Write an acrostic poem using FOILED AGAIN as the phrase to generate one sentence about every character in your story (as many characters as you can address). Each sentence must address how the character foils or is foiled.

Monday, November 29, 2010

10 Great Gifts This Holiday Season

1. Subscribe someone to a literary magazine. Literary magazines offer hidden gems of short fiction, essays, and poetry you won't find elsewhere. I suggest The Missouri Review. A better kind of bathroom reading, for sure!

2. Buy a nonreading tween or teen a graphic novel. My favorites for teens: Maus: A Survivor's Tale and American Born Chinese. Tweens: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I also stumbled across Toon Books recently; check them and their high-quality comics for emerging readers.

3. Buy something from an indie press. You're going to find unique writing that ought to be on the best seller lists: Graywolf Press, Dzanc Books, Press 53. As Press 53 says, "Literate yourself!"

4. Buy something from an indie bookstore. If you're a Piedmont North Carolinian like me, check out Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh), Flyleaf Books (Chapel Hill), or The Regulator (Durham). If you're somewhere else, check out your indie options at Indiebound.org. Shop local and keep your nearby citizens employed.

5. Join your local library or donate in the name of someone you love. Was there anything cooler when you were a kid than coming home from the library with 15 books spilling out of your arms? I felt rich as a king. If you've got kids and never had them borrow and return books, it's a great life lesson--and a gift of time well spent together that will keep on giving.

6. Ask a favorite teacher what books or curriculum s/he needs for teaching. Educators often have to pay out of their own pockets for the curricular guides that improve instruction and aid their professional development. Check out teachers' councils, those nonprofits that sell curriculum, such as NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), NSTA (National Science Teachers Association), National Council for the Social Studies, and ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Send your favorite teacher that link and ask what book or journal would be ideal for teaching in the new year. Other great teacher haunts: ASCD, Chicago Review Press/Zephyr Press, and Free Spirit Press. My Teaching Romeo and Juliet (co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet) and Teaching Julius Caesar books are available at NCTE and The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathyco-authored with Jane Dalton is at Zephyr Press. The latter is a good gift for any teacher who values your child and community building. If you know of great sites for art teachers, theater teachers, dance teachers, band teachers, coaches/PE teachers, please comment.

7. Buy someone a Kindle, Nook, or another e-reader. Books have never been so easy to read this way...they're even great on an iTouch with an ereader app.

8. Buy a book of poetry. I suggest Mary Oliver. She'll put your mind on higher things and you won't feel the stretch.

9. Buy a writer you know a magazine or a book about writing or getting published. I suggest Hope Clark's ebooks for those who are trying to get published, get funded, and promote their work. Or check out a magazine such as Poets & Writers or the AWP's The Writer's Chronicle. Or, buy that friend who keeps saying, "I need to write my book," a copy of The Artist's Way. No more excuses.

10. Buy a lovelorn teen girl who has a thing for bad-boy characters a YA book with good-boy characters. YA author Jennifer Hubbard advises.

Got good ideas? Let me and your fellow gift-givers know.