Overcoming The Blank Screen

EasterI’m writing this post instead of doing my real work, because my real work is stuck.

I wrote a scintillating (ha!) Chapter 1, which got the new project off the ground. Hurrah for that. Now I’m staring at the proverbial blank screen and Chapter 2 is not forming in my mind. It’s been several days.

This is what’s wrong with writing from character. There’s no roadmap. I deliberately chose to do it this way for this project because I need to flagellate myself if I’m ever going to break free of genre. In genre writing, you write an outline that follows a fairly well-defined dramatic form, sketch a few character types, and start writing. The plotline pulls you along. And the result is not so bad.  I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve done that way.

But I always knew my characterization was weak, a particularly galling acknowledgment for a former psychologist. So on the current project, I vowed to start with characters, and I did. But without the strong plotline to guide me, look what happens – I’m dead in the water.

I’ve spent weeks understanding my main characters, not down to the last biographical detail, but in profiles.  I do have a story outline at a high level of abstraction, not detailed enough to tell me what to say in chapter 2.

I finally decided on having an Easter dinner because I wanted it to be spring, and I have a distant image of a future Thanksgiving dinner when everybody’s situations will be radically changed. Bookends then.

The MC and his wife, and two kids, will have her parents over for an Easter dinner.  That would be a fraught situation that I could make crackle with subterranean agendas. It’s stereotypical, I realize, but I thought it might be within my skills. Jonathan Franzen did it in Corrections, a book I did not enjoy for being trivially banal, but facing the blank screen now, I appreciate it better in retrospect.

I have sketched characters’ positions, agendas, and voices; and spent more time than I’d like to admit researching the locations I wanted (affluent living room, dining room, and kitchen), and way more time than is conscionable researching the menu. (As a vegetarian and non-foodie, I had to suppress my gag reflex more than once.)  I thought I had it ready to go, when I realized: it was going to be boring.

Scenery, however pastel, was not going to be enough. I needed something to happen. Somebody needed to have a heart attack, or the gas stove had to explode, or, at the very least, somebody had to scream, knock back their chair, and stomp away from the table and out of the room. It didn’t really matter.

I thought of what Faulkner did in As I Lay Dying. He just invented things to throw at his characters: fire, flood, river, mules, distance, and a totally contrived “road trip” story.  His obstacles were almost arbitrary, but he needed to give his characters something to react against, to reveal who they were, which they did. Needless to say, I’m no Faulkner. I’m not even a Franzen. But the principle seems correct: throw the characters a crisis.

So I made up a list of crises, similar to the ones already mentioned, and decided on one that would involve the power going out, leaving the family in the dark, trapped in the house, the food uncooked.  They are thrown together, forced to huddle and look directly at each other’s faces. I’m not sure what they’ll do, but I think I can find out now.

There will be three scenes. First the giddy anticipation and preparation of the feast, with subtexts of anxiety. Second, the power goes out just as dinner is to start, and how does everybody react to that? Finally, there will be the “after-party” scene when most of the immediate crisis is handled, but plans have to be made for what to do next. Lots of potential for good in-fighting there.

I hope I can start writing something tomorrow. There’s still some significant detail to sort, but I’m starting to get the sense of what it will be like.


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