Monday, September 29, 2008

Throw a Delicious Tantrum

In which I pitch a fit, and so do you.

Welcome to the second installment of our new feature: No, Seriously, Just Try It. For background on all this fun, click here.

I got to pitch a fit this week. Aren't they delicious sometimes? I mean, most of the time in the world, we go along, acting all mature (well, most of the time, er, oh, and this too, heh heh) and trying to teach children not to have tantrums and to be fair to others and blah blah BLAH. The fact is, we all have tempers. We can control them, of course. But every once in a while it's so good to blow your top, isn't it? Yum.

On the other hand... you may also know that I used to be a teacher. I never ever flipped my lid while teaching. In fact, I was remarkably unflappable, I have been told. I was talking with some second graders one day and one of them complained that her teacher had yelled at her class. One of my students said, "Oh, Ms. Jacqui doesn't yell." I was so proud. Then he went on. "She whispers. It's much scarier."

He was right. As fun as it is to go postal,* sometimes it's much more effective to go small. To whisper, to refuse to answer the questions, to drop a silence so hard on someone she can hear your blood boiling. Sometimes, it's better to say as little as possible, and to let the listener (or reader) fill in the rest.

Here is your challenge for this week: try it both ways. Take a scene on which you are working and write it twice. In the first, have a character totally lose it, over the top, let it all out melodrama. It doesn't have to be anger or rage; if it's a confession scene, make her tell it ALL. If she's finally expressing her lurve for someone, give her a soap opera star worthy speech.

Then, put that version aside and make her do it again much much smaller. Whispers, not letting anything out, the minimal possible dialogue she needs to keep things moving.

The final version will probably be somewhere in the middle, but I'm always surprised by what my characters say when I let them lose it, and by what they do in the face of the silent treatment.

No, seriously. Just try it. And come back and tell us how it went.

* And to think of fun ways to say it. Does "go postal" offend postal workers, I wonder? I mean no offense; it's just so descriptive. But if it hurts my mailman's feelings I'll stop using it.


C.R. Evers said...

Good point and great creative writing idea! I remember when I was a teen and I did something i wasn't supposed to do. (shocking, I know.) my dad simply said "I'm very disappointed in you." My dad's simple sentence packed a bigger punch than any outburst ever could have.


Tabitha said...

Ha! I do this with my kids, and, wow, is it effective. :) I'll just give them "the look," which is usually a slight tilt to the head with perhaps a raised eyebrow. And I just stare at them until they fill in the blanks themselves. There's usually an apology tacked on at the end. :)

J. Thorp said...

Our tai chi master friend was once a PhysEd teacher for some pretty rough-around-the-edges street kids.
He found that whispering was far more effective that shouting for getting attention, because kids felt left out -- it focuses people's attention on what's ... happening ... right ... there.

I believe the same applies to movies and poetry -- so why not novels?

Jacqui said...

Oh, Christy and Tabitha, the "disappointed in you" and "the look" are terrible devices indeed :)

Thorp: exactly. Yeah, what you said.

I love words that leave that mystery too. My favorite word when I studied Japanese was "ga," which you can use in many ways, but I like it at the end of a sentence where it can have the meaning "but..." including the ellipses. You don't have to finish or fill in. "I studied Japanese, ga..."

Anne Spollen said...

Yes! This is how it goes sometimes here:

Mom, are you mad?

No. I'm not mad.

Oh God, Mom, just don't give me that 'I'm disappointed in you, just not that...' Just ground me, okay?"

J. Thorp said...

I don't think I knew you studied Japanese. I'd like to study Mandarin, ga ...

Jacqui said...

Anne: "just ground me, okay?" makes me smile. Sometimes I think my students stopped fighting and behaved just so they didn't have to listen to me blather about getting along.

Thorp: intensive. 8:30-10:30am every morning freshman year. By the time I went to Japan that summer, I could talk like a five year-old and read 1,500 characters. Now I can say six or seven phrases and read nothing more than a menu. I would LOVE to relearn, ga...

Kelly said...

I was a teacher, too. I would also talk softly or just sit and wait and that was more effective than raising my voice for sure. Sometimes I think I was much more patient with my class than with my three children!

Jacqui said...

Kelly, me too. Absolutely no doubt about it. No student I ever had could push my buttons like Tink can.

sruble said...

Silence is so much scarier!!! I'll have to try this exercise - thanks! (Right now the scene I want to try it one is quiet and understated. I'm pretty sure it won't work if I pump it up, but it might breathe more life into it for when I pare it back down.) Thanks for the idea.

J. Thorp said...

Kelly and J -- exactly! Oh, man, does Trevor have my number. Children absolutely hear in the womb, because with three older siblings, Trev emerged thinking that yelling was just how I talk. He's immune!

Vijaya said...

I have used the silent treatment for major, major infarctions. It's a killer :)

Another wonderful excercise for me to try. About your other one ... let's just say that my MC has more guts than I thought she did. Thanks for the revelation, Jacqui.


Amber Lough said...

Hey-- Who woulda guessed two writing mamas with short hair and very un-Japanese genetic makeup* could both speak Japanese and not know it.

*I did get two weeks' worth of Japanese blood transfusions once, which sort of makes me part Japanese, doesn't it?

Jacqui said...

sruble, that's what I've found. I can't keep it at the level of melodrama, but writing it makes what eventually gets written for real richer.

Vijaya, I'm so glad! Can't wait to see what she does.

Amber, if I could remember good Japanese, there'd be a clever comment in it here. :(