The Essential Bits

It happened again: a story I was working on caved in.  Yeah, we’ve been down this road before, haven’t we?  I know it.  You know it.  Your momma’s Aunt Celeste knows it.  It sucks, yeah, but I’ve been down this road too many times to really let it have an effect on me.  I just suck it up and try figuring out what went wrong, hoping to not repeat the same mistakes next time.

To be perfectly frank, I think I might be taking the wrong advice from a most revered source: Stephen King.  I know some of you are probably thinking, “But the King can do no wrong!  Silence the Eye-talian!”  While I do think King can do little wrong, it’s no impossible.

For a while, whenever I have a problem coming up with a story idea, I’ve tried King’s trick of starting with a situation and letting things flower from there.  The logic behind it is that life is plotless, so fiction ought to be as well.  You can revise later for depth and meaning.

I can’t work like that though.  A situation is a starting point, but I can’t jump from that straight to the first draft.  The situational route – also called high concept by them movie folk – is something that reads like a headline (vampires invade a small town, alien probe passes through the Solar System, etc.).  King could probably write stories off of those headlines, and has; small-town vampires is ‘Salem’s Lot.  That’s not enough for me.  For now, I don’t like outline – time spent outlining is time not spent writing the fucking story – but I think there are some ground rules springing from that initial situation that could help me work within certain boundaries.

Setting

Just as theater needs a stage, stories need an arena in which to play out.  They can be as simple as a grocery store or as vast and elaborate as Middle Earth.  A room is just as room, and the one I’m thinking of has furniture here and there (mostly chairs), moving boxes galore, and a disco ball having from the ceiling.  It’s a nice room, but it’s not a story.  It’s a snapshot.

Character

Movies need actors, even really shitty and overpaid ones.  Stories need characters to act out the drama, voice the audience’s concerns and emotions, and lash out against them.  Everyone’s got their opinion of how to flesh out a character.  Some have elaborate biographies and detailed physical descriptions.  I dislike these because they give way more info than is needed.  I don’t need the details on every skin mole, and it takes a lot of spontaneity if I know all their quirks beforehand.  I could (probably should, one day) get in deep on how to flesh out character, but for simplicity sake now, I group characters into three categories: main, secondary, and minor.  Minor characters are little more than background actors.  Secondary characters have more weight, but are made on the fly.  The main characters are the ones I have in mind when I sit down for the first draft.  They’re they folks I want to write about.  Above all else, I need to know what they want, what they’re hiding, and what their relationship is to the rest of the cast if any.  I need this for secondary characters as well.  It’s a little foggier with them because they’re so impromptu, but because they have the potential to turn into main characters in the telling of the story, it never hurts to cover my bases.  Those secrets, drives, and relationships are important for the next part…

Conflict

Say what you want about Jar Jar Binks, but George Lucas was right about drama.  It’s all conflict.  Whether it’s wars of office politics, people fight not because any one is bad, but because their values and goals run contrary to others.  I firmly believe there’s no such thing as an evil character.  Take a look at the first season of Breaking Bad, particularly the interactions between Walter White and his brother-in-law Hank.  There’s a scene where the two talk about the legality of meth.  As a DEA agent, Hank has a very strong anti-drug stance.  We’ve all heard that drugs are bad and so we agree with him.  Walter is struggling to provide for his family and sees meth production as their big meal ticket.  We all know bills need to be paid, future need to be secured, and we agree with him for wanting that and trying to justify his actions.  On their own, each man is right, but the friction and conflict comes when they interact and there can only be one victor.

Personal Connection

This is the shakiest element of a good story.  It’s the part where I ask, “Do I even care about any of this?”  And it’ a question I’ve asked again and again in my time in the entertainment industry as a story analyst.  I’ve read stories with fresh premises, wonderful characters, and terrific conflict, and I’ve tried to be as objective in my critique as possible.  But what can sometimes work against a story is simply a matter of me not being a fan of a particular genre or lacking an interest in a particular topic.  I tell this to clients all the time: “This story is great.  It’s not my thing, but it could still work.”  That’s fine because as an audience member I can’t expect every storyteller to appeal to me.  But it takes very little time to read a story compared to the time that went into making it, so as a writer, I’d better be interested in and care about what I’m working on.

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