Thursday, December 15, 2011

He Wakes Up In a Bathtub Full of Ice And...

            Have you noticed the somewhat blatant examples of product placement on television shows lately?  Our heroes are on a stakeout, driving to a crime scene, or fleeing for their lives... and they suddenly stop talk about how cool their car is.  Heroes jumped that shark early on with their constant references to the Nissan Rogue, but as of late it seems like almost every show is doing it.  There was a truly awful example on House a few weeks back.
            For the record, I give CHUCK a pass on blatant product placement because the show completely embraces the idea of blatant product placement and, as such, blends it in a lot better than the others.  It pretty much made Subway cool by pointing out how ridiculously un-cool Subway is.
            Anyway...
            One thing we’ve all seen is when a story veers off into unrelated, irrelevant material for a little while.  It’s as if the writer lost track of where their story was going and it just meandered away.  We’ve all heard people say "I let the characters guide me,” but if the characters are guiding the story off the page and into a different book, it’s probably time for the writer to pause for a moment and reassess things.
Violet, moments before her gruesome end.
            For example, remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book, not the movie) there’s the whole recurring bit about how the bad kids keep messing things up and putting their various parts where they’re not supposed to be.  Eventually little Violet Beauregarde chews some gum she shouldn’t and swells up into a giant blueberry.  The other guests are horrified, Wonka sighs in regret, and the Oompa-Loompas roll poor Violet away to a soundproofed room where the other guests can’t hear her screams or terror and agony as the little people gut the swollen girl and harvest her organs for the international black market ring that the candy factory is just a front for.
            You don’t remember that bit?
            It is a bit off from the rest of Dahl’s book, isn’t it?  Tonally speaking.  Probably why he didn’t include a scene like that.  If you do remember that scene... well, you should probably talk to someone.  Preferably someone who can prescribe medication
            The problem I’m talking about is telling a story that isn’t your story.  Sometimes, in the middle of a perfectly good tale, writers will steer off into... well, something else entirely.  Another few examples...
            If I’m doing a touching character piece, I shouldn’t have a ninja attack.
            A post-apocalyptic thriller probably should not have a song and dance number in the middle of it.
            If I’m writing a romantic comedy, no one should get kidnapped and harvested for their organs (a common theme to veer off into, apparently).
            In a pulse-pounding action story, no one should pause for a ten minute monologue about how horrible it was watching their mom get worn away by cancer.
            If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you probably remember a while back when I talked about the rules of love.  The fourth rule relates directly to this idea.  Sometimes a romantic element just doesn’t fit in a story.  Maybe the people are too different.  Perhaps there’s too many other things going on.  Maybe the current situation just doesn’t allow for those kind of thoughts.
            A lot of time when we see stuff like this, it’s a poor attempt to copy something else.  The writer’s seen an element work in another existing story and tried to transplant it into this story, regardless of whether or not it works.
            Speaking of black market organs, that’s a great analogy—transplants.  If any of your family or friends has ever needed blood, bone marrow, or maybe a kidney, you know it’s a big deal (and hopefully you’re all tagged as donors).  Even with blood, which is pretty easy these days, there’s a half-dozen or so tests that need to be run.  If it’s an actual organ transplant there’s a ton of factors that need to match up for it to be successful, and these factors need to be determined by a professional.  Even between close relatives there can be huge differences.  I can’t just toss kidneys from one person to another and assume they’re going to work, because if even one of those factors doesn’t match up, I’ll have two dead people on my hands.
            The same is true of stories, too.  Something that’s creepy in your book might not be creepy in my book.  Just because this joke worked when she said it doesn’t mean it’ll work when he says it.  This story may have ended with the young couple together, but it doesn’t mean mine can do it.  If I just pull elements from one story and stick them in another, there’s a better chance I’ll kill the story than save it.  I need to do cross-checking and make sure all the factors line up before I do a transplant.
            What are the important factors?  Well, a big one is whether or not the patient actually needs a transplant or not.  Is there a reason to bring in this odd element?  Does it contribute to my story in one way or another?
            Past that, it depends on what’s being transplanted, and also from what into what.  Each one’s going to be different.  A joke or a clever description might not need much alteration, but pulling over a major subplot or character could take lots of work to both the element and the story it’s going into.  That’s part of the job of being a writer—knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what I need to do to bridge the gap.
            More to the point, it’s my job to tell the story I’m telling.  I shouldn’t be trying to tell my sci-fi story with a bit of Stephanie Meyer tween romance twisted in.  I shouldn’t be writing my dramatic screenplay but with that fun scene from Captain America wedged into it.  And it’s a bit silly to stick a cute dog in my horror short story just because all the Tintin books have one. 
            Know your story and write your story.  Don’t worry about that other story.
            Next time, I’d like to babble on about a great lesson you can learn from the parents in Calvin & Hobbes.
            Until then, go write.

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