Writing Right with Dmitri: When the Story Gets Out of Control

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Writing Right with Dmitri: When the Story Gets Out of Control

Editor at work.

Have you ever found yourself listening to a ten-year-old telling you all about a movie or television show they've seen, or a book they've read? It will go something like this:

I saw this really cool movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo in it. He was this spy, you see? And he was in Berlin. First, the bad guys followed him around, but he gave them the slip. Then he had a fight with this Chinese guy. . . or maybe he was Korean. . . anyway, they went bam! And pow! And kaboom! Then he. . . oh, yeah, he won that one. . . then he went to the hotel to pick up the microfilm. I forgot to tell you about the microfilm, he was supposed to pick it up at the front desk, but somebody messed up, and he really got this old American couple's holiday snaps. . . anyway, and then Jean-Paul Belmondo was having dinner with this blonde jane, I think she was his girlfriend, oh, no, I remember: they were partners a long time ago, but then. . .

You are familiar with this phenomenon. You nod sagely and make 'hm, hm' noises while it goes on. But the kid's just shown you one of the major problems with movie scripts: they get complicated.

Did your last short story go like that? Or even a true-life anecdote you were trying to tell? Have you ever got to a place where you exclaimed in despair, 'Oh, heck! [Or whatever you use for an expletive.] This is so tangled up, even I don't know what everybody's doing.'

Do not give up, Binky. What you need is an outline.

You remember outlines, don't you? They made you write them in school. Or they did if the teacher was any good. I remember back in the long-ago Sixties, when I was about 15. Our teacher decided to tell us all about our 'term paper' project. He ran through the whole process one Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, this was after lunch. I understood the assignment – or so I thought – but I was a bit vague on the details. Your brain goes a bit soft after lunch. . .

Anyway, I ran to the public library, got the books, and spent all weekend on the thing. Come Monday, I had a neatly-typed eight-page term paper. Cool. That's when I found out the paper wasn't due for another month. We just had to turn in the title on Monday. Then the bibliography a week later. Then, an outline.

Okay, I figured if I kept my mouth shut, my teacher wouldn't know how big an idiot I'd been. I turned in the title. Then the bibliography. But oh heck [see note above], I'd forgotten to do an outline first. I figured I'd just cheat a little: I read the paper again, and outlined it. It worked pretty well, and nobody was the wiser. Except me. I learned an important lesson that year: pay attention to deadlines.

So what do you do if things get too complicated? Try writing an outline. It doesn't have to look like the protocol for a mission launch. Just a flowchart of events and characters on your handy-dandy notepad.

For instance, suppose you're going to introduce a couple of teenagers, and they're going to meet and fall in love. But you need to 'set it up' by telling where they've both been before, and what their previous dating experiences were, so the audience will appreciate why their meet-cute scene is so cool. Why not make a few notes first? Then, when you go to write, you'll be able to figure out how to slip all that set-up in adroitly. The audience won't catch on, if you're subtle. They'll just know that when the big scene comes, they have all the requisite information to be amused, enlightened, touched, or whatever it is you want them to feel.

If you find the story getting hopelessly tangled, fret now. What you have in front of you is a Rough Draft. Nothing wrong with rough drafts. Go back and outline the info you've got in there, and move some of it around. The skein of narrative will untangle for you. Festina lente, as some Italian said.

Personally, I wish more television writers these days made outlines. I can tell they don't when I watch their shows. Their characters get into so many inextricable messes, and the showrunners push the 'reset button' so often, that you soon tire of them, their storyline, and their characters. I always feel sorry for the actors, but never for the writers. Writing yourself in and out of corners only works if you're in Improv.

Or one of those old Penny Dreadful authors. Those guys had no time to breath, let alone make up outlines. It's a miracle they pulled it off, especially in the days before computers. I am in awe. But only moderately. After all, there's the famous story of the penny dreadful writer who got run over by a cart and was in hospital. The rest of the newspaper staff frantically tried to get his hero out of the fix he was in: trussed up by the villain and about to be hurled over a cliff. Nobody could solve the conundrum. Finally, they ran over to the hospital and begged the writer for help. With trembling hand, he picked up the pen and wrote,

With a single bound, Jack was free.

Remember: you can always cheat. Like using an outline.

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