I TOOK IMPROVISATIONAL ACTING CLASSES FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS. This exercise is the perhaps unorthodox child of those experiences and my crazy love of a complicated writing prompt. Here’s how I offered it in a writing workshop, once upon a time …
With Six You Get Egg Roll
Start by describing a vacant setting. One character enters—with justification. (Why did your character come “on stage”? What are they after? Add some internals to let your reader know.)
After a bit, a second character joins the first—also with justification. Characters One and Two interact. Then Character Three joins the cast. All three play their roles, until Number Four, and then Five, enter in turn. (Add a Number Six, and you win the egg roll!)
Five Fingers on My Hand
The trick? All your characters enter with reasonable justification, each has an agenda, and your drama engages them all: Think, mini-scenes, embroilment, cross-talk, cross-purposes, competition.
Then, for equally good reasons, in reverse order of their entrances, each character leaves the scene until your setting is once again an empty stage.
Harold and Maude
Improv actors will recognize this exercise as a Harold, a classic improv device. Writers will recognize this exercise as a neat trick that forces them out of the box of two- or even three-character scenes. Past Monday night workshoppers will recognize this as a fresh pat of butter used to sizzle the creative (vegan) bacon of their agile brains.
What do you think?
Five? Six? Seven? How many characters can you get on and off the stage of your story while still holding tight to the belt loop that suspends your reader’s disbelief?
As you can see in the image above, five characters are engaged in a confrontation of some sort. The Five of Wands typically represents a hotly contested competition, a chaotic bid for power between factions, opposing voices or ideas, or a flair-up of conflicting goals.
Whether it’s a family drama, a bar brawl, or a political debate gone bad, it’s never pleasant to find ourselves smack in the middle of such a real-life clash of energy. However, if your fictional characters start acting out like this, you’re in luck!
From A GAME OF THRONES, by George R. R. Martin; to THE KNOWN WORLD, by Edward P. Jones; to SCORPION STRIKE, by John J. Nance, big conflicts drive big stories. Dramatic books about sports, like CHARIOTS OF FIRE, by W. J. Weatherby; SELECTION DAY, by Aravind Adiga; and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, by H. G. Bissinger, get much of their juice from the tension brought by competition. And family dramas? Well, they are dramatic precisely because of the strife experienced between characters with the most intimate of bonds.
So, while you probably don’t want to court such struggle in your day-to-day relationships, when you’re writing fiction, slap a version of the Five of Wands up on your inspiration board as a reminder to let your major characters knock each other around with big (metaphoric) sticks … until the dust settles and a winner emerges from the fray.