Recently, a blog-reading veteran of our online course in Self-Editing Your Novel - let's call her Caroline - got in touch. Her main character - let's call her Zainab - is shattered by the death of her father and struggling to come to terms with her past choices and actions, as part of working out a new future. Caroline was finding it hard to work out the shape of such a journey, so she sent a very reluctant Zainab to see bereavement counsellor. These scenes weren't for the book, just the most efficient way for Caroline to get her imagination to grow the warp and woof of the Zainab's personality, and (resistance to) change.
I'm a fan of this kind of step-aside from the novel itself, using writing as a process to explore and develop aspects of it: your narrative instinces and imagination are free to follow their noses without being reined in by the demands of the plot-engineering. But then, Caroline said, she realised that these scenes with the counsellor could be useful as part of the actual narrative, which is already woven from a couple of other narrative strands. And yet, she asked me, is using a therapist too obvious a gimmick, too terrible a storyteller's cliché?
I can't say that I've done enough counting to know whether it is a true cliché, but on the grounds that everything's been done before, I'd suggest that if it's the best way to tell the story then go for it, but make sure you do so in a way which doesn't feel tired and second-hand.
But what does that mean for your novel? Using "counsellor" as a catch-all term for psychotherapists, confessors, therapists, mentors, wise wo/men, psychoanalysts, teddy bears, imaginary friends, and any other characters whose plot function is to listen, not (chiefly) to act, while the MC lays bare their soul, I came up with the following thoughts about ways to make it work.
What are you using these scenes for, in driving the narrative?
- The central challenge is that readers are very quick to sense when the writer has succumbed to a narrative cop-out: you will need to make this relationship, this part of the narrative weave, feel like an absolutely natural part of the whole.
- Why is Zainab talking at all? The reader will only buy into the basic premise if it's very much in character for Zainab to admit (however reluctantly) her need for counselling, and then actually seek out some such person, and start talking.
- Therapist conversations are inherently static in the physical sense, and explaining events that have already happened is static in a different way. Storytelling, on the other hand, must be dynamic, even when it's about small or humdrum lives, because fiction is made of characters-in-action.
- Where there's dialogue but little physical action, one risk is that we lose touch with the characters as physical humans in space, and they become "talking heads". This post is about that problem.
- Anything, such as Zainab's recounting for the counsellor, which Tells what is Shown elsewhere doubles-up on what we've already experienced: any duplications weaken, rather than strengthening, the intensity of the storytelling.
- This post is about ways to cope when Zainab must Tell the counsellor slabs of things that the reader already knows, or that the reader doesn't know but must learn.
- The purpose of most therapeutic conversations is to bring up to the surface feelings and ideas which are normally hidden, as the subtext in our lives and actions. Dialogue which drags subtext up and speaks it en clair is what Hollywood calls "ping-pong" dialogue; this post is about making your dialogue convincing, subtext and all.
- Don't forget that much of real counselling-talk is about the past, but drama is character-in-action. Even a spectacular change in how a character understands the past is not the stuff of fiction - is not dynamic - unless it goes on to change how the character acts.
- Caroline is right to be anxious about this being a gimmick: having Zainab talk explicitly about what she's experiencing in the rest of the story can make it too easy for the writer to lay out what she wants the reader to understand and grasp, and too easy for the reader to do just that.
- The thing is, what readers actually want is "to work for their meal", as Andrew Stanton puts it: to be offered "two plus two", and, being human, find themselves making "four".
- Note that Stanton adds "but they don't want to know they're working", which is possibly more true for commercial than literary fiction. But whoever your reader, you need to give the "two" and the "two" with the right clarity for their expectations and pleasures, so that the "four" emerges. Beta-readers can be very useful here: have you given them enough to do the maths, but not so much that as readers they feel author-splained, spoon-fed and pandered to?
What gives the counselling scenes their own narrative drive? If their function is solely to make clear the significance of what's happening elsewhere there will be no tension in them: no conflict in the storyteller's sense, no anxiety for the reader about What Will Happen Next. So how do you breed that anxiety?
- On the other hand, if Zainab is an unreliable teller of her own story to the counsellor - whether she's simply self-deceiving/deluded, or she's deliberately lying - and we know it from other parts of the story, then it's far more interesting. See The Sopranos and Radio 4's How Does That Make You Feel?
- Even if in a specific scene we don't know whether Zainab is mistaken or lying, if we've already had scenes where we realised she was, we'll now be ready to suspect she is this time, and to get curious about why.
- Crucially, either of those situations are unstable, in dramatic terms: any time there's a gap between a character's perception and reality, we are curious to see how self-delusion or outright lies will play out in the action of the story.
- Similarly, if what's discussed points forwards - if Zainab decides on actions she will take when she leaves - then of course we'll want to discover if she'll see that through or not, and what the consequences are.
- Another potential conflict is if Zainab's relationship with the counsellor is itself in some ways contested. If we see tensions and blockages and anger between them, there will be narrative tension for the reader: is the counselling going to work? Might it make things worse? What will happen next, in other words.
- Even if the counselling relationship is running successfully, the scene may explain things usefully along the way, but at heart it should be setting us up to wonder each time what will happen when Zainab leaves.
- This post, on introspection, might help to think about the arc - the forward-movement - of the conversation as a chunk of storytelling.
Using the scenes. In other words, if the reader is to be fully engaged, a counselling scene needs to work as any scene needs to work. If it doesn't, then use writing it as part of your development of the story, and then cut it. Here's why:
- A narrative is "a causally-linked chain of events", and a scene in a novel is a unit of that chain. So if you're putting in a scene with the counsellor, you need to focus not on what you're explaining for the reader, but on how the causes of what Zainab says lead, by way of something happening, to the next part of the story.
- So a "unit of change" is made of an opening action, then something which gets in the way, and the change that happens as a result; that change becomes the cause of the next unit. Any helpful clarifying or explaining that you sneak in needs to be subordinated to how the unit works as action.
- If your story is built on someone achieving self-knowledge and taking their rightful place in their world, rather than someone going out to vanquish external threats - which if you're reading this I guess it probably is - you might find Kim Hudson's The Virgin's Promise useful.
- Don't forget that a counselling scene doesn't need to be written straight through - from Zainab ringing the counsellor's doorbell, to her leaving vowing vengeance - any more than a sex scene or any other scene does; you can (even should) condense and cut so we're focused on the crucial sections. "Get in late, and get out early", as the thriller-writers say, applies to scenes too.
- In that cause, it helps to learn how to move fluently from scene to scene, rather than forcing the reader to lurch across a series of jump-cuts.
- Consider how the counselling-scene material takes its place in the narrative as a whole. Might you not dramatise even parts of scenes, but just drop in (perhaps italicised) scraps and bits - a flash of insight, a memory, a line, a lie - of what Zainab and the counsellor talk about?
- You would need to make sure that the reader learns quickly what these scraps are, as part of learning how this narrative works; but for all I've been going on about scenes as the unit of storytelling, it's worth remembering that a narrative made only of words is not tied, physically, to time and space as writers who depend on sets and actors are - so why not exploit that unique fluency?
Which brings me to my last suggestion, which not to be afraid of stepping aside from the demands of your draft - from your attempt to get step nearer a finished novel - and do some playing. Experiment with different scenes, voices and strategies - take the scissors to a printout and push bits around till they make a good shape, import into Scrivener and exploit the cork-board - until you've worked out how best to deploy this material as part of the novel as a whole.