What I'm reading right now: Understand the difference between an idea, a concept, a premise, and a story. by Larry Brooks (storyfix.com)
I find it difficult to read while folding laundry (yes, I do laundry--there's a confession for you.) Occasionally, I’ll listen to an audio book but they're all on my Nano and the headphone wires get in the way, so I put in a DVD to distract me from the monotony. I’m a little behind on the mainstream-vampire genre (aka Twilight or True Blood) so I rented a True Blood disc from Netflix (love the red envelope.)
I’ve been an Anna Paquin fan since I saw her signing in The Piano with Holly Hunter. You’ll recall I have a degree in American Sign Language. So I was eager to see how she would portray Sookie Stackhouse, the mindreading-on-again-off-again-girlfriend of a vampire named Bill.
In one scene, Anna walks into a room, crosses the threshold and says…
I don’t remember what she said. What I do remember is I said the exact same thing, verbatim. I hadn’t seen this episode (there are several on a disc) but somehow, in the given context, I knew exactly what the writer intended she say.
In 2007, I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. As part of his course he talked about the cliché shelf. These are the ideas that first come to us as writers: what should our characters say? Or do? Or behave? He teaches that we instinctively pull from our cliché shelf—things we’ve seen and heard people or characters do in similar situations—and what we need to do is learn to reach past the cliché shelf. He uses the phrase, “Else your way through the story.”
When you pull from that cliché shelf say to yourself, “Okay, that could happen, but what else could happen? How else might she respond? What else might he say? This helps you come up with a fresh take on tired ideas.
Speaking of tired ideas, a friend of mine recently shared a list of 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. It’s from a book of the same name written by Richard Roeper, co-host of Ebert & Roeper. As a movie critic, Roeper has seen thousands of movies. He compiled this book of observations he extracted from his endless hours of movie watching, things he’s seen over and over again.
Some of his observations are less relevant than others, such as Bad Films Featuring Seinfeld Cast Members but the 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed is a great example of the cliché shelf. These things have been done to death. You will recognize most of these because you’ve seen them too. If you’re writing characters or scenes similar to the ones on the list, stop and ask yourself, “What else could he do?”
1. The researcher who is working late in the police lab and calls up the lead cop and says, “I know who did it! Meet me at the crime scene at 11 tonight.” After hanging up the phone, the researcher will be greeted by a visitor who is not shown on camera and will say, “Hey, what are YOU doing here?” And then the researcher will get whacked.
2. The spunky little kid or the wizened old soul who befriends a main character in a hospital has no chance. We’ll find out the kid (or the old-timer) has died when the main character stops in to pay a visit, only to see a nurse’s aid stripping the bed. Nothing says death in a hospital scene like a nurse’s aide stripping the bed.
3. The fresh-faced soldier who talks endlessly about his girlfriend, looks longingly at her photo every night, and fells everyone, “We’re going to have a baby!” will be coming home in a body bag.
4. The pregnant young wife who looks at her husband with pure love and says, “I’ve never been happier in my entire life,” has no chance of making it out of the movie alive.
5. Another type who has no chance of surviving the movie: The anonymous henchman who exists only to fight the superhero and never realizes that it would be better to team up with his fellow anonymous henchmen for a group attack rather than waiting his turn to be defeated by the hero (well docu-mocked in the Austin Powers movies.)
6. Of course, all lusty teenagers in the Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street movies will be sliced and diced to pieces, usually after they’ve just made love or gone skinny-dipping.
7. The popular veteran cop who has travel brochures on his desk and is a week away from retirement—he’s never going to see that condo in Arizona, is he?
8. If a team of criminals or investigators has one black guy played by an actor who’s not as famous as anyone else, that guy has no chance. (As explained in Undercover Brother.)
9. The bad guy is locked in a life-and-death clinch with the good guy, when suddenly a gun goes off. We see the look of shock on the good guy’s face as he falls away—but of course it’s the bad guy who’s been shot n the gut.
10. Wise old-timers in the form of janitors, next-door neighbors, retired athletes, or inmates who have been locked up for 50 years—they’re bound to croak, usually in the arms of their young protégé, who says, “Don’t you die on me!” as if it’s up to the old guy.