A Week of Sketches: Whatever

Hmm… This is actually the last of the sketches I wrote for Madhouse, so calling this “A Week of Sketches” may have been a little bit generous on my part. Oh well…

WHATEVER

The setting: a stage. Major characters include a director, a writer named Barry, and an actor named Todd. Other actors mill about, until the director calls them all together.

DIRECTOR: Gather ’round, everyone. Great to see you all here for our first rehearsal. We’re lucky enough to have the playwright with us today, so I was thinking that, Barry, you might set the scene for us to give Todd a sense of where this whole thing is going.

 WRITER: Right. Well, the play is called A Walk at Sunset. We open on Larry, alone on the stage. He’s just had a fight with his girlfriend of four years. This is the one. He’s on the edge, ready to chuck the whole thing, understand? And the first thing we hear is, “Whatever. I’m going for a walk.” And the whole rest of the play is Larry walking through his old memories. How he met his girlfriend, how they fell in love, what led up to this stupid fight. And at the end, he realizes that, yes, she is the love of his life… In fact, she’s everything to him.

DIRECTOR: Got it, Todd? Okay, then. From the top.

 TODD: “Listen up, babe. I’m out of here.”

DIRECTOR: Nice, nice. I like it. Great attitude.

WRITER: Just—sorry, just a second. The way I have it in the script is, “Whatever. I’m going for a walk.” You see, everything hinges on that “Whatever.” It’s pregnant with all of the character’s exasperation. And all he can think at that point is that he needs to get out of their little apartment and clear his head.

(TODD looks at the DIRECTOR. The DIRECTOR looks back at him and shrugs. They both roll their eyes.)

DIRECTOR: Fair enough. Why don’t we try it Barry’s way and see how it works.

TODD: You’re the director. [Gets into character.] “Whatever, babe. I got shit to do.”

WRITER: Stop. No. It’s “Whatever. I’m going for a walk.”

TODD: I got the “Whatever,” didn’t I? You said everything hinges on “Whatever.”

WRITER: But then there’s the next line. “I’m going for a walk.”

TODD: Sounds kind of lame, don’t you think? I mean, “I’m going for a walk?” Who says that?

WRITER: But that’s… The play… It’s called A Walk at Sunset. So the first line has to be, “Whatever. I’m going for a walk.” It’s the whole point.

DIRECTOR: Okay, Todd. I kind of see where Barry’s going with this. Let’s try it his way one more time.

TODD: You got it, man. I’m a professional. But what if he says something like, “You think I need this shit? You really think I need this shit, bitch?” before we get to the first line? You know, to set the tone.

DIRECTOR: Barry?

WRITER: No. That’s so… That’s just…

DIRECTOR: Not exactly what you’re going for?

WRITER: Not… even… close.

 (The WRITER tenses. The DIRECTOR holds up a hand to calm him down.)

DIRECTOR: Okay, Todd. It’s “Whatever. I’m going for a walk.” Let’s try it again. From the top.

TODD: “Whatever, babe. I’m going out.”

DIRECTOR: Great, Todd.

WRITER: No. It’s not great. It’s not what I wrote.

TODD: Oh, right. The script. [Todd puts air quotes around “the script.”]

WRITER: Yes, the script. What am I even doing here if you’re going to ad lib the whole thing?

TODD: I was wondering the same thing myself.

DIRECTOR: Guys! Fellas! Compadres! I’m sure we can work this out. What’s the problem? What’s the issue we’re having? Talk to me.

WRITER: Have you been here for the past five minutes? This guy’s mangling my words.

TODD: Sorry, man. I just don’t see this character saying that line. I mean, he’s his own boss, right? A man of action. What’s with all this “going for a walk” bullshit? This guy doesn’t back down.

DIRECTOR: Sure, sure. I see what you’re saying.

TODD: I mean, if I can’t get behind this character, how’s the audience supposed to believe in him?

DIRECTOR: Valid point. Barry?

WRITER: You can’t be serious.

TODD: How’s this for an idea? Props.

DIRECTOR: Sure thing, Todd. What did you have in mind?

TODD: I don’t know. Maybe I have a trash bag and I’m taking out the trash. Because that would give me motivation, right? I mean, I need a reason to go out, don’t I?

WRITER: Your reason is that you just had a blowout with your girlfriend.

TODD: Then what if I’m taking the dog for a walk. Everyone loves dogs, right? Maybe we can do a Marley and Me kind of thing?

DIRECTOR: That would be a little tough to manage.

TODD: Right. The poop and all.

DIRECTOR: Exactly. The poop. But maybe he has a bird in a cage.

TODD: I like that. Because this character—Larry, right?—is like a bird in a cage.

DIRECTOR: And how about this? The bird? It’s a mockingbird.

TODD: And it’s mocking Larry. I love it. But does the guy’s name have to be Larry?

DIRECTOR: I don’t know. Barry, what do you think? Does it have to be Larry?

WRITER: Yes, it has to be Larry. That’s the character’s name. And he doesn’t have a bird, and he doesn’t have a dog, and he doesn’t have a bag of trash.

DIRECTOR: Then what does he have?

WRITER: A soul boiling over with turmoil and confusion.

TODD: Kind of hard to show that on stage, don’t you think, big guy?

DIRECTOR: Todd’s right, Barry. But if we give the guy a mockingbird, then the audience gets a visual cue. They know that he sees himself as a caged animal.

TODD: And how about this? At the end of the play, he opens the cage and sets the mockingbird free.

DIRECTOR: Love it, love it, LOVE IT!

TODD: Because at the end, he realizes that he doesn’t need this woman in his life. All he needs is his freedom.

DIRECTOR: Freedom. Exactly. And that’s what this play is all about.

WRITER: No! That’s the opposite of what this play is all about. Have you guys even read the script?

TODD: Of course I did. Well, my people did, anyway, and they tell me it’s the perfect vehicle for me.

DIRECTOR: It is, Todd. It really is. PERFECT! From what I’ve read of it, anyway.

TODD: So I think I know a little something about “A Walk in the Moonlight.”

WRITER: SUNSET! “A WALK AT SUNSET!”

TODD: Whoa! Calm down there, shotgun! What has your panties in a knot?

WRITER: What has my panties in a knot? I’ll tell you. My script is ninety-seven pages long, and the so-called star of the show can’t even get through the first line. That, my aesthetically challenged friend, is what has my panties in a knot. [Turns to director.] And you! I’d be amazed if you could direct traffic on a one-way street, let alone my play.

DIRECTOR: You know what? Let’s all take a deep breath and count to ten.

WRITER: Count to ten? This guy’s lucky if he can get past two.

TODD: I don’t need this shit. Do you know who I am?

WRITER: Yeah. You’re the idiot who’s wrecking my play.

TODD: Whatever. I’m going for a walk.

(Dumbstruck, the WRITER and DIRECTOR watch TODD stalk off the stage.)

WRITER: Wait! That’s it! That’s the line! COME BACK!

END

Advice from Junot Diaz

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see Junot Diaz speak at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Towards the end of his discussion, he offered some advice for writers that I personally found very helpful. Here are a few things he had to say:

  • Leave room for your reader. Don’t spell everything out for your reader. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the events that you describe. Allow for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is good.
  • Characters are best understood in relation to each other. Diaz used the “character” of Wilson in Castaway as an example of this concept. Wilson, who is a a volleyball, gives the hero of that film (played by Tom Hanks) someone to talk to. It’s through the hero’s interaction with Wilson that we learn the most about the hero.
  • The world should resist your characters. Don’t place your characters in an idealized world. Instead, allow your characters to live in a world where the daily tribulations that complicate all of our lives rear their ugly heads and complicate your characters’ lives.
  • Don’t worry about publishing. Worry about writing. If you want to be an artist, work on your art.
  • Live your life. People who’ve spent their lives learning how to write might end up having little if anything to write about. People who have lived — who have gone and done things and met people and made mistakes and experienced the world — have something to write about. Diaz also suggested that if you want to be a writer, you should get your heart broken on three continents.
  • Read. Diaz remarked that writers are the only artists he knows who don’t do the thing they want their audience to do. Musicians listen to music. Painters admire the work of other painters. But half the time he goes out to see writers at readings, they say they’re “too busy writing” to do any reading. Diaz made a point of saying that this attitude is insane.

Great advice from a great author! If you have the chance, definitely attend one of his readings.

Exercises in Character, pt.3, “Out of Character”

As anyone who’s ever read or written fiction knows, characters need to remain relatively consistent. Consistency, after all, is what allows us to get to know people both in real life and on the printed page. At the same time, however, we all probably know people who have done things that we might describe as “out of character.” In other words, they act in ways that aren’t consistent with our expectations. When this happens in real life, we might react with shock or disappointment, but our disbelief can usually be tempered with a simple explanation—usually it’s something along the lines of someone having a bad day or a moment of weakness. When these inconsistencies happen in fiction, however, readers need a slightly stronger explanation. If handled correctly, a lapse in judgment can lend depth to a character.

For this activity, take one of your characters and have that character do something that may at first glance be out of line with who that character is. If it’s a “good guy,” you can have the character do something bad. Conversely, if it’s a “bad guy,” think of a situation in which that character might do something good. (It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be a small gesture.) As you write this piece, ask yourself why the character is doing what she is doing. What has pushed the character to this decision? What kind of internal struggle does the character have to go through in order to do something that is not in line with his or self-image? And how does the character react to this action after completing it? Does she feel guilty? Is she proud of herself? Does she try to justify it? For greater effect, think about a way in which one of the flaws you examined in Exercise One might play into it.

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 2)