Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Public vs. Private – Adding Layers To Your Scenes

Sometimes, when we’re writing a scene, we run into difficulties. Something just isn’t working. It might be a tone thing, or an atmosphere thing, but it’s often difficult to pin point.

As a professional actor, when I approach script analysis,  I always examine the nature of “public vs. private.” People – and characters – behave differently depending on circumstances and setting. What costs us nothing in a private setting suddenly costs us everything in a public setting. And by looking at whether a scene is public or private, there are so many conclusions we can draw – conclusions that increase the stakes and amp up the drama of any given scene.

If we look at our own lives, we also see that this is true. At home – with our family – we have a different persona than we do when we’re out in public, or when we’re at work, at church, or with our grandparents, etc.

From a voice, speech, and text point of view (which I teach to theatre students at a college), we call this “code shifting.” The type of language we use – the tone of voice, the pitch, cadence, and vocabulary – changes depending on the given circumstance and the people we’re choosing to engage. It’s an extremely important tool for cracking a scene, and I believe it can be a useful tool for writers, too.

As an example: When we’re talking with our loved ones, we behave differently than if we were, say, in an interview, or purchasing a car or home. We adopt different a persona depending on our circumstances and the nature of the relationship with the people we’re currently engaging – and with who might be watching.

And if we think about our comfort zones vs. moments of discomfort (i.e. traveling to a foreign country), we are definitely aware of the difference in our behavior.  As an aspect of the human condition, it’s an incredible opportunity for adding conflict to our scenes, and I encourage you to examine it in your own work.

I think it’s important for us, as writers, to consider the impact of the private vs. the public.

When we encounter a scene where things aren’t working, one of the tools we can draw upon is to consider the relationship dynamic between the characters. Is this a private moment, behind closed doors? Or are we in a public setting, where the status and relationship of the characters come into play? What’s at stake in the scene, and do the stakes change whether the scene happens privately or publically?

Perhaps we’ve planned some important moments of character development or revelation, yet they don’t seem as effective as we imagine them in our minds. So what if the scene becomes public, rather than private?

The way the characters choose to interact with one another shifts, and we receive an added level of conflict: the personal vs. public persona. What happens when it’s pushed to the limits? What happens if  the limitations of personal code break down, and a character unleashes everything they’re feeling – every little complaint, concern, and issue they might be having?

The impact definitely changes.

Consider how your scenes might change depending on whether it’s a two-hander scene in a private study, or a scene that happens at a party, or in a crowded marketplace.

What was once a somewhat decent outburst of emotion becomes a horrific train wreck, with very public ramification and personal implication possible.

And who doesn’t enjoy watching a train wreck?

Have you ever encountered a scene where you’ve examined the nature of private vs. public? How did it change your scene? Are there scenes in your work where this technique might serve you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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