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.