What We Talk About When We Talk About Something Else
So many times when we speak, we use one topic, subject matter, or issue to stand for and illuminate what we feel about something else. Just like:
• When Jules tells Kim in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” that she’s crème brulee and she’s “never gonna be Jello.”
• When Carrie thinks of her own indiscretion in “Sex in the City” as her boyfriend Aiden talks about a piece of furniture he’s made. He points out the flaw in the wood and says the flaw is what makes the piece interesting.
• When, at the end of my all-time-favorite romance movie: “Love & Basketball,” Monica thinks she’s lost the man she loves, and he says [spoiler alert] “Hey . . . double or nothin.’”
• Or, how about the entire movie (or book)” Like Water for Chocolate.” The exquisite and painstaking preparation of food stands as a metaphor for love, especially making it? Simply delicious.
All right . . . your assignment is to write a scene between two people. Give these two people something physical to do: wash dishes by hand, paint a house, build a house, fix a car, take dragon-riding lessons, build a campfire, get corseted into dresses, etc. Have them discuss what’s going on, what they’re doing, their surroundings, but make what they’re discussing stand for something much more powerful and crucial in one or both of their lives.
Here’s an example of a scene I wrote in a workshop. It’s a short dialogue between two women, one of whom is sleeping with the other woman’s husband. They are in a kitchen making a salad together for a gathering of friends.
Melissa: You look like you really know what you’re doing.
Krista: Nah. It’s just a salad.
Melissa: No. I mean you’re really going at it. Those poor carrots.
Krista: It’s not really about the carrots.
Melissa: It’s not, huh?
Krista: No. It’s about the knife.
(Krista smiles, bounces a little. Rocks the knife through the next carrot.)
Melissa: So, who do you think you are over there, the Happy Chef?
Melissa: What’s so joyful about severing things?
Krista: Some things are just better in pieces.
Okay, we had two minutes and the emphasis was on dialogue, but I’m sure you get the gist. You have a lot more time for your exercise, so no shortcuts . . . only a fully written scene. Remember to keep your characters active, painting a picture of what they’re doing. Your characters don’t have to be adversarial, but it would be oh so fun if they were! If you choose to tell us what they’re really talking about, please hold your reveal until the end of the scene.