October 11, 2010

I’ve been watching episodes of West Wing now for several months running.  One or two an evening.  My husband and I finished the series last night.  After we saw the final episode, we were sad – it was like saying good-bye to old friends.  Until I realized, because we own a set of the DVDs, I could watch them again whenever I want.

I don’t look at much TV, except when a shows are as brilliantly written as this one.  Aaron Sorkin, the scriptwriter for many of the episodes in this series, is a genius.  And how he describes his process is very useful to us memoirists.

In his commentary on the series pilot, he describes a scene in which the President’s Chief-of-Staff (Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer) is seated at his desk, talking to other staff members.  Behind him, is something that looks like a TV screen, glowing green.

The screen is never mentioned, never described.  Leo never looks at it during the episode.  Nor do other staff members.  But it’s there.  It’s called a toaster, Sorkin tells us in the voiceover in which he tells us about the episode.  The toaster tells where the President, First Lady, and each member of the president’s family members are; it’s updated every fifteen minutes.  Any staff member knows at any given time precisely where they are.

Sorkin says this is an example of something called “throw” – something we see in the background of a scene that gives the scene authenticity.  In the series, the viewer sees a huge number of examples of “throw” in every episode.  The paperweights on the President’s desk.  The photos of his family.  A row of tasseled flags the staff members pass as they’re discussing something.  (Anyone who’s watched the series, knows that the characters are often in constant movement; that much important material is discussed as they’re walking through the corridors on their way to, or from their offices or the President’s.)

Throw.  What the viewer sees that’s behind the action that’s never referred to, but that’s essential for the viewer to believe the characters are inhabiting a space that’s meant to be a fictive representation of real offices in the West Wing.

So, what does this suggest for us memoirists?

I’ve read a lot of early drafts of memoirs in which the action happens on an empty stage set, as it were.  An important conversation takes place.  But it may as well be taking place in space.  There’s no “throw” in these scenes.  No “toaster” in back of the central characters that tells the reader that these characters exist in a particular place, that this scene takes place in a very special environment that only the writer can describe.

In a TV show, the camera can show us the “toaster.”  In a memoir, the writer has to describe the “toaster” for the reader.  How do we do that?  Through scene setting, of course.

We can ask ourself a few questions.  Say, our scene takes place with us facing another character.  We can ask ourselves, as we revise that scene, what we saw that was behind the character we were talking to, and we can use artful telling to include what we see in the scene.

Let me illustrate using a scene from my memoir-in-progress.  I have an important scene in which I’ve visited my father in a nursing home near the end of his life.  He’s angry with me; I’ve interrupted a checkers game he’s been playing with his favorite aide; I’ve gone back to his room to wait for him; he comes back.  He says, “I thought you would have gone home by now.”  And I say, “I wanted to wait for you.”  The scene gets more difficult after this conversation, which I won’t go into here.

As I’m standing talking to my father – he’s now seated in a chair next to his bed – I look out the window next to his chair and I see a parking lot.  It’s an ugly parking lot, surrounded with a barbed wire fence.  There’s litter on the ground.  Most of the cars are dented.  I see the parking lot – I’ve seen it on each of my visits, and whenever I’ve seen it, I feel sad that I haven’t been able to get my father into one of the rooms in the nursing homes that fronts on the very nice garden and I’m unhappy that this is the scene my father has to see in the closing days of his life.

So, I can do the scene without the parking lot, for sure.  (Here, the “throw” in the scene is the parking lot, the equivalent of Sorkin’s “toaster.”)  And I’ve read a lot of early scenes that are written like this – tough encounter between father and grown child that take place in what I’ll call “nowhereland.”

But why would I leave that parking lot out?  I could see it; I cold always see it; it was always in my line of vision.  I thought about it; I always thought about it.  I never shared my regret about the view from the window with my father.  I might not think about putting it in during an early version of the scene; but at the stage when I think about the “where” of the action, that’s a good time to think about “throw” — what’s behind the action, beyond it.  What opens the action into the world of the work.

Doesn’t it make the scene much more interesting if I interrupt the dialogue, the conversation, the telling in the scene – the story about how my father was playing checkers, etc. – with this example of “throw”: the parking lot?

So, think about one of your scenes.  Put yourself in the place where the scene happened.  Is what’s just beyond the character you’re talking to in the scene?  Is there any “throw” in the scene?  And if not, why now?  Were you really so focused on the person you were talking to that you didn’t see what was behind that person?  I doubt it.  What was behind that person, what you saw as you were talking to that person, is – should perhaps be – a part of that scene.

Throw.  Think about it.  And if you can round up a DVD of that pilot episode of West Wing, watch it, look at the “toaster” in that scene.  In fact, look beyond the characters in all the scenes and you’ll be teaching yourself about how important “throw” is in establishing a sense of place, in pinning down precisely the environment these characters inhabit.


7 Responses to “Throw”

  1. Yes, there’s a lot of drivel on television but writers can also learn a great deal from it, as you astutely say.
    Because I have a visual art background in writing my memoir I naturally felt I had to situate my scenes and describe “the set” with short but vivid brush strokes. I know that it would help writers to think more visually.
    Another thing that in my experience helps, is that old anthropological dictum of “making the ordinary exotic and the exotic ordinary” (or something to that effect—I think Clifford Geertz said that).
    Because my memoir takes place in a foreign country, I felt duty-bound to explain some of my settings (geographical and cultural) to readers who would not be familiar to them.
    Perhaps a bit of this anthropological eye would also be beneficial when dealing with our own memoirs.

  2. Daniella Says:

    This is an issue I have a lot in my writing. I either give too much description, or I dive right into the action. I usually like to start my scenes with a good amount of energy and start them in medias res. Either I open a scene with some sort of dialogue or a careful description of the scenery. During the action, though, I have trouble pulling away to include the “throws.” I think a lot of it has to do with me thinking too much about how I want the piece to turn out when I should just let it write itself when it’s ready.

    • writingalife Says:

      Hi Daniella,
      It sounds, maybe, like you’re trying to do too much at once. Just write. Get material down. Then on the second or third draft you can start thinking about this. I’ve found that I can only do one thing at a time. It might be useful to hear that Kathryn Harrison did about twelve drafts (I hope I’m remembering correctly) of her memoir, The Mother Knot.

  3. Gina Says:

    I think including “throw” to a piece brings life. It makes the scene three-dimensional and adds a depth so the reader can get a better grasp on what is being read. When I read or listen to people speak I envision the entire scenario. The details make stories more interesting and create another level of comprehending. I think adding as much detail to the scene as possible only helps with a memoir piece. But I wonder, is there such thing as too much throw? In the example given, the parking lot scene, cars, and barbed wire paint a vivid image. Would this image be useless if it wasn’t connected to fact that the character wanted a better view for her father in his last days? The image of the parking is powerful and plays an important role. Is it possible that “throw” would serve no purpose and be looked at as rambling?

  4. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    “Throw” is an amazing tool to really bring the reader into a story. It helps to make the people in a book come to life. When writing a story I try to see the event with words. I attempt to recreate what happened and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I can definitely rethink of how I use it and revise the way I can incorporate the “throws” in a piece.

  5. xxnettie09xx Says:

    Sometimes I feel like I may add in too much detail, while at other times I think there is not enough detail. When I feel like I am lacking detail I go back and try to add in the detail, but realize that I am adding in too much detail.
    At times when watching television I tend to look at the background. I notice other things that others don’t. There may be something going on, but no one seems to see it but me. I want to be able to make my backgrounds come to life.

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