Not everything in a story happens on the page. When an author writes material that occurs “offstage,” that so-called “green-room writing” may inform the events that the audience sees. Giving foundations for the characters, their motivations, personalities and activities, green room writing may well feel like wasted effort. Trust me, though – it’s really not.
I coined the term green-room writing when describing the many false starts I had with my short story “Ravenous.” An intense urban faerie tale inspired by my experiences in a heavy-metal group, “Ravenous” featured the implosion of the narrator’s band in mid-gig. The story’s first few drafts began in the “green room” – the often-cramped backstage space where performers wait before a show. My original versions of the tale started with the bandmates sniping at one another while a warm-up group performs out front. By the time the first show ends, all five members of the narrator’s group are ready to blow… and soon do.
It didn’t work for me, though. The characters seemed realistic, the dialog zinged, the tension radiated in all directions… and yet, it didn’t work. I pounded through two or three drafts of the opening like this, wondering why my inner critic kept pouting at it.
Then it hit me: The action didn’t begin in the green room. It started as the band stepped onstage – tense, pissed off, surging with adrenaline and facing a drunk, voracious crowd.
“Ravenous” doesn’t kick in when the music does – that option seems too abrupt, and doesn’t give the reader time to care about the characters. (I know; I wrote that version, too.) The tale starts just before the lights go up, with five fiercely terrified young people ready to pounce and be pounced on in return. “I’ve got that just-before-the-cages-open feeling in my chest,” says our narrator, Nikita. The bomb’s just about to explode, and in the next few paragraphs, it does.
By the time I wrote the band’s detonation, I knew every character on stage. Each one spoke with a distinctive voice; each had a unique personality. I knew how the bandmates looked, what they wanted, why they blew up in the ways they did. That scene essentially wrote itself. From first draft to final, I changed hardly a word of it.
I was able to write that scene the way I did because of the various passes I’d run through in that green room. Although they didn’t appear in the final story – nor should they have appeared – those literally offstage brainstorming sessions informed all that followed afterward.
To other writers, I often recommend green-room writing as a way to break through creative block, unlock the story, and reveal things about your characters and their relationships that you might not realize without writing such scenes. I still use the method occasionally myself, especially when I feel like there’s something my Muse is not yet telling me. Snippets of dialog and detail from that “director’s cut” of the story might make it into the final manuscript even if the scene itself does not. At one point, I built the climax of the second act of a screenplay off a scene that was never intended to be part of the script itself, but which revealed what was going on off-camera just before the climax began. That’s why green-room writing is such a helpful technique – it gives your writing a sense of life beyond the scenes that your audience will see.
Green-room writing can feel frustrating. Personally, I get annoyed when my Muse dictates something that probably won’t make it to the final draft. I often feel like I’m wasting my time, and that goes double if I actually like what I’ve written and know at the time that no one but me (and possibly my editorial first-readers) will see it. That said, I realize that green-room writing is helpful… even, sometimes, essential to a good story.
Sure, I’ve written many tales that leapt full-force from my imagination, with engaging characters and fascinating action intact. It CAN happen that way… but it doesn’t always. More often than not, especially with long or complicated storylines, I need to “waste” time and words figuring out what happens in the green room. As frustrating as it might be to throw scenes out or re-write that damned first hook yet AGAIN (yes, Holy Creatures To and Fro, I’m looking at you!), those secret stories we tell in the green room can make the ones seen in the spotlights sing.