By Bradley Bazzle
I used to write short plays and sketch comedy, and I would use simple exercises to help me write as much as possible without wringing my hands over what to write about. One of my favorite exercises came from the playwright Art Kopit. In it, one character asks another, “Did you bring it?” and the two-person scene goes from there. The only rule is that “it” isn’t a condom or gun. If the character brought it, maybe it’s an Allen wrench and the characters can get started assembling a futon. Or if the character didn’t bring it, maybe it’s a Honus Wagner rookie card in Rick’s dad’s basement and they can start scheming how to get it from Rick’s dad. Either way, the urgent direct question starts the scene in media res and with great energy.
When I started writing fiction, I adapted some of my exercises. What I realized in the case of “Did you bring it?” was that in fiction I could have much more fun with the object itself. Fiction allowed me to describe the object instead of just making my characters talk about it. Also, I could make my characters think about the object instead of blurting everything out. So “Did you bring it?” turned into “Hey, look at this thing!”
What the two exercises share is the way a specific object grounds a scene, providing a text with subtext. How characters talk about the object reveals their personalities and the nature of their relationship. The major difference is that “this thing,” as opposed to “it,” invites the sort of agglomeration of weirdness and humor that gets me excited about writing.
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Come up with an interesting object that has unknown properties.
In my story “The Dictionary” the object is a confusing dictionary written by someone unqualified to write dictionaries. The object could also be a pleasure machine that helps couples invigorate their sex lives or a satchel full of lotions that an elegant bachelor brings to dinner parties, knowing that there’s a lotion for every occasion and that the stories behind rare lotions are great conversation-starters.
Whatever you choose, don’t try to figure out everything about the object before you start writing. The object should be a provocative blank canvas. That is the first and only step of the exercise, really, but here are a few rules to be followed or ignored at your pleasure:
Rule 1: It helps if characters know each other already.
The characters might be a married couple, and their conversation about the pleasure machine might be only the latest in many long and awkward conversations about sex (or machines) that provide a rich background to explore as the scene moves forward.
Rule 2: It helps if one character is more enthusiastic about the thing than the other. The enthusiast can change tactics, which makes the scene dynamic, or needle the other character, which might dredge up juicy background.
Rule 3: Ask the question, "If this, then what?"
If the elegant bachelor has the perfect post-hand-washing lotion, what lotion does he have for after the meal itself? What about for dessert? For flirtation? For a wild ride in his vintage Bugatti? Along the same lines, if he tells his dinner companions that he got the first lotion from a Cambodian guru of healing medicine, then where did he get the second lotion? He has to top himself!
Rule 4: If things get stale, go somewhere else.
Have the couple buy the pleasure machine and take it home. Then what happens?
Note: In the end, it isn’t about the object. No amount of interesting lotion can hide the fact that the bachelor is an insecure showoff, and no pleasure machine, no matter how dynamic, can fix a troubled marriage. Write the scene, or series of scenes, until the characters are forced to say (or think, anguished) what’s in their hearts.
Bradley Bazzle is the author of the novel Trash Mountain (Red Hen, 2018) and the story collection Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science, forthcoming from C&R Press. His short stories appear in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia.