The Case for Sittin’ and Thinkin’: No for Me, Yes for Krissie

It’s not easy being my friend.

Krissie wrote me about the book she’s finishing today [details redacted to prevent spoilers on the next Anne Stuart novel):

“So okay, I’ve shut up my internal editor but a raven named Crusie is sitting on my shoulder and saying “nevermore” and “no flashback” and cawing in my ear, so I figure I better confess my sins (not changing them, just confessing).

“We’re getting to the big hot sex scene. [Heroine] locked the [minion] in the [redacted], [hero] is making his way across the island, back to the house, after . . . killing . . . the Big Bad.

“And we’re having some sitting and thinking, which you deplore.

“However, to me it feels like opera or a Broadway musical. The soprano/heroine sings her song of doubt and longing. The tenor/hero sings his song of doubt and longing. The two come together on stage and sing their duet

“I know you hate sitting and thinking scenes, and in general it’s more interesting to have conversations, but sometimes, in some stories, people are alone on the stage. I mean, maybe Hamlet would have been better if he’d been saying, “you know, Horatio, to be or not to be is an interesting question.”

“But we spend a lot of our lives alone in our heads. Probably most of our lives, even the most gregarious of us.

“So I’m thinking my characters are having their arias and the duet is coming up.

“So there.”

First, Krissie gets to write her book any way she wants; she listens to her Girls, not me, and that’s exactly right for her books.

Second, here are all the reasons sittin’ and thinkin’ is exactly wrong for mine.

“[T]o me it feels like opera or a Broadway musical:”

Krissie trained in theater and has lots of stage experience.

I ran the tech crews.

That means she thinks of the characters as actors on a stage, and I think of the actors as not interesting unless they’re colorful and moving in front of great scenery in terrific costumes. Even in a stage play, I get bored with long monologues, especially Hamlet’s; I taught too many undergrads to be interested in college boy angst. He killed your father, Hamlet. Take him out.

But one of the most poignant moments for me in Shakespeare isn’t Hamlet gazing at his navel on the battlements, it’s Macbeth meeting Macduff and saying, “Please don’t fight me, I’m destined to kill you and I’m so sick of blood, I don’t want to kill again.” It’s the moment where Macbeth, the monster, regains his humanity, appalled at the horrors he’s inflicted on Scotland and especially on Macduff. He’s the hero we met in the beginning, and he’s asking Macduff to please spare him from another murder because he’s sick of the carnage. It breaks my heart every damn time I read it or see it, and it would be infinitely less heart-breaking if he was just sitting there thinking about it. And then Macduff gives him the bad news and Macbeth knows he’s going to die, and he still fights on. He could run away, but that’s just not in him, he’s still the hero he was in the beginning, just irrevocably damaged. He’s going to Hell, but he’s going to go fighting. Thank god, he doesn’t monologue, he just picks up that sword and achieves greatness.

Because here’s the thing: Nobody changes because they have an idea. They have an idea or something changes because something happens, usually something that involves action with another person. The eureka moment that comes later is the least interesting thing about the change for me; it’s seeing the change happen that’s fun on the page.

But here’s the other thing: All writers conceive of story in their own way (there are many roads to Oz). Krissie’s work is much more character-centered than mine, steeped in darkness; she really is writing Hamlet and Macbeth, she just redeems them through love. Me, I like people moving briskly in front of bright colors, doing more discovering than thinking, and then realizing in the heat of battle that they’re crazy for each other and probably snarking about that. Krissie loves the dark and I love the light, which is amusing to both of us because Krissie is the most cheerful, loving person you can imagine, and I am a dark, snarky bitch and pleased to be so. So much for write-what-you-know.

“But we spend a lot of our lives alone in our heads. Probably most of our lives, even the most gregarious of us.”

Yes, but sittin’ and thinkin’ is not story. It’s character.

Which I think is another way Krissie and I differ. It’s not that she’s not interested in story–she’s a natural storyteller–or I’m not interested in character–I can’t start a book until I have a protagonist clear in my head–it’s that she shows story through character and I show character through story. Which means her sittin’ and thinkin’ scenes aren’t just there to show character, they move the story through the decisions and changes that happen in that character’s head. And my action scenes aren’t just there to tell the story, they’re there to arc the character and showcase her strengths and weaknesses. We both do both of these things, every good writer does, but our emphasis is on the things about story we’re drawn to, and we’re drawn to different things.

“So I’m thinking my characters are having their arias and the duet is coming up.”

And I’m thinking my characters just fell off a rock, and they have a fight with a giant mutant goat coming up, during which there are going to be huge changes to their relationship which will result in a lot of drinking and a terrible dinner with her mother.

“So there.”

Damn right. There are many roads to Oz. Take the one that gets you there.

[Note: This is not a request for anybody to take sides and decide which way is best. They’re both best. They’re just best for different writers and readers.]

30 thoughts on “The Case for Sittin’ and Thinkin’: No for Me, Yes for Krissie

  1. Well, I do wish, for very selfish reasons, that your stories came to you as easily and quickly as they seem to come to Krissy.
    Just going by results here, obviously. I can’t know what her books cost her.

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  2. I loved reading this post, and now better understand the process y’all go through…wouldn’t dream of taking sides! My only comment? Viva la Difference!

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  3. I have a prologue and an epilogue in my WIP. Which, on the one hand, most writers I love would never do. On the other hand, it passes the necessary test – if I take out the prologue, it’s a fundamentally different story. And that story is not the one I’m telling.

    You and Lani and Krissie do such a great job of explaining why you make the choices you do in writing, which is way more helpful than just saying “don’t do this. “

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  4. I like to watch movies on dvd once through and then I watch them again with commentaries.

    It interests me to see how each tv runner or director makes the choices they do, bearing in mind they had a writer’s room or a screenplay work first. Unfortunately, some screenplays are often re-written as the movie is being and it shows in the tightness of the movie.

    In the tv series Inspector Morse, there was an ep, with a story line I hated, where he figured out something while drinking his wine and reading a book.

    Through out that ep a tabloid reporter had used Morse’s love of the “finer” things to trash him in print. The payoff line was at the end when another reporter asked Morse how’d he solve the case. The answer as Morse looked past the reporter asking him to the eyes of the tabloid reporter, “It was something I read in a book.”

    There’s a deleted scene in Firefly where Simon looks up Serenity Valley. It’s info dump and not worth wasting tv time.

    In The Last Samurai the flashbacks and “vision” flash forwards are mostly images and in a film where the MC is emotionally isolated it makes sense to the narrative.

    Here’s a questionable. Does Firefly’s story start in Serenity Valley or does it start with Simon coming aboard? If Mal and Zoey’s story start in Serenity Valley and they are the heart of the team, does my first question fall away?

    Now I’m going to put Firefly dvd on and continue to medicate these infected sinuses.

    I do sinus rinse, reduced lactose and eliminated cheese from diet (wail, sob,lament) does anyone have other ways to reduce mucus production? Tweet me @sarahv2k if y’ don’t want to blog it here.

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    1. The problem I have with Firefly and especially Serenity is that Mal doesn’t have a goal.
      He’s mad/depressed that his side lost, and so he’s throwing an epic fit against the Empire (or whatever they called it) by smuggling.
      Okay, I get it, he’s Han Solo. But Han doesn’t come into his own until he’s swept up with Luke and Leia, and even then he’s a supporting character; a hero who says “Fuck it, I don’t care,” all the time cannot drive a story.
      Firefly has amazing community and great dialogue, I can watch those people talk/argue/bicker/flirt all day, but the center is a guy who keeps refusing the Call. That’s great for the beginning of a hero’s journey, but if you keep it going, the story starts to get annoying.
      So the story starts when the protagonist is called to battle and enters the fray. In the Hero’s Journey, he refuses the call and pays the price for the refusal, but then he enters the damn fray.
      So Mal’s story starts when he’s called to battle . . . except he’s running from his defeat in his battle. He’s not trying to bring down the Empire (as I remember), he’s just paying it back by annoying it. So I would argue his story never starts.
      Or, if you will, Mal’s doing a number-of-the-week, getting sucked into other people’s problems and helping them even though he doesn’t want to because he’s a Good Guy.
      There is a strong story line there, River escaping from the Empire, but that’s a negative goal.
      So here’s a question: What does Mal want? When he knows what that is and goes after it, that’s where his story starts.
      I do believe that Firefly would have solved its problems in the second season if it had gotten one. Serenity was even worse; the only character with a true positive goal was the bad guy.

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      1. I agree about Firefly (and also about Serenity, which I still hate because of *reasons*).

        I guess my writing style falls somewhere in the middle between yours and Krissie’s–there is certainly a lot more internal thought it mine. But I finally stopped writing prologues 🙂

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      2. Mal is looking for a fight.

        He knows he can’t win it, he knows he’s going to get his people killed if he tries it but in his heart of hearts, he’s waiting for the revolution. His main goal is to keep his crew safe.

        But he still wants a fight.

        That’s why he goes to the bars on reconciliation day (or whatever they called it) to pick fights, that’s why he doesn’t turn Simon & River over in two seconds. He’s still trying to figure out how to break away.

        The movie was in many ways a two part tv show. It was a fight but it wasn’t the big fight.

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        1. Mal is angry and wants to hit something, I agree. But that’s not a goal. That’s a temper tantrum.

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  5. Here’s a question having to do with set-up: In a romance, when the hero and heroine have different goals that that then tie together, is the start of the book the point at which their goals entwine, or would it better to ease the reader in by showing each character’s individual goal, then show how they combine? I know there’s no hard-and-fast rule on that kind of thing, other than “make it interesting,” but since the topic of set-up came up in yesterday’s post, I’ve been pondering it. Wisdom, please?

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    1. Well, it depends.
      If it’s the heroine’s book, then I think it’s a good idea to show her on her own.
      If it’s a love story, then it probably begins when the lovers meet.
      But honestly, it depends on the story.

      Example: I started Faking It in the wrong place.
      As I remember (too lazy to go look), there was a scene of Tilda finishing a mural and picked up Steve that was completely unnecessary.
      Then Tilda went home and talked to Gwen and Nadine, and that one was necessary, and set up her going to rob Clea.
      And that was followed by Davy talking to Rabbit, and that one was necessary and also set up him going to rob Clea.
      So I could have started with those two scenes and been fine.
      But the original start to the story was Tilda robbing Clea and running into Davy and ending up in that closet all in the first scene. I changed it because my editor said I needed more set up, and my editor is very, very smart, but I’m still not sure.
      I’m POSITIVE that first scene should have gone.

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      1. I scooted over to read the first chapter of Faking It on your website (and now it’s coming with me on my camping trip this weekend along with Going Postal.) I don’t think I would noticed that the first scene isn’t really necessary unless you’d pointed it out because it’s so nicely written (and because now I feel like an insider since I know Wolfie and his story). But I see how starting with Davy would have been a quicker start (and how much do I love him already – such great dialogue) without any real loss of story info. Very instructive. Thanks so much!

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        1. I like it too. It’s the only chance we have to see Tilda out in the world doing her paying job, and what a drag she finds it. Also, Steve.

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      2. No, no, I loved the first scene. It demonstrated that Tilda was the “fixer”, plus, hello, dog. Awesome scene.

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          1. But because of the first scene, I’m on Tilda’s side in the scene with Gwen & Nadine.

            The first scene is where she’s stuck – the next scene is where it starts to come apart.

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          2. Oh, that’s interesting. You think people wouldn’t have been on Tilda’s side in the scene with Gwen and Nadine? It’s not as clearcut, I agree.

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      3. Yes, I do believe that YOU could start a book with an asthmatic in a dark closet. Given enough time to tinker.

        That said, I loved the beginning to Faking It. You established that Tilda was smart, creative, under money pressures and a fixer. A snarky sort of fixer. Now that I think about it, I find it very interesting that you showed a woman at the end of her career at the beginning of that book — she never did murals again. I wonder if I was unconsciously aping you with Perz, who never did plumbing for pay again (at least, not in that rendition of the novel).

        I know Davy was the romantic hero, and it was a romance. But the way I read it, it was a woman’s journey, and Davy was the frosting to her orange-pineapple muffin — a reward for a job well done (re-aligning her goals in life). And the book is in my top ten, most-re-read list of books. Gosh, I love that book.

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  6. The scene with Tilda picking up the dog starts the feeling of tension. The next one with her family ratchets up the tension.

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  7. Couldn’t it be just that there’re character-driven stories and plot-driven stories? Sometimes the things happen outside of the characters and sometimes the story developes in their minds. Some stories are epic, and others are lyric. That’s it. Both of them are enjoyable, we don’t have to choose, both Hamlet and Macbeth.

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    1. As a reader, you never have to choose.
      As a writer, you pretty much have to pick a lane or chaos ensues, and chances are good that your choice is baked into the kind of writer that you instinctively are. Hence Krissie and I write very differently; she chafes at the restrictions I put on my work, I’d lose my mind without those boundaries.

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  8. Think of the extra scene in Faking it as bonus material for your fans. Clearly by the comments, we enjoyed it. You’re right that it wasn’t necessary but your readers are happy it is there. I’m happy it exists where I can read it.

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  9. As a reader, when you say “sittin’ and thinkin’ scene”, I flash back to Miles Vorkosigan in a very small attic room, sitting in a wing chair and finding his true self — the one who wants to live no matter what screw-ups Admiral Miles Naismith and Lt. Miles Vorkosigan manage to pull. It can be glorious.

    It can also be done very badly, and as a student, I’m trying to avoid sittin’ and thinkin’ scenes until I’m a better writer. The odd paragraph does sneak in, though.

    I think another factor is that Krissie’s cast of characters are often quite small and intimate. Her main character are often loners, too. There’s no one for the hero/heroine to trust enough to talk with. I can identify with that.

    Whereas your books are full of characters — there’s always someone to bounce ideas off of. The character always seems to have a friend (or two) or a sister or a neighbor to talk deep thoughts with. I can aspire to that. One road to Oz lends itself to monologues and introspection; the other to dialogues and banter. Yin/Yang

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  10. I think every writer has to find what works for her and her readers. Having started out in screenplays, my novels were spare in terms of emotional development. Of course I built it into the structure of the story, understood to show emotion in terms of action, tone of voice, appearance, etc, but I didn’t delve into internal thought much. I didn’t deliver that deeply satisfying emotional ride that I believe so many romance readers want/expect/enjoy. So I set about understanding the emotional journey in the same way I studied story/plot/structure (driving certain teachers crazy!), and eventually came upon my own style. So while I understand the cons in regards to prologues/epilogues, for example, I discovered that epilogues work in my books–and my readers need them. I don’t use prologues because I truly enjoy the challenge of feeding that backstory into the now of the story, but the snapshot of the couple’s future healthy HEA is essential to my reader’s ability to close the book with a sigh and a wish that they never have to leave that world. That’s my way of saying that so many of us like Tilda’s opening scene because it plunges us into your heroine’s world, giving us a chance to know her, like her, and anticipate her journey. It works for your readers, whether or not it technically belongs.

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    1. I agree with everything you’ve said here, but I’d add that it depends on the reader.
      One of the most frequent criticisms of Faking It is that it starts slow. Because it does.
      I like the first scene, I think it’s a good scene. It just should have been cut and put on the website as an outtake. Argh.

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