Friday, August 1, 2014

A Classroom Lesson

Spoilers in the service of craft…sorry!

I’m anticipating writing some classroom scenes in my current manuscript, and deep in the middle of Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, I found a stellar example of how to execute a purposeful classroom scene ripe with tension.  Colbert’s Chapter Twelve features protagonist Theo, who has just learned her recently-returned best friend’s kidnapper was her four-years-ago, much-older boyfriend.  Mr. Jacobsen, her world gov teacher, is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  

Colbert includes not only the classroom scene, but also three pages of anticipation.  Mr. Jacobsen stops Theo in the hallway to gives her a heads up about the discussion to come.  This serves several purposes.  The reader understands this discussion will threaten Theo’s precarious perspective of the kidnapper as her boyfriend, not to mention we anticipate a variety of opinions, which may not be supportive of Theo’s position.  But Theo agrees to attend.  So the tension is on.  Additionally, Colbert wins our sympathy for the sensitive, straight-talking teacher –a set-up for an end-of-scene, accidental betrayal.

Colbert also moves us through four distinct high points.

First, the device.  Mr. Jacobsen explains to Theo the principal has asked him to help the students process the return of Theo’s friend, Donovan, kidnapped four years prior, and to do this Mr. Jacobsen is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  It’s a believable device to give the cast a new filter for the situation.

Second, Colbert lets the classroom discussion build point (Donovan ran away willingly.) by counterpoint (He was a victim.) until Mr. Jacobsen picks up a point to accentuate.  He phrases this point as a focus-building question: Is the extent of the victim’s danger diminished when we learn that he had a seemingly normal relationship with the defendant prior to the abduction?  The question is a high point because it is the question Theo is asking about herself.  Indeed, in the next paragraph, Theo thinks to herself: Bingo.  Is it?  I will give one million dollars to whoever can answer that question right now. 

Third and finally, the discussion ends on an answer to that question which makes Theo feel “like someone drove their knuckles square into [her] stomach,” when classmate Klein lets fly: “…I think if some dude was trying to fuck me every night, I’d find a way to get out of that situation a little faster than he did.”  This hits Theo hard, again, because Colbert stages the discussion so Theo can apply the Stolkhom syndrome concept to herself.  She’s left to wonder, albeit subconsciously, Did I let Chris abuse me and like it?  A dangerous question for an isolated girl.

Lastly, Mr. Jacobsen slips, when he reminds Klein this is a sensitive subject, letting his eyes drift to Theo.  The teacher’s faux-pas not only makes us catch our breath because we like him so much, but now, unavoidably, everyone in that classroom has made some connection between Theo, Donovan, and this kidnapper.  It is as close as Theo has come in the story to seeing herself as a victim.

In addition to building on this strong four-point structure, Colbert maintains constant tension throughout the discussion.  Theo agreeing to be present sets Mr. Jacobsen up to protect her throughout the class.  The point-counterpoint between Phil and Klein is accentuated by their tenuous friendship.  Also several times, Colbert has Theo consider what would happen if she just came out and asked what she’s really wondering; this hypothetical veneer-rending contrasts with Theo’s need to mask how much the discussion upsets her.  There is also the juxtaposition of how much each cast member knows –the classmates know very little about Theo’s involvement, Mr. Jacobsen knows some, Theo knows more, but even her knowledge of herself is skewed.  Then, of course, affected by the discussion, Theo vacillates between whether she will testify at Chris’ trial or not, which is really a vacillation between views of herself.

Colbert also does an expert job of building in Theo’s silent reactions to the discussion.  She never participates out loud, but we read her thoughts which include surprise that everyone has an opinion on the topic, anger at how little people know, a brief but disturbing memory of what she was doing at thirteen, as well as both questioning Chris and remembering him which turns into a list of grooming behaviors she, herself, does not recognize.  After Klein asks the question “everyone’s thinking,” Colbert adds Theo’s physical reactions –she feels the knuckle-punch to her stomach, she doesn’t move, she stares at the words Stockholm syndrome on the board, she tries to look away from all the eyes on her.  Additionally, Theo’s reactions serve to expand the discussion beyond a black-and-white debate –it is not just a matter of whether Donovan was a victim or ran away willingly –he can be both.  And, because the whole discussion applies to Theo, so can she.

Other things Colbert does well in her execution of the classroom scene:

SETTING: She establishes setting, carefully pinpointing the location of each speaker in relation to Theo.  We know where Theo sits, where each character is in relation to her, and what she observes about each person.  It’s all about how this discussion affects Theo.

CAST: She limits the players in the discussion to characters we know –Klein, Phil, and Sarah who can represent viewpoints from judgmental to understanding to naïve.  But Colbert also fleshes out the class.  She drops three other student names with spot-on adolescent reactions to Klein stomach-punch comment, including a painfully realistic cough-laugh.

INFORMATION: Notably, Colbert also slips in the definition of two key words: Stockholm syndrome and grooming without forcing the teacher “teach” them in a contrived way.  Just as Mr. Jacobsen is about the clarify what Stockholm syndrome is for Theo, she interrupts him –“I know what it is,” and Colbert slips the definition into Theo’s private thoughts.  The term grooming appears between Phil’s surmising on Donovan’s prior relationship with Chris and Theo’s dismissive thoughts about grooming seeming “so textbook.”  Giving our protagonist the benefit of this knowledge affords respect to the readers who travel the story through her eyes, while at the same time demonstrating how this knowledge is not necessarily a match for an abuser’s grooming process.

And that’s just Chapter Twelve.  Yeah, buy this book.  You’ll need to write in it.