An Exercise: Using Character to Produce Frame and Arc

Our “prompt” this week was to write the same scene from two differing viewpoints. A fun and challenging assignment.

Scene 1:

Judy entered the room slowly and gently closed the door behind her, making sure she heard the soft “click” of the knob falling into place. She breathed quietly in through her nose to steady herself and then turned and smiled at Marilyn. As usual, Marilyn was seated serenely behind her large, mahogany desk, not a hair out of place, her posture the envy of British royalty. Judy swallowed hard, suddenly aware of her shabby pantsuit and the fly-away hairs she could see in her peripheral vision. She knew she should have spent a few more minutes getting ready, after all, as Douglas said, a well-put together woman walked with confidence. She would have more confidence if she cared more about such things, she was sure. After all, Douglas was always right about these things. Maybe, if she’d had more confidence, she would still have him, too.

She sat down at the edge of the cushioned chair, making sure not to slouch, smoothing the fabric of her slacks down over her bony knees. She smiled again, an awkward shaped thing, and counted to three while looking Marilyn straight in the eye.

“Hello, again, Dr. Pond. I guess we should get straight to it?” It was always so awkward returning to the therapist’s office. By the time she felt comfortable just talking and sharing, it was time to go and she had to spend the next six days talking herself in to another session.

Marilyn nodded her head and smiled, offering some generic pleasantries and asking a few innocuous questions and Judy responded. Once the social etiquette had been met, Judy began where she had left off last week, with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Douglas Egan.

“It’s just, I can’t believe it’s really happening. I tried so hard, I really did, to do all the things he wanted me to. And he didn’t really ask a lot, you know. He wanted what was best for me. I know that. A man of his social standing, well, he had appearances to keep. And of course, I didn’t know anything about that life. When we met, I didn’t even know he had that kind of life! I’d always thought we’d settle down upstate somewhere and raise a family.” She stopped for a moment and then, almost to herself “I think he told me he sold insurance…”

She looked up at Marilyn, who was busy writing notes on a yellow legal pad and nodding. Judy wasn’t sure that Marilyn was the best person for her to be speaking to about these things. She’d probably never had a problem satisfying her husband’s expectations; in fact, he’d probably needed to adopt quite a few new skills just to be able to participate in her social circles. She was just the kind of woman that Douglas would have been drawn to, thought Judy. And suddenly, she didn’t like Dr. Pond all that much.

Scene 2:

Marilyn shook herself from her reverie as she heard the door slide open across the carpet of her office. She straightened up in her seat, her shoulders throbbing from hunching over her desk all day. She’d forgotten about Judy Egan, socialite, and immediately wracked her brain for memories of their last session. She should have had the receptionist pull her notes, but then, she should have remembered who her appointments were for the day. Suddenly, Judy was speaking to her and she lifted her eyes, making sure a smile warmed their tired depths.

“Yes, yes, how are you feeling this week, Judy? Have you been getting any sleep?” Their last session had been brief, Judy seemed distracted no doubt planning some charity ball or benefit show and Marilyn hadn’t been able to get to the heart of the issues bothering her. This week, however, Judy was eager to get started and was already chattering on about her husband, Douglas.

As Marilyn listened to Judy describe her life since marrying the wealthy Egan, she couldn’t help but draw parallels between her own failing marriage to Oliver. She reached for a legal pad and tried to focus on what Judy was saying, finding herself increasingly angry at Douglas and frustrated with Judy. She couldn’t understand how such a smart and sophisticated woman had let herself become so enamored with a man who seemed to like nothing about her. And she couldn’t wrap her head around men like Oliver and Egan who thought that money gave them a free pass to degrade the women they claimed to love, requiring more and more of them and then discarding them when they were all used up.

Marilyn realized she was still writing despite the quiet in the office and she looked up to meet Judy’s gaze. She felt her eyes misting over as she looked at her patient, wishing she could reach across the desk and hug her and suddenly realized that she liked Mrs. Eagan very much.

An Exercise: Working with Plot

This week’s assignment was to create two characters, both with clear desires, and pit them against one another. Writers can be evil, can’t they? I hope you enjoy what I came up with!

Maggie had finished loading the dishwasher and was filling the sink with warm soapy water when she realized that Patrick hadn’t headed into the living room to watch Jeopardy but was, instead, puttering about the kitchen and looking at her out of the corner of his eye. When he cleared his throat for the third time without saying anything, she knew that he wanted to talk about something serious. She turned off the tap and moved the kettle onto the front burner, pulling two mugs from the cabinet. As she got the tea ready she wondered if this sudden change in routine had anything to do with the meeting he’d told her about yesterday. Something his boss had wanted to talk to him about. It wasn’t like him to beat about the bush like this, so it must be something significant. She poured the hot water over the tea bags and watched the brown slowly rise through the water.

“Patrick,” she said, holding his mug out to him, “should we sit and chat?”

Patrick felt panic rising as he wrapped his strong hands around the mug and headed through the swinging door into the living room. He knew Maggie wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

They both settled into their matching recliners and Maggie put her mug on an ornate glass coaster she’d gotten from her mum and waited for him to tell her what it was that had him so flustered.

Patrick took a few swigs of tea, swallowing hard as the hot liquid burned his tongue, and a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Mags, I had that meeting I was telling you about yesterday, with Mr. Dillard? Actually, that’s why I was late to dinner. He wanted to talk to me about my retirement, well about something that’s to do with my retirement. The thing is, well, the company wants me to take a position, a supervisor position, actually. So that means when I retire in a few years we’ll have more to work with than we thought.” Patrick stopped talking and took another gulp of his tea. He wasn’t sure where to go from here and he looked over at his wife, sipping her tea and gazing at him thoughtfully.

Maggie wasn’t sure what Patrick was so nervous about. She was proud of his achievements at work and was looking forward to his retirement in a year or two. She was ready to spend her days with him underfoot and the kids and grandkids streaming in and out of the old house, as they did on the weekends. She smiled at him lovingly as he dashed on.

“So, I told him I’d think about it because, of course, I had to talk to you first and, well,” he paused for a moment and then it came out of him, all in a rush, “we’d have to move, Mags.”

Maggie froze; her mug hovered near the middle of her chest, arrested on its return trip to the coaster. She looked blankly at her husband, her brain refusing to process the information he had just relayed. She couldn’t look him in the eye and her breath came quicker as she fought down the pain and confusion and anger that were welling up into her throat. Snapping the footrest of her recliner down suddenly, she launched herself up, banged through the swinging door into the kitchen, and turned on the tap.

Patrick ran his hand over his face as he heard the sound of water running into the kitchen sink. When Maggie was mad, she cleaned and she wouldn’t stop cleaning until she was ready to talk. He left his tea on her coaster and headed upstairs, knowing that pursuing a conversation with her was pointless.

Maggie finished washing the dishes and wiped her hands on the scratchy, red kitchen towel her grandsons had given her for her birthday. It didn’t dry all that much, but it was the thought that counted. She walked slowly through the downstairs, lowering blinds and turning off lights. The house was silent, but not lonely. Each room was full of memories, of laughter, of family, of happiness. She stood at the foot of the stairs, in the dark, and listened to the sound of Patrick’s heavy breathing and occasional snores coming from their room upstairs. Then she climbed heavily past the framed photographs of weddings and birthdays, babies and anniversaries, proms and senior portraits. She peeked in on Liam, fast asleep across his father’s childhood bed, his curls etched in the shadows cast by the nightlight.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth in the chipped porcelain sink in the bathroom before sliding into cool sheets in the guest bedroom. She was calmer now, but she wouldn’t stay calm sleeping next to Patrick. She could hear his muffled snorts and snores as she tossed and turned, trying to silence her brain, trying not to think about what tomorrow would bring.

Patrick woke to the smell of bacon and coffee. It wafted up the stairs, as it did every Saturday. Maggie was up and puttering around downstairs, making breakfast for the kids and grandkids like she did every weekend. They would all be over soon and the house would be full of noise and smiles, just like it used to. Patrick dressed in a hurry, anxious to speak with Maggie before the kids arrived. He trotted downstairs and into the kitchen, nearly colliding with Liam as he ran out to the tire swing.

“Morning, Papa! Bacon’s good!” And he was gone, out the sliding glass door on his way to an adventure.

Patrick stood in the kitchen and watched his wife pull down her mother’s china. It had been handed down ages ago, for special occasions, but Maggie felt that time with family was reason enough to use it and so every family meal was eaten off those flowered plates. She turned to set the table and caught his eye across the kitchen, the tears welling up at once.

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I really am. But it’s move or take early retirement and I just don’t know if we can afford for me to do that.” He waited for her to move, to say something, for a glimpse into what was going on in her mind, in her heart. He needed to know what she thought.

Maggie swallowed the lump in her throat and held out a stack of plates. “We can tell the kids at breakfast,” she said. “When you retire, we can come back. Derek and June will keep it just so for us.”

Patrick took the stack of plates and set them on the counter, turning to wrap Maggie tight in his arms. He felt her heart beating fast against his ribs and smelled the tart, citrus scent of her hair. “Are you sure?” he whispered.

Maggie pulled back to look up at her husband, her arms still around his waist, her fingers interlocking at the small of his back. “I’m sure,” she smiled through the tears. “What’s two or three years in a new place if it means you’ll be around to bother me all day once it’s done? And we’ve always wanted to travel.”

The kids arrived, noisy and scattered, to find the table half set and their parents wrapped in one another’s arms, laughing and crying, in a world of their own.

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.of

An Exercise: Cast and Dialogue

As many of you know, I am taking an online class through University of Iowa. Each week I have to write a short piece to be evaluated by my peers. Each week I am also supposed to write a blog post. I love when the world conspires to make my life a little easier! Here is the piece I wrote for this week’s assignment on cast and dialogue. I hope you enjoy it!

*****

“Pregnant?” All the air seemed to rush from Rachel’s body, leaving her light-headed and panicky. “Pregnant?” She was suddenly aware of the sound of the fish tank, in desperate need of topping off, and the pounding of her own heartbeat in her ears. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

The dog walker just sat there, her hands clenching and unclenching in her lap. “He didn’t want me to say anything,” she finally said. “He said he’d, you know, take care of it. No one would have to know. And I said ok but…”

Rachel waited, not wanting to give the girl any comfort, unable to feel anything. And suddenly, she had to move. She rose abruptly and went into the kitchen. She filled a glass pitcher at the sink and added three drops of the blue ph balance into the water, watching it swirl through the center of the jug, then returned to the living room.

The dog sitter, Becky, was it? hadn’t moved and she began speaking again, all in a rush, as Rachel slowly added the water into the tank.

“I mean, I don’t think I can just…get rid of it. Or whatever.  And I wouldn’t ask for anything from you, from either of you.”

“What more could you possibly ask of me?” Rachel didn’t bother to turn around from the tank, her vehemence leaving little flecks of spit against the glass. “You’re pregnant.” Her hands were starting to shake. “You’re pregnant,” she whispered, and the tears were suddenly there.

Neither of them spoke for what seemed like hours. Rachel’s heaving shoulders and Becky’s nervous hands were all that moved. Then there was the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, a key in the lock, and still, neither of them said a word.

Matt sauntered in, a smile in his eyes and a whistle on his lips. He slipped the bouquet behind his back as he walked across the living room. Rachel imagined his smile beginning to fade when he noticed Becky, her usual exuberance replaced with red-rimmed eyes and twisting fingers.

“Uh, hey there, Becky.”

Rachel could hear his attempted nonchalance and his footsteps continuing toward her. She slowly  turned to face him and he froze in the middle of the room. All traces of tears had vanished and her eyes were dark and hot and angry.

“She’s pregnant?”

The flowers dropped slowly from behind Matt’s back and hung limply at his side.

“She’s pregnant with our baby and you wanted her to…get rid of it?” Her voice was rising and cracking and her cheeks were pink. “How long? How long have we been trying?” She was screaming now, grabbing blindly at anything she could grab and lobbing it at Matt with all of her strength. “Trying to have a baby! All the shots, all the disappointments, and then this? You screwed the dog walker?”

“Please,” said Becky, standing to her feet, “it was just the one time. It didn’t…”

“One time? One time?” Rachel snatched the glass pitcher from the tank table and hurled it at Becky. “One. Time!”

In three steps Matt was at Rachel’s side, crushing her in his arms, gritting his teeth as she thrashed and struggled. Her hair whipped across his face and she tried to bite him, sobbing hysterically.

“I told you I’d take care of it,” he grunted. “Why would you come here and do this to her, to us?”

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.

Writing is Scary

Putting yourself out there is scary. I think we can all agree that opening ourselves up to be critiqued, evaluated, judged, is a really intimidating process. You might think it gets easier the more often you do it but I haven’t found that to be the case at all! And putting your writing (or music/art/craftmanship/etc.) out there to be assessed is even harder. Basically you take this thing that has consumed your every spare moment; a product of endless hours of thought, and struggle, and passion, and means more to you than just about anything else, and you lay it out there and ask people to tell you what they like (yay!) and what they don’t (boo!). The idea makes me queasy. And yet, it must be done for us to get any better in the arts we pursue.

I suck at writing dialogue. I avoid having my characters talk to one another because, when I read back over the conversations I’ve created I realize that no real people talk like that. Every longer work that I’ve attempted has stalled when I feel the urge to have my characters talk because I just can’t write it out. It’s something I need to do better, something I know I’m not good at and yet, when asked to write a dialogue sketch, I balk. I want to quit before I have to submit something. What the heck!? I already know I’m bad so what would it really matter to hear it from someone else? Especially when they will also include ideas about how to make it better? When you figure that one out, let me know. It still stumps me.

So in an effort to face my fears of criticism head on I have enrolled in a course through the University of Iowa called How Writers Write Fiction. It has been really enlightening and engaging so far and, lo and behold I’ve even received my first writing assignment…yep, you guessed it, dialogue. I guess it was meant to be. I’m pretending to be looking forward to the feedback while reminding myself that this is what I need to be better. So tune in next week for a peek at how this assignment turned out (and cross your fingers for me).