How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

5 May
What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’t work together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

Melissa Falcon Field’s novel What Burns Away has this tension in spades. You can read the opening of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel opens with a scene that may feel familiar to parents of young children. It’s morning, the baby is awake and screaming, and one of the parents is getting ready for work. The other is staying home. So, the scene is set:

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: “Mama! Come!

Such hollering tends to create a particular mood in a house, in a scene. Think about the last time you were around tired people while a child screamed. What was the mood? Frustrated? Frantic? Now, watch the book’s narrator (Jonah’s mother) look at her husband:

I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Already, you can see a distance open up between the sensibility of the scene (screaming child) and the response of the character “tapped his razor.” Imagine how else this description of the husband could have been written. He could have become as frantic as the child (parents often do). He could have snapped at his wife. He could have rushed out the door. Instead, he moves methodically. Now, watch how the sensibility of that tapping razor gets stretched along:

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon’s hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. “Please, Mama!”

Every sentence contains a key detail: Instead of turning to his wife to see if she hears the baby, Miles keeps his back to her. He has gained weight, which has pooled (note the inertia implied in that word choice) at his waist. We learn that he’s a surgeon with a steady hand. In short, his refusal to get sucked in to the household drama is an essential part of his nature and evident in his actions, his physical appearance, and his career.

Now, watch what happens next:

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

That’s a cold line. He’s asserting himself and his sensibility upon the drama around him. It’s a line that you can feel like a punch in the gut.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a gap between scene and character using What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field as a model:

  1. Set the tone of the scene. Often, this is done by introducing a particular force. In What Burns Away, it’s a screaming baby. In my earlier example, it was an uncle acting inappropriately at a wedding. Both are characters who can’t be tamed, at least not easily. This week’s episode of Mad Men had a great example of this. Don’s in a meeting with a table full of creative directors, listening to a pitch about beer. The company is impressively huge, and so everyone is listening intently. But not Don. In short, walk something into the scene that cannot be ignored, that must be dealt with.
  2. Create the character who will not play along. In What Burns Away, the husband refuses to quicken his morning routine for a screaming child. In Mad Men, Don refuses to listen. At the wedding, a character could egg the uncle on, rather than tamping down his behavior. If you know what the best or necessary behavior is, think about what it would mean for a character to A) do the opposite or B) disregard the thing that cannot be ignored.
  3. Be subtle. Miles eventually tells his wife to get the baby, which is highly dramatic, but before we get to that moment, we see him resisting or ignoring in a very small way: tapping his razor. In Mad Men, Don looks out the window before he walks out of the room. Don’t jump directly to the drama. Set it up by giving the character the smallest possible physical action that reveals or embodies his or her sensibility or behavior in general. Give the character a way to not play along that no one but the reader and maybe one other character will notice.

Good luck.

3 Responses to “How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene”

  1. noorajahangir May 6, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    Reblogged this on NOOR A JAHANGIR and commented:
    A quick insight into how to create friction/tension between characters using what is happening in scene from the Read to Write Stories blog (authors, I recommend following this blog).

  2. neelpanicker May 8, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    For a lover of words who is passionate about writing this is a highly recommended blog _most educative and insightful.


  1. An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field | Read to Write Stories - May 7, 2015

    […] To read an exercise on creating tension in a story and an excerpt from Falcon Field’s novel, What Burns Away, click here. […]

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