Writing Right with Dmitri: Twists and Stuff
A couple of weeks ago, I rambled on about storytelling. My point, which as usual got lost in the comments, was that in order to get people to listen to whatever you wanted to say, you had to first tell them a story. Reactions varied from 'That's good, I just want to tell stories without morals in them' to 'I have this peachy-keen proof for the non-existence of God'.
Fine. But that wasn't what I was talking about. I was talking about the importance of storytelling to the writing process. Now, I'd like to share another thought about storytelling: the fact that storytelling isn't just about conveying the idea of the plot: it's about taking that plot somewhere. (Hopefully somewhere interesting.)
It's isn't good enough for the punchline to be 'there was a ghost'. What did the ghost want? Or what did the person who saw the ghost want? How did the person who saw the ghost react? What came of the ghost/living person interaction?
Neglect of this aspect – completion of the tale – is why I refuse to watch most horror movies. The movie is essentially over in the first 10-15 minutes. That's when they do the set-up: some people go into a haunted house. They have interesting personalities, interactions, conflicts. Then the monster starts picking them off. The story forgets about the people and concentrates on all the nasty ways in which they are killed by the monster. The only 'suspense' left is the question of who will survive. Who cares?
This is why I fell asleep during the first Jurassic Park movie. In spite of Sensurround. The seats were rocking from the pounding of little dinosaur feet, and I was snoozing. Because the story had been used up by the time the velociraptors started eating people. Bo-rrrrr-ing.
It's the same with car chases. A left turn! A right turn! Cop cars with sirens! Oh, look, cars are jumping over other cars and crashing through guardrails. Wake me up, please, when it's over, and tell me which characters are still alive. Then the story can continue.
Stating a story premise is not telling a story. Don't be in a hurry to get that part 'over with' so that you can get down to the 'fun' of minutely describing some sort of mayhem or repetitious activity that you think the audience might enjoy. There are more people like me out there: the ones who will say, 'Oh, wait, the interesting part's over,' and go do something else rather than read or watch the rest.
Yeah. Maybe they run out of gas. You have to add some 'twists and stuff'.
Once you've added the 'twists and stuff', you really need to get down to brass tacks. You've got to decide what you think it all means. You've got to decide that, even if you don't want to tell the audience. Why? Because, although you may imply a variety of possible interpretations – the ghost may be a real phenomenon, or psychologically induced, the hero's selfless action may have been a wise or foolish gesture, etc – you need to let everyone know that the question is there. You can't just throw out possibilities in a scattershot fashion. You've got to state the problem.
The Sixth Sense wraps itself up neatly: we know why the ghosts are there, what helps them to 'move on', why Dr Crowe was acting the way he was, what Cole gets out of the encounter. It's very satisfying, which is why we watch the movie over and over even when we know the ending. There are a lot of 'twists and stuff' to enjoy there.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we really don't know much more at the end than we knew at the beginning. Will this horrible experience repeat itself? Will they ever learn? We don't know. But we have been pointed to problems along the way. Is the play's universe deterministic? What does that say about the one we're currently living in? Are these characters guilty of something? Are we? Is all the world really a stage? What does that imply? We can talk about that play endlessly after it's done. Lots of 'twists and stuff'.
To sum up: does a story need an idea? Yes. It needs to be going somewhere. If you say, 'Oh, I just like to tell stories, they don't have to mean anything,' either you're being disingenuous because you really are trying to say something, and you hope nobody will notice, or your stories are only entertaining to yourself. The rest of us want to know what the point of this trip is. Don't believe me? When was the last time you were trapped in a pub with the Town Bore, who kept nattering on about his favourite subject without caring in the least that you were dying of tedium?
Say to Elektra, 'Bicycle sprockets.' I dare you. We had friends who had taken up cycling. They went on and on and on about the mechanics, spoiling perfectly fine dinner parties. After that, all you had to say was 'bicycle sprockets' to get an eyeroll from Elektra. Please don't write about bicycle sprockets unless they're a pivot point in your plot.
And yes, I wrote a short-short story about a sleeping cat. And Pinniped wrote about an obsessed horseshoe expert in a pub. Paulh wrote about road repair, and Paige about 'smart' houses. They're all in this week's issue. Go ahead. Write about allegedly boring topics. As long as you get around to the 'twists and stuff'.