Stuck with a scene? Write it “inside out”

I was having trouble with this one scene in a play of mine. I wrote two or three different drafts, but I didn’t like any of them. They were too serious, too painful, too risky, too graphic, too real, too… something for the play.

I couldn’t figure out how to write the scene with the tone that would fit the play and tell the story I wanted to tell.

So I tried a technique I had learned from the playwright Elizabeth Heffron, in a playwriting class I took from her at Freehold Theatre.

Write the scene from the inside out, or the opposite way

To breathe new life into a scene using this technique, you write the scene from the inside out. Or the opposite way.

Whatever that means to you.

How I wrote a scene inside out

Here’s how I used this technique with the scene I was talking about at the beginning of this post.

The original scene

The scene was in my play “Just That One Nice Evening.” Set during the Depression, the play is about the effects one man’s drastic action have on himself and on his family, particularly his 16-year-old daughter, Ruth.

Ruth marries Robert, the nephew of the town’s banker, despite that Robert is 10 years older than her, has been married before, and is now a widower with a three-year-old daughter. Mostly, Ruth marries Robert to get out of her father’s house.

The scene I’m talking about had Robert wanting to have sex with Ruth, who of course was a virgin when they married, and knew next to nothing about sex. She didn’t want to have sex, but felt she had to, since he was her husband.

The drafts of the scene ended up with her crying, and in one draft he essentially raped her. Not right for the play.

Essential elements of the original scene

Originally, the scene was:

  1. Robert wants to have sex with Ruth
  2. Ruth doesn’t want to
  3. Robert goes ahead anyway
  4. Ruth is hurt and crying afterwards
  5. Robert is angry with her, or — in some drafts — comforting her and explaining that he “had to”

The essential elements, “inside out”

Earlier, I said that writing a scene “inside out,” or “the opposite way,” means whatever you think it means. For me, for this scene, it meant:

  1. Ruth wants to have sex with Robert
  2. Robert doesn’t want to
  3. Ruth goes ahead anyway
  4. Robert is dismayed and dictatorial afterwards
  5. Ruth rebels, points out that a woman has needs too, and accuses him of not loving her

The rewritten scene

When I rewrote the scene, it was brilliant.

Ruth comes to bed at about 5:00 in the morning, having been studying for a night class in accounting that she’s taking. Finding Robert with a morning erection, she gets on top of him and has sex with him, coming to orgasm loudly and with great enjoyment. Poor Robert has been wanting her to stop — well, sort of — or at least let him put on a condom. But he has an orgasm, too, so that’s the end of that.

Robert is astonished and suspicious, wondering where Ruth learned so much about sex. Still in post-orgasmic bliss, she quotes a sex book she got from one of her high school teachers, saying that “The true values of married love are only attained when the wife’s desires guide the husband.”

When Robert tells Ruth that she needs to forget everything she learned in that book, Ruth has had enough. She points out that they had sex plenty of times when she didn’t want to. But now she likes sex, so what’s the problem? And they have a fight.

The new scene was everybody’s favorite at callbacks

At callbacks for reading of the play, the director had everyone in the room and called on people to read various scenes.

The first time this scene was read, everyone was laughing their asses off during the first half. Everyone wanted to read the scene. Basically, the director cycled through everybody in the room, no matter whether they were right for the parts or not.

I have never had so much damn fun at callbacks.

… and it was just right for the play

Earlier, I said that the original versions of the scene were too serious, too painful, too risky, too graphic, too real.

The final version was still graphic and real, but it had just the right mixture of playfulness and seriousness, just the right amount of risk, and the right type of painfulness — emotional pain without physical pain.

Of course, part of the reason the “inside out” version of the scene fit the play was that a woman “forcing” a man to have sex with her can be funny. A man forcing a woman to have sex with him… I have a hard time imagining that being funny.

In any case, the scene was perfect.

Try this and let me know what happens

Next time you’re stuck with a scene, try writing it inside out.

Let me know what happens.


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