Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Have you ever been asked where you get the ideas for your stories?
What a question—of course you have.
And you probably get story ideas from everywhere—from the antics of family and friends, from a snippet of an overheard conversation, from the melody of a song, the color of the night sky, and the moment when your first child said her first word.
Our ideas come from everywhere, everyone, and everything. Nothing is too insignificant to spark an idea.
And that’s as true for me with nonfiction articles as it’s true for you and your fiction.
Today’s article comes courtesy of The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta about the adventures of Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, and Ko-Ko in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu.
I recently watched a student production—well done, especially the singing. And as I watched, the different groupings of characters caught my attention in a way they usually don’t.
I’ve worked in theatre, and I’ve been a choreographer, so I understand different stage groupings and the importance of different patterns. But as one group gave way to another, I started imagining using the same kind of deliberate pairings in written fiction.
Musicals may use particular pairings of characters in order to match or blend certain vocal parts for songs, but they also pair characters to create a particular emotional punch. So a best friend might get to sing with the scorned lover, two characters who might not otherwise find themselves alone appearing together in a scene without the main character.
Musicals take advantage of soloists, duets, trios, other small groups, and large ensembles.
And you could work the same kinds of pairings in your stories—deliberately put together characters of a certain outlook or personality or emotional temperament—in order to manipulate the feel, the rhythm, the emotional component, and the mood of your scenes.
I’m guessing that most writers don’t actively study their scenes to determine if they’ve used the best blend of characters, but what if you did? What could you create if you were deliberate about casting your scenes?
~ What if you knew that Johnny Cougar and Jeremy Blue, if they could get together, would get straight to the heart of the matter between them, no fussing, no hesitation, and no verbal distractions to divert them from a confrontation packing power and heat?
~ Or what if Johnny and Jeremy had to tiptoe around one another, heading toward an inevitable confrontation but slowly, ever so slowly, because those who usually run interference for them are absent?
~ What if Samuel’s best friend and his fiancee—who love Samuel but hate one another—could be forced into a scene that makes them bare their love for him while sharing valid and heartbreaking reasons that they could never trust one another?
~ What would happen if you purposely wrote a scene for your amateur detective and the story’s killer that bares their deepest secrets, secrets that for some reason they both expect one another to keep no matter what else happens?
Some of you may already write this way, but I’m guessing that most of you create plot events—this happens and then this and this—rather than map out scenes that purposely feature a variety of character pairings. Yet perhaps you might like to give this approach a try.
Would a story be stronger if it were given a passionate (or anger-fueled or alcohol-driven) scene between two characters who wouldn’t normally be paired, who would be so good together that you could feel the emotion crackling from the page before you even wrote the scene?
In musicals such pairings may not necessarily be logical in terms of the plot—and you would have to make your story logical—but they are often powerful moments. Unusual character groupings are used for comic relief or for secondary threads or to add twists. They can be used to reveal information. They can definitely be used to cause problems.
Any story might benefit from such pairings, from groups of characters whose unexpected meetings ratchet up the conflict or provide character motivation, groupings that push boundaries, especially emotional ones.
I’d love to hear from you—do you purposely seek ways to put different character pairings in your scenes or have you never considered the option? If you do purposely mix and match character groups in scenes, do you only stop at one pairing—I’ve got to write a scene with Ed and Helga—without considering other unusual pairings as well?
Do the same three characters feature in every scene?
Do your scenes switch predictably from your two main characters to those same two characters with their wider circle of friends and back again to just the two of them?
Do all major characters get scenes with other major characters, or are some denied the opportunity to meet alone?
Do you ever consider matching the comic relief with a wise character, a child with the one character who hates or fears children, the quietest character with the most belligerent?
While this approach may not work for every story, do consider character pairings that you never would have imagined. Look for ways to create emotional scenes with unusual casting choices that also advance plot and/or reveal character.
At the same time, always keep in mind that all scenes and events must fit other elements of the story. So even an outstanding scene between an unusual pairing of characters wouldn’t actually be outstanding if it didn’t fit with the other story elements.
■ Look not only at plot twists as you plan scenes but at the unique qualities of characters and character combinations. Write an explosive scene for characters not known to explode—maybe they prove combustible only when they’re alone together or when they’re away from the gentling influence of their own close friends.
■ Write a contemplative scene for the wild character who never stops, who never slows down or shuts up. Let the influence of another character touch him, if only for a moment.
■ Let one character help another with a new outlook or understanding.
■ Put group dynamics of a large group into play by including several volatile characters in a scene and then lighting a match to their tempers or emotions. Make sure that those who are usually able to talk the characters down are absent or at least silenced by the crowd.
■ Purposely design scenes that take advantage of what you know about group behavior in stressful situations.
■ Use what you know about manipulation to have one character get another to do his bidding.
■ Take what you know about one-on-one interactions to devise a scene that lets characters feel safe sharing confidences when they’re alone, confidences which later get shouted out to the world when one or both characters betray those confidences.
■ Cast your scenes with character groupings that help you layer on conflict and raise emotional responses well beyond the tepid level.
Put characters together with purpose. And then make those characters react in ways that propel the story into higher levels of passion or excitement, deeper levels of conflict, and more memorable or more significant interactions.
Make the most out of your character groupings.
And if you need a little help getting started, go watch a musical or opera. See if you can figure out why certain characters are paired in scenes and musical numbers. See if there’s anything you can borrow from musical theatre that will enhance your fiction.