This morning as I sat in the coffee shop, watching as it gradually filled with workers and writers, I had a small scene dilemma. Even though I have taken to outlining, there are unplanned moments, and I have to determine the best way to handle these unplanned "small scenes."
As insufferable as it might seem, here I want to provide the specifics of the moment, because I think the most interesting writing decisions are based in specifics, and I hate reading "vaguely" about writing. So, come with me on this little coffee shop adventure through a small scene of Kabuki-ish.
Basically, the context is as follows. Enkô, a girl who dreamt of being an actor, has left home to go to the big city with plans of pretending to be a man so she can be an actor (who plays women onstage). But she hasn't left alone—the original creator of dancing-musical theater, Okuni, has returned to from Hell and is haunting Enkô, claiming she will help the girl achieve her dreams. Anyway, things went south on the way to the city, and Okuni possessed Enkō, forcing the girl out into a spirit-like state to follow helplessly along her body.
The pair have arrived at the city, and Okuni has gone into a theater to see the end of a play. This theater is the swankiest in town, and they see the dazzling actor Ayame in action. Now, by the time I sat down this morning, I had already introduced the setting of the theater and portrayed Ayame onstage. Ayame is a beautiful female role actor with a passionate fanbase of men and women. He is so beautiful that Enkô initially has trouble believing he is a man, and she is swept up in his performance. Wow.
So, in my outline, I had initially planned for Enkô to encounter Ayame for the first time later in the book—they get into a fight at a restaurant—but when it seemed best to illustrate a fabulous theater at the height of popularity, I figured it would be best to do that at the beginning and introduce my lovely, "bitchy" actor Ayame too.
I say bitchy with some affection. (Is Draco Malfoy not bitchy?) Also, accuracy, as that was the adjective next to his name in my notes.
So, by the time I started working this morning, I had shown Ayame's good side (aka his acting), but I couldn't effectively leave him without touching upon his Marilyn— if-you-can't-handle-me-at-my-worst—Monroe side. Just a little. I had come up with the idea some weeks ago of using a "finger episode" in a scene, but I wasn't certain where it would go until this morning. And the finger episode is the reason we have this blog post.
What's the finger episode? Okay, well, over the course of my kabuki research, I encountered the finger episode. There was a custom in Edo kabuki of fans giving finger-shaped biscuits to their favorite actors. The custom originated from a supposedly real episode, where a man chopped off his finger onstage and gave it to an actor. Below is the episode, translated from "An Onnagata's Tosa Diary" in The Great Mirror of Male Love by Ihara Saikaku. Translation by Paul Gordon Schalow. I've cut it down a bit here:
The man sets off on his journey, but decides that no one, especially not the local prostitutes, is going to be good enough for him after Han'ya. Such is the passion.
At the end of the day, you just can't make this stuff up.
Something about this episode spoke to me, just something in the dedication and the celebration of Han'ya's grace and sensitivity... and this man's depression moved me at first. Then I found it funny. I know, I know.
It seemed to me that incorporating this episode from The Great Mirror of Male Love would be great for Ayame... but how? As I wrapped up Ayame's acting scene, I tried to think of how I could use this to illustrate Ayame's true character. In the original text, Han'ya is thought highly for how he handles this man and the situation. But there's also a bit of absurdity too, that a man would cut off his finger for sex with his idol, and that this would compel Han'ya to sleep with him. Perhaps this is just absurd to me, the modern reader. Likely. I find people cutting off digits to gain sexual favors funny?
But that seemed beside the point as I brainstormed the small scene with Ayame. A man climbs up onstage and cuts off his finger with a declaration of love. This much remained. But Ayame's response could not be like Han'ya's.
When I was studying screenwriting, one of my instructors told us a bit of advice that I think holds: your first idea is probably garbage. My first idea was to imitate the Han'ya episode, and have Ayame accept the finger and the sex, which would play up some his lovable sluttiness. But I kept thinking through what-ifs? What if Ayame rejects the severed finger and the declaration?
I took a sip of my ginger latte and shifted gears. No. What if Ayame had planted the man in the audience, paid him off, in order to improve his image? Or, what if Ayame had staged the whole thing but ends up rejecting the man to seem exclusive?
I took another sip of my latte. I liked the latter two scenarios because they seemed awfully Ayame-ish, but I did not think it was such a good idea to stray off the main plot in a tangled Ayame scheme. Which brought me back to Ayame simply accepting or rejecting the severed finger.
Below is what I ended up with.
“What are those packages?” asked the ghost.
“They’re biscuits shaped like finger,” Enkō answered. “Some guy once…”
She trailed off as a big man, a member of the audience with warrior’s clothes and double swords climbed onstage.
“Ayame,” he boomed. “I am a humble warrior from the countryside who has seen many of your shows!”
Ayame’s mask-like smile slipped at the intrusion. He looked towards the back of the stage for help. "Thank you."
“I am just a humble warrior, who—“
“You said that,” interrupted Ayame.
“Yes. Um. I cannot communicate my affections for you. So strong are my feelings, and I must convey them or die. I must show you the sincerity of my emotions.”
The big warrior drew his short sword, and everyone shrieked. Even the actor playing Lord Takeda jumped backwards. The warrior bent down, placing his hand on the stage, and raising his blade, he brought the sword down on his own hand. Blood squirted on the floorboards. Gritting his teeth, he tightly wrapped his wound with a bit of fabric.
Enkō admired his grit, because the crowd was losing its mind.
He lifted his severed little finger and presented it to Ayame. “You do not deserve these childish declarations of affection.”
It was not terribly romantic, Enkō would admit, but she had never really believed that someone would cut off their finger to give to an actor: the origin of the biscuit tradition. She was wrong.
Ayame, however, merely looked down at the proffered finger in horror and disgust.
His hand drooped somewhat, the warrior's expression of adoration faltering.
“Just take it,” pleaded Enkō.
Okuni watched it all with the greatest interest as if the play had finally picked up. She tole a rice cake from the nieghboring theater-goers, and popped it in her mouth.
“This is quite flattering,” said Ayame. He didn’t take the finger. Instead, he waved his hand and one of the stage assistants came forward with an ornate lacquer box inlaid with mother of pearl. The box was beautiful, almost as beautiful as Ayame, and about the size of a writing box... She wondered why. The stage assistant took the finger and carefully wrapping it in gauze, then paper.
“Do I have your permission to come and see you later?” asked the warrior.
Enkō’s eyes bugged from her head.
“Damn,” said Okuni. She snuck another rice cake. “Bold.”
Ayame looked around the theater at a loss. He flicked his wrists, sending his sleeves flapping, then placed a hand on his bosom—or where his bosom would be if he were a woman. “I am flattered, truly.” He didn’t look flattered, Enkō thought. He looked cornered, like this were a colossal inconvenience.
“But if I had sex with every man who gave me a severed finger, I would never get anything done." Ayame rolled his eyes. "Like, when was the last time this happened?”
“Tuesday, sir,” answered the stage hand. He popped open the lacquer box, revealing a collection of paper-wrapped pinky fingers.
Okuni choked on her rice cake.
Blood had begun to seep through the fabric and paper and drip on the stage as Ayame rolled his eyes and the stage hand added the finger to the collection. “Tuesday! Two days ago?”
“Two days ago,” said the warrior uncertainly. He clutched his hand in pain.
“At least I can eat the biscuits,” continued Ayame. “But these fingers. I feel like I am getting these from men who can’t afford to sleep with me—“ he paused—“not that anyone can pay to sleep with me, as that would no doubt break some law of the week, praise the Generalissimo, long may he reign…”
In that moment, Ayame reminded Enkō of a flashing gemstone as he talked: serene and beautiful one moment, cutting the next. His mouth bent in a sullen pout, his perfect eyebrows pinched together in irritation as he thought. The illusion of his earlier emotional, selfless performance was utterly gone, and in its place, he had shapeshifted to a spoilt lover wrapped in a golden costume. Enkō wasn’t bothered by his refusal—she would do the same—but by his indifference as the warrior's chin trembled.
“I am flattered," said Ayame coolly. "But no. I have heard there are look-a-likes. Go find one of them.” With a whirl of his heavy robes, Ayame exited the stage from the side. “Someone clean up that blood.”
The above is very much a first draft, but having Ayame reject the finger on the grounds of Oh-Hell-This-Again-I-Already-Slept-With-A-Severed-Finger-Guy proved much more fruitful. We can glimpse Ayame's erotic nature, his irritation (however justified), and his lack of empathy. We also get to see his rabid fanbase in action. In many ways, this is the anti-Han'ya scene, if only because we don't end up thinking the world of Ayame at the end.
Anyway, I wanted to share some of the ways I continue to plot and work my way through a first draft. There must be a million ways to do this. If anyone has methods that they're happy with, I am all ears.
But, please, no severed ears. Looking at you, van Gogh.
Already one week into 2018, and it is shaping up to be a strange year. It seems like just when I get relaxed into a pattern, life throws me a curveball. 2018 wasn't meant to be a year of big changes. I was hoping to finish Kabuki-ish, then keep my head down and edit Food of Magicians, Serango, and Kabuki-ish to be queried at the end of the year. We'll see. That's still the plan. But I find myself staring at the metaphorical plan and life and wondering.