Writing Report August 24, 2017
A preamble before I ramble:
Back when I was working for Ruby-Spears, certainly no later than when I was at Sunbow, I came up with a concept I called the Minimum Basic Movie.
The term was derived from the Writers’ Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement, i.e., the least acceptable terms of employment for a writer; basically, if they don’t offer you at least this much, don’t take the job.
I defined a Minimum Basic Movie as a genre film that marked the absolute floor of what was acceptable in that genre, which is to say, if you can’t make a movie at least as good as that, don’t bother.
For example, Ghost Of Frankenstein would be the Minimum Basic Frankenstein Movie, The Spider the Minimum Basic 1950s Sci-Fi Movie, The Rescuers the Minimum Basic Disney Animated Movie, etc.
The other day (Monday of this week, to be precise) I got to wondering what would constitute the ingredients for a Minimum Basic Story.
I quickly came up with this short list:
- Two characters (we’ll cheat and allow conflicting aspects of a single person to count as two characters)
- A setting (from which the conflict must derive)
- A ticking clock (to give urgency and impetus to the story)
- An organic resolution (no deus ex machinas)
You could take any two characters, put them in any setting, and the moment the clock starts ticking -- voila! -- a story.
Why, I thought, you could even take a World Famous Mouse ™ and a World Famous Duck ™ and put them in a leaky lifeboat and --
-- and bingo the story started writing itself.
Which was damned inconvenient because I was in the shower at the time…
But as soon as I got out / dried off / dressed (in roughly that order) I started pounding away on my keyboard.
You can read the result here; when you finish, come back and I dissect it for you.
. . .
Okay, first off, no pretensions of greatness: While what you read was a perfectly serviceable little short story, it has no earmarks of literature.
Although I started my story thinking about a World Famous Mouse ™ and a World Famous Duck ™, I wanted to add a bit of an original spin to it.
To that end, not the characters themselves but rather amusement park employees dressed as those characters became my focus.
And while my story is clearly based on a World Famous Mouse ™ and a World Famous Duck ™ at a World Famous Amusement Park ™, I have no desire to dance with the World Famous Mouse ™ legal department, so I changed names and character descriptions.
Which was fine, because by now the story was moving away from a simple adventure involving said World Famous Mouse ™ and World Famous Duck ™ to something a little more complex, specifically not just the immediate problem of a leaky lifeboat, but the relationship of the park employees to the management of the park, and how that relationship affects the relationship between the employees themselves.
(Which, I suppose, is yet another element to add to the list of ingredients for a Minimum Basic Story: An unstated yet readily apparent underlying theme that holds everything together.)
I started writing the story --
-- and had no idea how to end it.
But I just kept writing.
A lot of times I don’t feel like I’m actually “creating” something so much as I’m discovering it.
That’s what happened with this story.
I filled in enough details to give the reader a clear picture, but I didn’t sit there consciously plotting this out.
I just let it flow.
Since I was basing my story on a World Famous Amusement Park ™ I didn’t have to do an awful lot of research (read: None at all) to describe the size and scope of the park, the operations inside it, the stakes for the characters involved.
(Actually, I had done a ton of research, but I just didn’t realize it at the time: Reading articles about the World Famous Amusement Park ™, seeing documentaries, talking with my daughter and son-in-law when they were employed there, etc. All that was stored in me widdle head, so I didn’t have to go digging.)
I gave the story enough details so the reader (that’s you) would understand the various repercussions my World Famous Mouse ™ and World Famous Duck ™ would face if they violated the policies of World Famous Amusement Park ™.
Which was a good thing, because not only did it up the ante, it also let me establish without overtly mentioning it that the park would have supervisors roaming around at all times to make sure said policies were not violated, and by extension said supervisors would have at least the limited authority to take action of certain, specific problems.
Too often writers (and lord knows I’m guilty of this!) get too clever for their own good and strain credulity in the process.
I could have comes up with a cumbersome deus ex machina in which either the World Famous Mouse ™ or the World Famous Duck ™ spot a police helicopter high overhead and, taking a shiny button off their costume, flash a Morse code message to the pilot who then swoops down and plucks them from danger, but that would mean bringing the story to a screeching halt to explain the details of the button and knowing Morse code and even the coincidental presence of the helicopter.
But I’d already established that the park by it’s very nature in the context of the story would have people around who could help the World Famous Mouse ™ and the World Famous Duck ™ if only said World Famous Mouse ™ and World Famous Duck ™ could get their attention.
Well, if you’ve read the story (you have read the story, haven’t you?) you’ll know I had already worked in all the various component elements as details explaining why the World Famous Mouse ™ and World Famous Duck ™ can’t do any of the easy / obvious things to get out of their predicament.
The nice thing about adding complications to a story is that often without even realizing it you end up laying track towards your resolution.
In this case, Jenny Jetski.
Now, why would a police helicopter be rejected out of hand as a deus ex machina while Jenny -- whose existence was not mentioned prior to her first appearance -- be accepted?
Because the myriad little throw away details that establish the parameters of the story and the complications also create a setting where Jenny Jetski or someone like her is a logical extension.
From the context of the story -- the description of a schedule of events, the establishing of various fictional characters who interact with tourists – we would expect the World Famous Amusement Park ™ to have a character like Jenny Jetski.
So when all the pieces fall in place at the end -- the supervisor, Jenny Jetski, even the little tourist boy -- they’re either already well established or assumed to exist.
Now here’s the part that’s going to infuriate many of you: I have no idea how I do this.
I learned long ago to let the back of my head contribute ideas and details to stories when I’m writing them.
If my back brain says “put a lamp on the table when describing the room” at the beginning of the story, I can safely bet the heart transplant money that said lamp is going to be absolutely crucial to my resolution even if I haven’t thought of the resolution yet.
I can tell you after the fact how it works, but damned if I can work it out in advance.
I can jot down notes, come up with ideas, fill notebooks with details, but in the end it’s always like the title song from Paint Your Wagon:
“Where’re you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“When’ll you get there?”
“I ain’t certain.”
“What’ll you find?”
“I ain’t equipped to say.
But who gives a damn?
We’re on our way!”
Text © Buzz Dixon