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Which scene are you writing: Fight, Negotiation, or Seduction?

Let’s assume that one of the main goals of telling a story is to reveal some deeper truth about its characters to the audience.

What we know about a character, what we can believe to be true about them, comes from watching what they say and do. Their actions reveal their character.

But people do plenty of things throughout their day that don’t tell us much of any importance about them. They sleep, cough, use the bathroom, stare out the window, put gas in the car, and so on.

So, in writing to expose a deeper truth about a character, we need a way to push them toward meaningful action.

Which is what makes conflict important.

If your car skids off a bridge into a lake and starts filling with water, you’re not going to spend time changing the radio station or calling in a carryout order.

Conflict forces characters to take action to resolve that conflict to their benefit.

We learn what’s important to them, and what they think are the best strategies and tactics to protect what they have or gain what they desire.

If these things are true, a scene without a clear conflict is a scene that’s not revealing something meaningful about the characters to the audience.

Meaningful Conflict

Conflict is about unresolved, impeded desire: Somebody wants something badly, but they’re having difficulty getting it.

A strong desire is [fueled by something that causes the character to suffer; something that makes them wish the state of their world was vastly different.

A character arguing with a cashier to accept an expired coupon is a conflict, but that conflict isn’t meaningful unless it’s tied to some larger goal.

If they want the coupon honored because they don’t want to spend an extra 75 cents on avocados, that reveals something about their character, but that conflict may not be an essential part of their story. It’s an anecdote that reveals part of their values, but if they begrudgingly buy the avocados anyway, it may be wasted time for them and the audience.

If they can’t afford what they think is the perfect birthday gift for their estranged daughter without this coupon, that argument becomes more meaningful. That’s fueled by some larger desire worth focusing on.

A meaningful conflict applies pressure to a character to act, because if they refuse to take action, their story ends.

I like to think about the scene in The Muppets where Kermit initially refuses to even try to get The Muppets back together and Mary (Amy Adams) breaks the fourth wall and says “This is going to be a really short movie.”

If you have a clear idea of your character’s desire, and you have reasons to put that goal in jeopardy, you need to think about the terms of that conflict.

And that’s where Mike Nichols comes in.

Three Kinds of Scenes

“There are only three kinds of scenes: negotiations, seductions and fights. I’ve finished. That’s all. All scenes come in one of those three categories. […] How often have you rehearsed a scene for two weeks, and said ‘Oh my God, it’s a fight!’… And you can do the same with seduction, and, most of all, with negotiations, because that’s mostly what we do in life, especially at home.”

Mike Nichols

Let’s break this down.

A fight is a test of strength or willpower. The winner of the scene is the one who can endure for the longest, or who can overpower their opponent.

This is about physical and mental toughness, as well as presence. Think about Captain America getting back up every time he’s knocked down and saying “I can do this all day.” John MacLaine walking barefoot over broken glass. Jen and Shu Lien dueling in a room full of weapons, continuing the fight even as weapon after weapon breaks. Dr. Ryan Stone climbing her way out of an escape pod and fighting her way back on to land.

A negotiation is a test of a person’s ability to craft compromise or display logical arguments. The winner is the person who is most capable of offering a logical solution in a way that makes their correctness obvious to everyone involved.

Think about Jo March crafting the terms of her publishing agreement. Michael Corleone convincing his brother and their associates that they can get away with killing a police officer as part of settling the score between two families. Stacker Pentecost showing up at a construction site to convince Raleigh Becket to stop hiding from who he is and get back in a giant robot to go punch monsters.

A seduction is about understanding and manipulating someone else’s desires. The winner in this kind of scene is the one who can best read someone else and understand their deepest desires.

This kind of scene always makes me think of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. When he tries to convince Luke to stop fighting and join the dark side, Vader offers Luke the two things he wants most: A place of consequence in a larger story, and a sense of belonging. Luke starts the Star Wars trilogy feeling powerless and alone, far from where important things are happening. Vader offers him a place not only as his son, but as the heir apparent to dominion over an entire galaxy. Luke refuses, but he knows the temptation is there.

The Choice Isn’t Always Obvious

You need to think about what kind of story you’re telling. It’s not just about the genre you’re working with, but also what’s most important to your characters.

As an example, I took a fairly trope-y scene (a bank holdup) and tried to spin it out as each one of these types of scenes.

Note: Because I’ve used these scenes before in the classroom, and it’s easier in that environment to shorthand some things by talking about actors instead of one-shot characters, I cast these scenes. For our purposes, Michael Keaton is the bank robber and Awkwafina is the bank teller he confronts.

First, the Fight Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Next, the Negotiation Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Finally, the Seduction Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Each one has its merits, and each one sets a different tone for what type of story you would tell before and after that scene happened.

The Fight version raises specific questions: Why is Awkwafina’s character so ready to take action in a dangerous situation? Is there something about her past that prepared her for this moment? Is she going to face more fights as the consequences of foiling this robbery chase after her?

With the Negotiation version, we’re asking different questions: How did she stay so cool under pressure? How will her savvy handling of this situation help her in the future? Could it be used against her? How will standing up in a life or death situation like this change her perception of herself and how others see her?

And with the Seduction version, there’s one big question: Can she get away with helping to rob the bank she works for?

But in each version, it starts with the same basic premise.

I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to give me all the money in this bank.

Choosing which style of conflict works best depends on the story you want to tell before and after.

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When writing feels like cutting teeth

My son is teething hard. I had a dream that he suddenly went from no teeth to eight teeth overnight, and some days it seems like he’s determined to make that a reality.

“nom nom nom”

It’s a hard process. Each tooth needs to erupt from the gums, which takes a lot of time, force, and pain.

And when it’s all done, and they get those baby teeth in, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a second draft of that mouthful of teeth, waiting on deck.

If you’ve never seen an image of a child’s skull with both sets of teeth inside, it’s… something else.

I’m a little sorry if this makes you horrified of small children.

I’ve been focused on new projects lately. First drafts and new collaborations. Ideas pushing hard, trying to break through and emerge.

And there are times when it feels painful. Like things aren’t moving fast enough, and you just wish you could force things along faster, (like how I imagine Button feels when he’s gnawing on a teether).

Yes, it looks like a coffee cup. I am relentlessly #onbrand, even when picking out baby stuff.

Or when you know that you need to choose to put your butt in the seat and get some ideas out onto the page, but you have to choose that over other things that might also be be fun or important.

But I have to remind myself that the work can continue, and the pages will come, and then… well that’s when it’s time for the next draft.

Which brings me back to that baby skull full of teeth.

Because getting the idea out into the world isn’t the final act. Those pages and ideas fall out and get cast off to make way for bigger, stronger ideas.

But trust that even before that first idea has broken through, the full shape of what’s to come is there, in your head. And it just takes time, and force, and pain.

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Dance Like Nobody Is Watching (You Outline)

I needed to figure out some alternative solutions to a mystery in a story I’m working on.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing on this project has happened sitting and typing out ideas that I’ve solidified while either in conversation on the phone with a collaborator, or talking to myself while driving. But this time, I needed to generate those ideas in that moment, and I didn’t have anywhere to drive.

So I started by standing up. I have a whiteboard in my office, and it’s useful for thinking through ideas. But just standing there wasn’t helping me let my guard down and look past the couple pre-conceived solutions I came into the office with.

I recently finished reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Sparked by some ideas in that book, and the fact that I also have a subwoofer in my office, I thought about how adding some movement to the moment might help.

I want this to be clear: I am not a dancer.

I’m not a professional dancer. I’m not a good dancer. But I love music, and sometimes the groove gets in my heart.

Enter Daft Punk’s Alive 2007:

I’m not going to stop you if you want to start playing this album right now.

I can’t guarantee that any of my ideas were better because I was dancing while I was mind mapping. But it was more fun.

And there’s an aspect of breaking down your guard. Sitting down with as proper posture as I can muster, fingers on the home row, clacking away… It can feel rigid.

So getting less self-conscious about that movement and feeling the beat of the music cuts through that mental filter that makes you want to focus on perfection. Move to the rhythm. Turn off sense of self.

It’s like with meditation: If your mind is irritated or too energetic, calm the body. Take a few deep, slow breaths, and your mind will start to follow your body’s lead.

In this case, I was using my body to signal to my mind that it’s time to loosen up and throw whatever ideas it has up on the board. I broke down the mental walls separating the movements that were part of dancing from the movements that were part of writing on the whiteboard.

Change Your Environment and Change Your Mind

What I was doing by adding wasn’t just a change with my body: This was an attempt to alter my working environment.

It’s not just that I spend a lot of time sitting and typing or scribbling notes, but that when I sit and work in the same space that I check Twitter, grade papers, and track Amazon packages, there’s a sense that I have other things I should be doing besides writing.

That sense of everything sharing a space frustrates and confuses willpower.

In Keep Going Austin Kleon writes about the importance of creating a bliss station, so that there’s a specific time and/or place where you can put yourself in the headspace to work.

It’s the idea that signaling to your brain that here and now is where a certain type of work gets done helps that work get done in a better way.

He goes further to suggest that you can break down that space by certain jobs, like if you have one space where you work on your computer, and a separate space where you draw or write things out on paper. Even if they’re spaces in a single room, a small shift in where you sit or which way you face can send different cues to your brain.

It also might be about timing. Setting a timer, using a calendar to make appointments for certain tasks, or treating certain days of the week as having a specific focus are other ways to cue the brain and put it in the right mindset for the task at hand.

You are not just a brain in a jar, firing out ideas

You receive input from your environment. You receive cues from the rest of your body.

Accept that no matter how much willpower you feel that you have, you can’t exert total control and operate in a state of constant peak productivity.

But there are things you can try to control.

“When?”, “Where?”, and “With What?” are all important questions to answer when thinking about what you have to get done.

And if you’re getting stuck on something, those are the same questions you can examine to see if changing an answer to one might free up a little mental mojo.

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Meaningful Work

While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.

It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.

I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.

This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.

Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.

Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.

What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?

Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?

For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.

Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?

When we worry about optimization

Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.

They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.

Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.

We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.

Doctor Strange Looks Into The Future
Because we don’t all have an Eye of Agamotto to figure out the best course of action. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s easy to confuse action with progress

It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.

If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?

How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?

The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.

But how do you tell the difference?

The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.

Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”

They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…

But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.

You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…

Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.

You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…

Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.

Better or Different
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.

Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.

Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.

I did this I made this
Celebrate finishing something, no matter the scale.

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Non-Duality (For Writers)

 

On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.

It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”

For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).

And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.

We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.

A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.

In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.

I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.

But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”

He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.

And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.

There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:

“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”

With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.

But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.

If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.

This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.

Screen shot from one of my powerpoint slide decks titled All Writing Must Begin With Empathy

When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.

But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.

Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:

How are you not so different from this other person?

Austin Powers 'We're not so different, you and I.'

If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.

A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.

The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).

Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.

All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.

But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.

A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.

A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.

All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.

But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?

Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.

If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.

When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?

Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.

But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.

And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.

Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.

That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.

But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.