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Writing a Scene as if You Were Auditioning for the Reader

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

June 2011

"The Book Critics Award isn’t given to novels that sit in the drawer."

Oh, sure, you say that you’re writing just for yourself. Well, maybe that’s true in terms of the themes and stories you feel compelled to tell, but if you want anyone else to read your writing, you must think about communicating with the reader. Your drafts should be like auditions, tryouts to land the part of a published author. The Book Critics Award isn’t given to novels that sit in the drawer.

In reading Michael Shurtleff’s Audition (Walker and Company, 1978), I realize how his advice for an actor needs to be our advice to ourselves as writers. One of the guideposts he gives actors when they are figuring out how to do a scene is that he must create a relationship to the other actor in the scene. If a man and woman are on stage, just knowing that they are siblings or married or exes or lovers isn’t enough. You must decide how they feel about each other and keep the commitment to the feeling you’ve chosen. If the characters are lovers, are they furious with each other and on the brink of wanting to walk out? Or do they want to jump each other’s bones? Both can be true in the same scene. You, as author, as actor, have to decide.

". . .create the “feelings as you feel them and not how you think they should be feeling."

Shurtleff stresses that you have to create the “feelings as you feel them and not how you think they should be feeling.” He also stresses that a scene should be written in how they feel about each other NOW, not how they felt when they first met or how they felt when they were married. Great advice to writers who are flooded with back story and information they feel they need to put in. Just create a scene of the characters and their feeling in the NOW and you can backtrack later, adding new scenes that took place in the past or will take place in the future.

The best way to do this is to ask yourself questions about the characters. For example, if you are writing about a guy who is onstage with his girlfriend and is trying to tell her that he’s seeing someone else, you would need to ask yourself questions such as does he still love her? Is this the scene where he realizes he isn’t going to be with the other woman anymore and just needs to confess to his girlfriend? Or is he going to try to hide the fact that he’s seeing someone else, because he wants to keep both these women at the same time? Choose a possibility, decide how you would actually feel about it if heaven forbid it was happening to you, and go with it, staying in the moment. You have to decide on the conflict, know what the characters are fighting for. That way, you’ll know what to do with them. If the guy feels ashamed that he’s seeing someone else, it would be reflected not only in what he DOESN’T SAY, because he might be keeping his secret, but his body posture as well. He might not be able to make eye contact with the woman. His shoulders might slump. Or he might be speaking quickly, loudly, trying to block her from asking the question he’s not ready to answer. If he’s going to end the relationship, the scene might end with him walking out the door and slamming it behind him.

And the woman—she might be onto him. She might be asking him a barrage of questions, either in dialogue or with her suspicious face or gestures: sidelong glances, trying to position herself so that she he has to meet her eyes. Her gestures could show that she knows what’s coming, has suspected it all along. She might open the door for him to leave and slam it behind him. Later, when she’s alone, she might remember scenes of how the trouble began between them, the first time she saw a questionable text on his phone, etc. But for the moment, in the moment, she has to stay with what is coming at her and coming from her.

Besides finding out what you’re fighting for, Shurtleff recommends that the actor (and I maintain the writer, too) have to decide out what actions to take to get what the character wants. What thwarts him? Wow, think of it. If you do that, you have your whole plot. It’s another way of looking at the structure of your book. What does the character want? What’s blocking him? What actions does he take to achieve what he wants?

"The best conflict is one where there are two equal pulls for the character."

The best conflict is one where there are two equal pulls for the character. Shurtleff gives the example of A Little Night Music by Hugh Wheeler in which a young man falls madly in love with his father’s new wife who is near the son’s age. The attraction needs to be set up immediately and forcefully in the moment, otherwise, Shurtleff says, “it becomes a scene about him needing to practice the viola and her needing to get some knitting done. You need to create a fantasy of what you want that will drive you through the scene.” Just desiring her would be a thin plot. The play has force because the son not only is passionate about his father’s wife, but adores his father too and never wants to do anything that would hurt him. There you have it: a conflict where the hero is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Complex and stirring and fully human. In each scene, the characters have to fall more and more in love with each other to make the risks even greater.

In writing or acting, “create the biggest dream a character could have,” Shurtleff advises, and “fight to make that dream come true.”

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.