Writing Report June 22, 2019
A tale of two tales…
I’m what you call a “pantser” at least when it comes to writing short stories.
I come up with an idea / hook / scene and then just build off it on the run, flying by the seat of my pants as it were.
(“Flying by the seat of one’s pants” comes from the earliest days of aviation, of course, but it’s an ancient tradition. The Polynesians traversed and populated the Pacific by having their navigators sit in the bottom of their dugout canoes, their testicles resting on the hull, feeling the subtle changes in the way the waves hit the boat to know when they were moving from one current to another. But I digress…)
Recently I plotted out a story before writing it.
It was one of those cases where I read one thing, then thought of another, and when the two bumped together in me widdle bwain a story popped up.
It seemed like the kind of story fit only for one particular low budget genre movie studio, and while I have no access to said studio nor am I interested in jumping through those hoops again, the idea amused me enough to write a brief beat outline for a feature film / TV movie.
That happened about a year ago.
About a month to six weeks ago, I asked myself why am I letting this idea go to waste, why not write it up as a short story and sell it?
So I dredged up the movie beat outline, re-read it, and started writing the short story.
When I finished, I went back and looked at the beat outline again.
I saw I made significant changes.
Two minor supporting characters vanished without a trace. A third’s contribution to the story wound up severely trimmed back.
Two big chase / action scenes fell by the wayside; useful to help a movie keep chugging along, easy to bridge over in a short story.
I did to myself what Mack Sennett’s directors did to his gag writers.
Frank Capra, in his autobiography The Name Above The Title, told about his earliest days in Hollywood, working as a gag man for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios.
Sennett, for those of you who might be unaware, was an early pioneer of Hollywood, the progenitor of classic pie-in-the-face slapstick silent comedies.
He employed a team of gag men such as Capra to come up with stories and gags for his movies. When they finalized an idea for a movie (in those days typically 15 to 30 minutes long) they called in the director and told him the story.
The director was not allowed to take notes and had to direct the film from memory.
Sennett’s apparent madness hid a savvy method. As Sennett explained to Capra, anything the director forgot obviously wasn’t that important to begin with!
That’s what I did with my own beat outline. Without consciously thinking about it, I jettisoned unnecessary elements and pared it down to a more streamline, faster paced tale.
I came up with an idea that flipped a classic trope.
The flip is not original, I can point to a couple of people who did something similar before, but I added something different to their versions so I plunged ahead.
This one was strictly seat of the pants; I knew generally where I wanted to end up but held no firm idea on how to get there.
I just started writing.
Cribbing an old dictum from Harlan Ellison -- “Begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning, the end will take care of itself.” -- I opened with a very crucial moment in my tale, the moment when my protagonist must decide between a good choice and a bad choice…
…and he has lots of reasons to make the bad choice.
I backed up and began fleshing in the story. What prompted this, how he got there, why he must make that choice.
Along the way I added one seemingly insignificant detail without really thinking about it, just a minor background detail that of course would be in the story at that point. (How minor, you ask? I wasn’t even aware of adding it while I was writing; that minor.)
So when I get to the climax, when the decision needs to be made…
…are you surprised that seemingly insignificant detail suddenly becomes crucial to resolving the story?
I wasn’t --
but then I’ve been
doing this to myself for
a long, long time.
© Buzz Dixon