Today I’m back in the hot seat as I’ve received a question from Frankie Rose of Lancashire who asks, “What’s the most challenging scene you’ve ever had to write?”
It’s a tough question to answer without giving plot-lines away so, Frankie, if you don’t mind, I’m going to twist the question slightly and talk more generally about my approach to writing challenging scenes. The scenes that I’ve chosen to illustrate my answers won’t contain any significant spoilers.
I think that every book or screenplay contains a scene that the author has approached with a certain amount of trepidation or dread. For example, for Anthony McCarten, who wrote the script of The Theory of Everything, it was the one in which Stephen and Jane Hawking acknowledged that their marriage had come to an end. Since Stephen could say very little, McCarten didn’t think it was fair to allow Jane to use words as weapons. He spoke about the need to convey great emotion in very few words. And that’s really my first rule of thumb: keep it simple.
Sometimes the reason for the dread is the subject-matter. Perhaps I might have to kill off a character I’ve come to care about, for example. (Game of Thrones author George R R Martin compares this to murdering your children.) In the case of These Fragile Things, I chose to write a book about near-death experience which also deals with issues of faith and, more specifically, religious visions. My sister’s advice was that no one but Graham Greene should even attempt to write a book about religion, but I felt it was the book I couldn’t avoid writing. Many of the issues depicted are part of my DNA. My grandfather’s conversion to the Catholic faith shaped my father’s childhood and my own. It was important to me that I tackled everything with great sensitivity, with a character representing a distinct point of view, and each believing absolutely in that stand-point.
THESE FRAGILE THINGS
“It’s a miracle,” Graham said to the photographer. “A miracle, that’s what it is.”
Trying to contain her shaking, Elaine thought of Judy entrapped in wire and tubes and framework. She had looked less vulnerable as a tiny baby, naked and sightless, but already fighting, very much her own person. Better to be blind but utterly sure of yourself than the open-eyed terror begging for something that wasn’t Elaine’s to give. She hadn’t wanted to leave her daughter in that room with its bleeping machines. There was no Richard Chamberlain with orange skin and fluoride-white teeth, timing pulses to perfection with a fob watch. In his place, a sinister-looking doctor whose attentiveness bordered on possessiveness.
“It’s a miracle,” Graham was repeating, appearing to need her endorsement.
But it was men who had saved her daughter. Strangers who came together, working under the beam of car headlights. One boy who had cared enough to stay. There had been no supernatural intervention: no angry Old Testament God reaping vengeance on a South London suburb; no New Testament God had appeared, white-robed, to pull Judy to her feet, illuminating her way with rays of light. It had been dusty and bloody, sweaty and loud. Elaine remembered being dragged away from where she had clawed at the debris. She had allowed herself to weep. Thrown herself against a chest that didn’t belong to her husband. It had happened like this, here in this place. Elaine let the cordon slip through her hands, looking towards the front doors that had opened, spilling families out onto the pavement; the workers and the huddled witnesses who had stood vigil. She must find them, thank them – just as soon as she’d had a few hours’ sleep.
Turning back, Elaine saw that her husband was being asked to move to the left so the photographer could frame his shot: Graham, posing against the chaotic backdrop, proclaiming his absolute certainty. Even though she knew he’d come back down to earth, Elaine felt an uneasiness she couldn’t account for. How could you possibly know? You weren’t here.
Sometimes the fear may come from the fact that I know how much of myself will have to go into the scene. Writing emotional scenes can be totally draining. But I also need to be in the right frame of mind to tackle the scene. Occasionally, to write the first draft of a tired and emotional scene, it helps to be tired and emotional, so that you can use the emotion, rather than having to recreate it. I might set the alarm for the middle of the night so that I’m at least halfway there.
Let me totally upfront: I hate the thought of writing sex scenes. There are so many holes you can fall down. This article explains just some of them. And if a writer as experienced as Ben Okri can win the bad sex in fiction award, then what chance do I have?
I’m am much more likely to leave readers at the bedroom door or, if I allow readers inside, I might opt to show a tender moment between characters. It might then seem odd that I chose to write a book in which one of my two main characters is a sex-worker. The example I’ve chosen isn’t a romantic scene. Here, in An Unchoregraphed Life, Alison encounters a difficult client. As an ex-ballerina, Alison has taught herself to endure pain and she has also got very good at pretending she’s in character.
AN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE
It was a bad session. The worst she could remember.
Alison felt very different on the inside to how she looked on the outside. Her strength came from within. Of all her regulars, she had always felt that Jay was the one who had something bubbling under, that thing she didn’t like to dwell on – a propensity for cruelty. As Cat had once lectured her, If you swim with sharks, you have to be prepared to run into a Great White.
Jay used an escort – or so he told her – because he had a taste for things his wife preferred not to do. This didn’t mark him out as unusual. His justification for infidelity was that he never did the things he did with his wife with another woman. No kissing had been his first rule. But this boundary as he saw it – this distinction – together with the question of payment, reinforced his belief that he was entitled to behave in a certain way. Wariness had led Alison to set ground rules of her own. Although she’d told Jay they were routine, it wasn’t something she’d ever found necessary with other clients. Her first rule was respect.
“Hey, not so rough.”
Having given him the first warning, now he was calling her ‘bitch’. It was the tone he used as much as the word. A tough-guy voice. “Do you like that, bitch?” he repeated.
Was he trying to provoke a reaction or was it possible he had mistaken her rapid heartbeat for excitement? She had two choices: ask him to stop or let him finish as quickly as possible. She chose the latter.
Focus on the money.
Jay weighed twice as much as Alison did. She had been taught to endure pain, the body’s way of telling you it’s under attack, but this was invasive. Pinned down, she drew on an inner source of anger and drove it deeper still: How can you expect respect when you don’t respect yourself? Rather than risk confrontation – or the possibility that a ‘No’ might have excited him further – she was hurt in a way that would prevent her from working for the next couple of weeks. Do you think you’re the exception? Cat had demanded. The truth was, Alison had thought she was in control. Prior to this moment, she’d always believed herself well-equipped to deal with sharks.
If she couldn’t mentally cordon off the pain, the best that she could do – and it wasn’t much, Alison knew that – was to turn to what she knew best. Think: The Invitation. She must become the young girl – a part danced by Lynn Seymour – who, on misinterpreting an older man’s attention, had responded playfully. There was violence in the moment she realised that he didn’t only want to dance with her. The musical accompaniment was jagged and strange. You’d be forgiven for thinking it improvised, almost unmusical. There was a struggle. A series of lifts with his hand thrust between her legs, and, even then, she wasn’t sure what it was he wanted. Then, as he threw her about, spread-eagled, hooped her around his body, it became brutally clear. Clenching her jaw, Alison hated Cat for being right. Horrific to watch, those who didn’t turn away from the stage felt as if they had borne witness. Finally, when it was over, she slid down his body to the floor.
Critics had praised MacMillan for refraining from ‘toppling art into sensationalism’. But this wasn’t the stage: it was Alison’s home – supposedly her sanctuary.
She abandoned the bed the minute it was over, but not before she saw the bloodstain on the sheet. No one would believe she was a victim. Real victims make it clear that they want no sexual contact with their attackers. They don’t just say, “No”. They yell for help, struggle to escape, fight back, leaving the attacker with vivid scratch marks. Though visibly distraught, the victim won’t be prevented from reporting the attack straight away. It’s only in the aftermath – the following days and weeks – that she’ll be too traumatised to function. The further a rape departs from this formula, the less likely the victim is to be pitied. An escort, paid for her services in advance and with a recent police caution for carding…
Sometimes I have to step outside my own experience while the need remains to write something that still feels authentic. I hope that by this time, I will know my character well enough that he or she can show me the way. Here, in A Funeral for an Owl, Shamayal, a fourteen-year-old mixed race boy, faces the gang he’s been trying to avoid:
A FUNERAL FOR AN OWL
“I can disappear myself,” Shamayal said, quick-fire, hands forcing his head back and to one side flat against the wall. “You won’t ever have to hear from me again.”
The point of worrying about hearing himself beg had passed. Already the hot taste of blood was in his mouth. It was just a question of degrees of humiliation versus degrees of pain. Wide-stance boy was doing the holding; American footballer guy, the hitting. This was how it was going to be: teamwork.
“No?” American-footballer guy clearly took pride in his work. No knuckle duster for him, he liked to feel his victim’s soft flesh give. There was no lunatic gleam in his eye. He was professional about the job. A hint of a smile, he adjusted his shoulder and took aim. Shamayal couldn’t help himself: he closed his eyes. Brickwork skinned his cheekbone like a cheese-grater. One eye was hammered deep into its socket and seemed to want to stay there, pulsing with a heartbeat of its own, pouring a river of water.
It seemed important to keep talking, even through the shock of it. To be civil while convincing them of his sincerity. Last chance: “Course, man.” Hauled back up by the collar, his other cheek was turned for him. At a time when he might have been tempted to cry out for her, it suited him to speak about his mamma; things he’s never told no one. “My muvver did it four years back. No one’s heard from her since.”
“How d’you know she din’t have no help?”
Another fist in his stomach, then a knee. His body wanted to slump to the ground, curl into a tight ball, but hands insisted on holding it up. “She din’t need no help.” Only the final shove his father gave her. Pushing her past her limits one time too many.
“Where have you been?”
“Where d’you think I’ve been, woman? Working!”
“You bin drivin’ in that state? Watching you slowly kill yourself is one thing, but I am not going to stay and wait for you to wipe someone else out with you.”
Slowly, slowly it grinds you down. And there is the one thing – that little thing – that drives you over the edge. Something so small that people think you’re weak, when all along you know you’ve taken more than they could ever stand.
He asserted himself, like a marathon runner sprinting for the finish. “The only help my muvver had was from me.”
Another foot forced air out of him and his mouth hung open.
The word “You?” was aimed mockingly at him, like he was some kind of worm.
These boys were equipped. They could finish it at any moment. Looking into the snarling face brought to mind a pitbull who they say is only playing while it sinks its teeth into you. This is nuffin, Shamayal told himself: they’re toying with you.
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