Thursday, April 29, 2010

iLesson: The Pie in the Face Method

I had this director who talked about the “Pizza in the Face” method of acting. I think that he was actually thinking about a pie in the face, but he said ‘pizza’ and that’s what stuck in my head. However, since this is is an iLesson, straight from last nights meeting at IHOP, it’s now going to be a plate of pancakes.

clipart-pizza5.gifThe “Pancakes/Pie/Pizza in the face method” concerns the moment where you process that something just happened and you have to react to it. In acting, we call this a “beat.” It’s a pause--sometimes long, sometimes very very short--of internalization before taking our next scripted action.

It goes like this:

  1. Someone hits you in the face with a pancake (or pie, or pizza).
  2. You feel the smack in the face, the floppy, sponginess of the pancake, the stickiness of the syrup, the sweet smell of maple or salty tang of butter.
  3. You internally process the fact, and perhaps have an emotional reaction to the fact that someone threw a pancake at you.
  4. You take action.
You may instinctively flinch as something comes flying at your face, but before you can have an external action--clean it off, laugh, slug the person who just hit you, or anything else--you have to experience the pancake and have an internal response--get mad, be shocked, etc.

Look at the difference between:

A ghostly figure slowly materialized in front of her. The air seemed to coalesce with an unearthly chill, and Mary screamed in terror and ran away.

...and...

A ghostly figure slowly materialized in front of her. The air seemed to coalesce with an unearthly chill. Icy fingers of fear crawled through Mary’s insides and came out as a scream. Desperate to get away from there before it finished taking shape, she ran away.

Sometimes, especially when something action-y happens, your character may have a reflex reaction first, but then still have to process what happened before they can take a conscious action.

A bullet zinged past my ear. I dropped behind the cover of a low stone wall, took out my gun, and started shooting in the direction of the sniper.

...versus...

A bullet zinged past my ear. Instinct dropped me to the cover of a low stone wall, my gun in my hand before the sting of adrenaline had time to take hold. Where the hell had that shot come from? If I couldn’t take out the sniper, I’d be pinned until the bad guys arrived.


Spending word count on that moment of internalization gives depth and reality to your scene, and makes your character seem more like a real person and less like a stick figure that you, the author, are moving through the book.

How much time (i.e. word count) you spend depends on what’s going on in that scene, the pace you’re trying to set, and also how important the moment is to the whole story. Think about it like the musical score for your book. These ‘beats’ may be fast and light, hammered hard, or drawn out and emotional.

But whenever your characters start to feel like they’re just going through the motions, remember to stop and smell the pizza.

(Also remember, tomorrow is the last day to enter the Highway to Hell/Nothing but Nets contest!)

4 comments:

  1. Great article on that moment of internalization - I definitely had an Ah-Hah moment from this one. Thanks!

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  2. A great article! Sometimes, I actually catch myself spending too *much* time on those internalized reactions, and my poor word count certainly feels the weight. I'll have to remember how important those moments are, though, as I start trying to get the length down. Thanks for the great read!

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  3. Great tips! I often find myself writing reactions to an event in the wrong order. A character has internal thoughts about just getting hit in the face with a pancake, then feels the stickiness of the syrup, then takes action. I do a lot of cutting and pasting!

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  4. Laurie-- I'm a great fan of the cutting and pasting. At least you find it yourself. Sometimes I have to scratch my head and think... what is wrong with this sequence. :)

    Claire--It's a balancing act, isn't it? Some people underwrite and have to add... I tend to overwrite and have to cut. There's no magic formula, either. It's almost like developing a musical ear.

    Thanks Vicky!

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