Monday Motivation: Chasing rabbits in the Dark
I’ve been watching Dark, the fabulously complex story of time travel and alternate universes, on Netflix – and am currently drowning in that very complexity midway through the third season.
Time travel produces some famously mind-boggling paradoxes, the easiest of which is now commonly called the grandfather paradox: a person travels to the past and kills his own grandfather before his father or mother has been conceived, which wipes the time traveller from the future.
Paradoxes aside, however, what Dark demonstrates with remarkable élan is another possible paradox: the more complex your story, the simpler each scene that makes it up must be.
Which brings me to my subject, which is expressed quite simply in the injunction that you shouldn’t ever chase two rabbits in one scene.
This is a staple of advice given to screenwriters, but it seems to me to be more or less applicable to all narratives.
Your character learns that his father is dying in a distant city. There is little possibility of his making the journey to his father’s bedside – there is, let’s say, a pandemic raging through the land. His helplessness is frustrating, even agonising. This could be a big emotional scene ending with his deciding, perhaps, to defy the law and make the journey.
Now imagine that you’ve established that your character has a troubled teen who’s been experimenting with drugs, whose behaviour has been becoming increasingly erratic, and who now appears to be suicidal. He approaches his father and declares his despair.
You might be tempted to merge these two scenes. After all, haven’t I frequently quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum that you should put your character through hell? But there’s a danger in giving a single scene two major dramatic beats: the one will fight with the other. The two rabbits find themselves competing for centre stage and as a consequence, the reader is not certain what the scene’s about.
It’s a little like another thing that novice writers do. One character asks not one, but two or more questions in a single speech, thus:
“What’s the new woman’s name? How long has she been here? Do you have any idea what qualifications she has?”
Now, this character’s interlocutor has a problem. Which question does he answer? All of them? “Alice. Three months. A masters in philosophy.” This sounds either comic or a little absurd. People don’t talk like this. Or does he answer the first? “Alice.”
That also sounds a little odd.
So far better to run the questions in succession, with answers being proferred to each in turn.
Likewise, your character might well face two challenges: a dying father and a deeply distressed son. So, instead of muddling the two issues up in one scene, run them in succession. Imagine that the issue of his son arises first. Adam’s not sure how to deal with it. Then, in a later scene, he gets news of his dying father. His decision to make the trip to his bedside is complicated by his obligations to, and love for, his son. But the scenes don’t muddy each other. We explore one issue in one scene first, then gasp as we realise how in another scene the second issue prolematises the first.
So just as Dark leads us incrementally through the thickets of a deeply complicated story, so we owe it to our readers to be as clear as we can in exploring the problems confronting our hero.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Change perspective, you change the story‘