When you write as a pantser, which means without an outline, your writing process can be a bit touch-and-go. An author without an outline isn’t groundless–“Not all those who wander are lost,” says Tolkien–but sometimes, we do need to readjust or find our footing mid-scene.
While I like other movies about writers–“Stranger than Fiction,” “Finding Forrester,” “Shakespeare in Love”–more than “Alex and Emma,” there is one scene in “Alex and Emma” that always gets me.
It exemplifies, so perfectly, the way I write. It displays the pantser spirit in all its glory. Today, I’d thought I’d celebrate that spirit.
Just a note: “Alex and Emma” is not a good movie, but it speaks to me. I bought it ages ago and since lost my DVD, which kind of makes me sad, if only because I can’t watch the pantser scene anymore. (It’s not on YouTube! Sadness.)
But anyway, panster spirit.
A few quick pointers to understand my favorite scene from the movie:
- Alex (Luke Wilson) is trying to write his second novel. He’s got a contract for it.
- He owes money to some thugs who break his laptop to intimidate him. I’m not sure why the thugs thought this was a good idea, since Alex needs to write a novel to get money, and he needs his computer to write a novel, but anyway…
- Alex hires Emma (Kate Hudson), a stenographer, to type up his novel as he dictates it.
The scene I love so much is when Alex dictates the first scene of his novel to Emma. It’s SOOOO spot on. Whoever wrote this script has written or tried to write a novel before. And that person did not use an outline.
Alex sets the scene:
- It’s the 1920’s and a young man named Adam is on a train, heading to a new job.
- He is going to tutor the children of a wealthy French widow (or maybe divorcée) named Polena.
- The man sitting next to him reveals that Polena may not be as wealthy as people say. And he explains why this is.
- The man talking to Adam then introduces himself as Polena’s fiance as the train pulls into the station.
This is where everything gets great, because back in the real world, Emma pitches a royal fit. She is so mad that this random guy on the train, who she didn’t expect would be a somewhat major player in the novel, turns out to be Polena’s fiance. She feels that Alex made a fool of her.
More than that, she finds it horribly unrealistic that Adam would find himself sitting next to this guy. What are the chances?
Then Alex defends himself as only a pantser can. He says something along the lines of:
I didn’t realize at the beginning this guy was Polena’s fiance. But I needed someone to give Adam information about Polena’s money troubles. And then I realized, it’s a problem if Adam thinks she’s broke because she just hired him and he needs to get paid. He would take another job.
Then I thought, if I make this guy the fiance, he can promise Adam that he’ll get his salary.
THE PANTSER WAY
I love this scene because it defines the panster way so truthfully.
Is Alex’s novel awful? Yeah. Is the movie good? Not really.
Have I had realizations about characters in the middle of drafting a scene that changed the course of where my novel was heading? Oh, most definitely.
Those moments are simultaneously the most fun, frightening, exciting, and disconcerting moments you can experience as a writer.
- You start writing your scene, and then you recognize an issue because of maybe, oh, an offhand comment someone made. Someone else is going to react to that.
- Then, instantaneously, you see the fix.
- The fix further develops, changes, and adds depth to your plot and your characters.
Those moments are definitely why I write as a pantser.
In fact, I enjoy those moments so much that I continue to write as a panster, which allows me to laugh uncontrollably at a movie that, again, isn’t that great when all is said and done. I can laugh because I relate.
All I can say is, I hope Alex edited that first scene a bit. If the stranger is Polena’s fiance, then it’s feasible he and Polena’s new employee would be on the same train traveling to her estate.
But really, in the editing phase, the author knows that the stranger is going to marry Polena. So the first time Adam mentions he’s going to teach Polena’s kids, the guy should say something.
Unless he’s a manipulative, cunning kind of person. Which he doesn’t turn out to be.
Have you seen “Alex and Emma”? What did you think? What other movies about writers have you seen, and which are you favorites?
If you’re interested in reading more about outlines (or about writing with them), you can check out my posts on outlines here.
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