Tag: 2004

What Can We Steal From Chad Simpson’s “About to Drop”?

Title of Work and its Form: “About to Drop,” short story
Author: Chad Simpson (on Twitter @sadchimpson)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Spring 2004 issue of Sycamore Review.  Mr. Simpson has been kind enough to republish the piece on his web site.  You can find it here.

Bonus: My, my.  Mr. Simpson’s site is fantastic.  Here is the page that lists his many publications; check out more of his work!  Here is an interview Mr. Simpson did on the Ploughshares blog.  This is beyond cool: here’s a “napkin story” Mr. Simpson wrote for Esquire.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Epiphanies

Discussion:
Gwen has been dating Lucas for quite some time.  Her mother-in-principle, Deb, has been pestering the pair for a grandchild.  When the couple refused to oblige, Deb bought a cockatiel and named it Baby.  (After the death of Baby, Deb bought Baby Too.)  Deb is telling the story as a way to reflect upon the fact that the phases of our lives don’t always end as they wish we would.

I think that what I love most about the story is the way that Mr. Simpson structures the narrative.  The story begins with A SIGNIFICANT AND (SOMEWHAT) UNUSUAL EVENT THAT SERVES, IN RETROSPECT AS A KIND OF OMEN.  Here’s the opening sentence:

My boyfriend Lucas and I were thirty-seven minutes into the trip when our cat Moonshine Eyes shit in his carrier.

If you’ve taken a long road trip with an animal, you can likely attest that the cat poop isn’t surprising in and of itself.  What DOES matter is that Lucas and Gwen were on their way to a significant and unpleasant Thanksgiving weekend.

Mr. Simpson ends the story by placing Gwen in the literal position of narrator; he allows Gwen to describe how Lucas would construct the story of their lives in comparison with her idea.  I’ll illustrate the principle with the same kind of example: the ending of a romantic relationship.

THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER: When he or she texted you at midnight, saying, “Thx 4 fun.  We R over.  Don’t txt me. <3”

THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER…AFTER YOU’VE HAD A COUPLE OF MONTHS TO THINK ABOUT IT: When he or she forgot about your birthday so you went to Applebee’s alone, but you ended up seeing him or her there with a “work friend.”

I suppose that what I’m saying is that I love Gwen’s explicit consideration of the process by which we understand ourselves and our lives.  Writers are in the interesting business of thinking about epiphanies in a number of ways.  We must consider the following:

  • How the epiphany affects the character.
  • How to communicate the epiphany to a reader.
  • How to demonstrate the before and after of the character in a felicitous manner.
  • How OUR OWN self-understanding comes about and how we can communicate changes in self-understanding to most human beings.  (We’re all different!)

Okay, so maybe it’s a small thing, but I always wonder about how to include the name of a first-person narrator.  You can’t always have your character say,

They call me Jim Gumshoe. I’m a private eye. My name’s on the smoked glass window in the door: Jim Gumshoe’s Private Eye Agency.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks about this, but I like knowing what to call the narrator.  (I think I can truly date this desire to grad school.  I didn’t want to keep typing synonyms into my critiques: “your protagonist”…”your character”…”the main guy”…”you know, what’s-his-name.”)

Shoehorning the name in can be difficult because we don’t think or say our own names often, do we?  Those with whom we converse don’t often say our names either…unless they’re very happy or very angry with us.  Let’s see how Mr. Simpson gets Gwen’s name in the text.  The name comes near the end of the story:

“Aww, Gwen,” Lucas said. He leaned back in his little-kid desk, and its hinges creaked. “There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.”

Does Lucas have a logical reason to say her name?  Sure.  This is a crucial moment in their lives.  What does Mr. Simpson gain or lose by including it where he did?  Well, we need to know the narrator’s name if we’re going to write a 900-word craft essay about the story.  Why didn’t he simply give us the name along with the rest of the introductory exposition?  Withholding the name means that Mr. Simpson does get a little more of a “punch” when he DOES release it.

What Should We Steal?

  • Contrive a structure in which characters (and the reader) reflect upon significant life events.  What’s the difference between that moment when your character realizes he’s going to get a divorce and when he realizes he SHOULD have gotten a divorce?  When should he know?  What should the reader think?  How do you get the reader to think that?
  • Think carefully about how (or whether) you will release the name of your first-person narrator.  Naming a character is one of the ten thousand choices you make when writing a story.  Have a justification for the choice you make.

What Can We Steal From Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale?

Title of Work and its Form: The Ancestor’s Tale, nonfiction
Author: Richard Dawkins (on Twitter @RichardDawkins)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The tome can be found in all fine bookstores.  You can also order it online.

Bonuses: Dr. Dawkins has presented many television programs about science and skepticism.  They’re definitely worth a long look.  Dr. Dawkins formalized the concept of the “meme,” although the use of the term has changed somewhat.  Take a look at the powerful concept he described. Dr. Dawkins joined Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a discussion that came to be called “The Four Horsemen.”  These four powerful thinkers offer insight into religion (and the lack thereof) and into the development of human culture.  If you are into skepticism, you may also enjoy my essay about Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, which also links to my essay about Hitchens.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
The Ancestor’s Tale is a book with a modest conceit.  All Dr. Dawkins did (with some help from research assistant Yan Wong) is to work backwards step by step to tell the complete story of the evolution of all of the organisms in the history of the Earth.  He begins by describing humans (and protohumans) and slips in graceful descriptions of the minor genetic variances between us and how they came to be.  Then he tells the “tales” of bonobos and eventually hippos and salamanders  and flounders, all the way back to plants and bacteria.  Dr. Dawkins crams the history of life on Earth into 600 pages and does so in a manner that just about anyone can understand.

Beginning a massive project can be daunting.  Turning a two-inch stack of blank pages into a novel?  What a frightening prospect!  Condensing your whole life story into a coherent 300 pages?  Seemingly impossible!  How did Dr. Dawkins confront such a massive undertaking and end up with such a satisfying product?

First of all, he divided his grand conceit into digestible pieces.  No book could literally detail the evolution and contain anecdotes about every single species that has ever evolved.  Instead, Dr. Dawkins chose to write about a few dozen of the most important and representative branches of the tree of life.  The book seems easier to write if you think of it in this manner:

Okay, I’ll write a ten-page essay about the fruit fly because of its fascinating genetics.  I have about eight pages worth of interesting information about the cichlid.  I should also write about 2500 words about the hippopotamus.  Oh, and I can’t forget that beautiful chimera, the duckbill platypus.

Dr. Dawkins also clearly acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of giants.  Not only is he working in concert with the countless scientists who have contributed to the field of biology over the past few thousand years, but he is also very clear about the sources he consulted during composition of The Ancestor’s Tale.  Yes, citing things is important in order to avoid plagiarism.  More importantly, Dr. Dawkins affirms himself as one of the storytellers documenting the development of life on Earth.  And the book does indeed tell a story.  Instead of being a dry, purely scientific tome, Dr. Dawkins uses details of the life of Queen Victoria to reinforce his point about the manner in which geneticists can use family trees to trace faulty genes, such as the one that causes hemophilia.  Dr. Dawkins drops a quote from Rudyard Kipling to help demonstrate how we know that Vikings conquered local populations in more ways than one.  Dr. Dawkins even makes use of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not as a scientific reference, but as a culturally ingrained metaphor that aids the reader in understanding.  No matter what you’re writing, bear in mind that you are in someway telling your reader a story and are bound by a storyteller’s obligations.

If you read any of Dr. Dawkins’s books, you can’t help but notice his enthusiasm.  In other hands, the tale of how the star-nosed mole perceives the world could be a boring one.  Not when Dr. Dawkins is at the helm.  Whether or not you agree with his (lack of) religious belief, you must at least acknowledge that Dr. Dawkins is passionate about his cause.  Take a look at the TED talk in which he tries his mightiest to rouse nonbelievers from their slumber and urges them to make themselves heard:

Dr. Dawkins certainly has little patience for creationism being taught in schools as science, but his innate curiosity inspires him to engage with those who feel otherwise.

At times, some folks may accuse Dr. Dawkins of being “offensive” or “confrontational.”  In some way, they are correct.  Dr. Dawkins, like the rest of us, enters the free marketplace of ideas and does his best to demonstrate why his are more powerful than those of others.  He has spent decades contributing to his fields of interest, not merely acting as an interested onlooker who attempts to shape what he didn’t help to build.  Where do Dr. Dawkins’s critics go wrong?  The man without trying to tear others down undeservedly.  When a creationist insists the Earth is 6,000 years old, Dr. Dawkins does his best to refute the argument with professional calm.  The ideas in his books and those he expresses in his other outreach efforts are sometimes complicated.  Critics may be paralyzed by confirmation bias.  Others may construct a straw man, knowingly or unknowingly distorting Dr. Dawkins’s work through simplification.

What happens when someone disagrees with Dr. Dawkins?  They get an impassioned reply that may result in some discomfort or a moment of awkwardness.  Why, here’s an example:

If you disagree with Dr. Dawkins, he is not going to let the air out of your tires.  He is not going to tell the world that you’re cheating on your husband or wife.  (Especially if it’s not true.)  He certainly won’t do his best to convince your employer that you need to be fired for some transgression, real or imagined.

No, Dr. Dawkins conducts himself in the manner to which we should aspire: he surrounds himself with ideas and uses reason as his primary intellectual weapon.

What Should We Steal?

  • Imagine your massive or complicated work broken down into manageable pieces.  Writing a fifteen-hour opera seems like a terribly difficult task…consider writing one aria at a time until you see the larger work take shape.
  • Remember that you are telling a story, no matter what you’re writing.  The narrative may be somewhat buried in that instruction manual you’re writing for Black & Decker’s new blender, but you’re still TELLING THE STORY as to how the user can make margaritas or wine slushies to keep his or her guests happy.
  • Conduct yourself with passion in all of your endeavors.  There is more to you than the stack of work that you produce.  If, for example, you are lucky enough to a writer who receives interview requests, consider them an opportunity, not an unpleasant obligation.

What Can We Steal From Will Allison’s “Niernsee’s Tower”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Niernsee’s Tower,” short story
Author: Will Allison
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Kenyon Review.  Feel free to buy a back issue from those good people.  The kind folks at EBSCO offer the Kenyon Review archive in databases such as Academic Search Complete.  Your librarian will be more than happy to help you negotiate the database if you don’t already know how.  Perhaps the best way to get the story is to purchase Mr. Allison’s book What You Have Left.  “Niernsee’s Tower” is a part of the book.  (One whose creative structure merits a GWS essay of its own at some point!)

Bonuses: Check out Mr. Allison’s web site to read about his two very interesting novels.  Here’s “Atlas Towing,” a story Mr. Allison placed in Zoetrope: All-Story.  Columbus, Ohio’s WOSU did a great interview with Mr. Allison, a graduate of the Buckeye MFA program.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Section Breaks

Discussion:
Lyle and Holly have some problems in their marriage.  Lyle is getting increasingly frustrated about South Carolina politics and some elements of the state’s culture.  Holly, the daughter of a man who owns a video poker machine company, is addicted to video poker.  Lyle begins to protest during the course of renovating the South Carolina state house, stealing some old liquor bottles that would otherwise have gone to the museum.  One day, Lyle takes his protest up a notch, climbing up a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag so he can burn it.  Holly is there and fears for her husband…until the men take up a collection to congratulate Kyle for his bravery.  There are some fun turns in the story that I don’t want to ruin too much; suffice to say that Lyle and Holly are tested and their relationship changes a little bit by the end of the story.

So.  As I read the story, one element of craft jumped right out at me.  Mr. Allison uses section breaks in a way that is worth thinking about.  What do section breaks do?  The easy answer is “anything we want them to.”  The more complicated answer is that they break up the narrative in order to:

  • Indicate the passage of time
  • Indicate a point of view switch between narrators or characters
  • Emphasize scenes precede or succeed the section break

Mr. Allison employs nine section breaks in the story.  Here’s what each of them does:

  1. Cuts from Holly in the poker hall to Holly in the parking lot before she heads to the state house (leads to some introspection/exposition)
  2. Retreats to significant Confederate flag flashback
  3. Return to dramatic present, Lyle destroys flag as she and everyone watches.  The workers give Holly the money they collected
  4. Lyle emerges from the work site a few moments later
  5. Retreats to discussion of the statehouse; it turns out that Lyle and Holly are at a café.
  6. Dramatic present zooms to “the next day.”
  7. Same day “just after one o’clock.” Husband and wife discuss their plans.
  8. Extreme fast-forward into future in which the narrator tells the reader how everything works out for all of the characters after…
  9. Husband and wife are at the poker parlor a few minutes after the events of section seven.  Interesting conclusion I won’t spoil.

One of the most powerful tools a fiction writer has in his or her toolbox is the narrator’s ability to traverse space and time in an instant. For example:

“Sally entered the store for her first day on the job.  Ten years later, she left it for the last time with a bag of money under her arm.”

Mr. Allison made the choice to insert the section breaks, even though several of the transitions didn’t require them.  So why did he make those choices?  What is their effect?

If you look at the transition between “scenes” three and four, the pause offers the reader a chance to absorb the characters and their situation.  The reader would not have this opportunity if Mr. Allison had made the transition with a quick sentence instead of eye-stalling white space.

When Mr. Allison inserts a section break that is not entirely necessary, he seems to indicate to us that the preceding section should be considered on its own as a miniature narrative.  I think the idea is appropriate for this story because Mr. Allison’s third person omniscient narrator alternates fairly strongly between the perspectives of Lyle and Holly.  There is, of course, no right answer with regard to how a writer should transition between scenes or use section breaks.  It’s up to us to determine which techniques will best serve the story.

I certainly wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out the obvious and wonderful act of literary theft Mr. Allison committed.  The story is preceded by an epigraph, one sentence from Columbia, South Carolina’s The State newspaper: “A statehouse construction worker has been fired for climbing the scaffold-shrouded dome, ripping off a corner of the Confederate battle flag, carrying it to the ground and burning it.”  I have no idea what Mr. Allison really did, but he could very easily have read that sentence in the newspaper and started hearing Lyle and Holly talking to him.  And who knows?  Maybe there was no article and Mr. Allison simply made it up.  Either way, the epigraph lends a kind of credibility, hinting at the complicated social issues that are worked through in the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Insert section breaks when they will facilitate graceful or appropriate transitions.  Determine when your narrator wants to add a hard break to your narrative or a soft one.
  • Steal story ideas from the newspaper.  Remember this the next time you’re reading the paper or a magazine: those great stories are waiting to be stolen.

What Can We Steal From “Best Man for the Gob,” an Episode of the Television Program Arrested Development?

Title of Work and its Form: “Best Man for the Gob,” an episode of Arrested Development
Author: Written by Mitchell Hurwitz (@MitchHurwitz) and Richard Rosenstock and directed by Lee Shallat Chemel.
Date of Work: The episode originally aired on April 4, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episode is included in the Arrested Development Season 1 DVD package that you should have on your shelf.  You can also stream the episode on Netflix.

Bonuses:  Here the episode’s page on The O.P., a very cool fansite.  Here’s a Tumblr filled with animated GIFs from the show.  (A necessity on par with food and water and air.)

Here is the pain Tobias went through after Lindsay and Maeby quit the band and he learned about the conference’s policy regarding parking validation:

tumblr_m4rimzXvNv1qgoi9lo1_1280

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
It’s hard to summarize any episode of Arrested Development because of the simple fact that SO MUCH HAPPENS in all of them.  In this first season classic, accountant Ira Gilligan points out that money is missing from some of the Bluth Company’s accounts.  Gob is going to have a bachelor party to celebrate his union with Wife of Gob; George Sr. takes the opportunity to turn it to his advantage.  What’s the plan?  The bachelor party will be an excuse to make Ira think he killed a narcoleptic stripper, leading him to leave the country and end his investigation of the theft.  Tobias, Lindsay and Maeby are getting the band back together.  Dr. Fünke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family-Band Solution played lots of wellness conventions, informing listeners about the side effects of drugs such as Teamocil.  (“There’s no I in Teamocil…at least not where you think…”)  Buster is thrilled about the unlimited juice (fake blood) at the bachelor party and Michael, offended at being passed over as Best Man, takes George Michael on what he intends to be a fishing vacation.  But poor George Michael wants to spend time with Maeby and play wood block in the band because he’s such a good percussionist.  The bachelor party goes wrong, of course.  Ira’s a designated driver, so he’s not drunk.  He vows to testify against the Bluths.  The kicker?  Ira’s the one who stole the money.

One of the greatest strengths of Arrested Development is its dedication to giving secondary and one-time characters full citizenship in the story.  We’re never going to see Ira Gilligan again, but we learn a great deal about him.  He’s annoyed by working with incompetent people, he puts up with a lot of abuse (being called “Gilligan”), he seems like a moral person (until the reveal), he’s good at his job…  Ira Gilligan is a real character and you can imagine what happens to him after the episode is over.  Now, you can’t make EVERY character in your piece a complete citizen.  Think of Law & Order; sometimes you need a witness who isn’t a full character to simply point out where the bad guy ran.  But look at this list of secondary characters from Arrested Development:

  • Wife of Gob
  • J. Walter Weatherman
  • Steve Holt!
  • Bob Loblaw
  • Stan Sitwell
  • Sally Stickwell
  • Warden Gentles
  • Tony Wonder

The list goes on and on.  Even though these people are only given a few minutes of screen time, the writers, directors and actors make them real, well-rounded people.  Why is this a great thing?  People, just like characters, don’t exist in a vacuum.  When you write a story, you’re creating a world and are just choosing to focus on specific characters from that world.  In spite of this focus, your protagonist inhabits a reality filled with people who are protagonists of their own stories.

One of the many ways that Arrested Development sets itself apart from other programs is that the characters are extremely unlikeable in a number of ways.  Each Bluth is selfish and is usually willing to cheat the others to get what they want.  George Sr. embezzles from his business.  Lucille dislikes most of her children and has smothered Buster so much that he can’t function on his own.  Tobias refuses to get a job or to acknowledge the truth about himself.  Lindsay is insanely shallow.  Gob lies to women (a lot of them) and ignores his son.  Why don’t we hate the Bluths?  Their misadventures seldom cause terrible damage to the lives of others and, just like a real family, there are moments of genuine love between them.  (Just think of the Lucille intervention that turned into one of their best-ever parties.)

lucille intervention

Your audience will see the humanity in the worst character if you depict them in full.  Tom Perrotta’s Little Children depicts a child predator in an appropriately sympathetic light.  You love your crazy uncle, even though he’s crazy.  We can appreciate unpleasantness in the people we read about so long as we have some clue as to WHY they are the way they are.  (Lucille just wants her childrens’ love, Gob doesn’t know how to love, George Sr. is really a henpecked husband…)

Arrested Development stole a lot from Seinfeld in the structure of its plots.  The Bluths spend a lot of time apart in the rest of the episode.  The bachelor party climax of the episode, however, brings together many of the elements from the episode.  Gob’s relationship with his wife, the theft of the money, the strife in Tobias’s family, Buster’s addiction to juice…they’re all dealt with.  Interestingly, this moment also evokes a lot of emotion.  In spite of all of the unpleasantness the Bluths try to visit upon each other through the episode, Michael and Gob share a kind moment between brothers and the problems in the Fünke household are dealt with in some manner.

What Should We Steal?

  • Populate your world with a full set of real people.  You may not tell the reader what your tangential characters do in the future, but your reader should nonetheless be able to figure out some of the secrets that reside in their hearts.
  • Allow your characters to be unlikeable…allow them to be human.  Superheroes have been given increasing amounts of pathos for a reason.  Real people are flawed; if you look deeply enough, there is darkness in us all.  (Except for me.)
  • Build your plots and subplots to a meaningful crescendo.  No matter what you’re writing, think of yourself as a conductor.  Your climax is the place where you detonate all of the land mines you’ve planted and when you get to show off your skills to the fullest.

What Can We Steal From the Veronica Mars Pilot?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Pilot,” the appropriately named pilot for the television program Veronica Mars
Author: Written by Rob Thomas (on Twitter: @RobThomas).  Directed by Mark Piznarski.
Date of Work: Originally aired on September 22, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episode can be seen on SoapNet, a cable channel I don’t get.  (I don’t have any cable at all.)  You can also find the episode on the Veronica Mars Season One DVD.  As of this writing, you can legally stream the episode right here on TheWB.com.

Bonuses:  I still haven’t fulfilled my goal of writing for Smart Pop; that appreciation was stoked by their book Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars.  The book is great and you should check it out.  Mars Investigations is a very cool fan site for the show.  There are about eleven trillion Veronica Mars fan fiction stories.  (I assure you that none of them is about a guy named Ken Nichols who romances Veronica away from Duncan, Logan and Piz all at the same time through the use of his sweet kung-fu moves and his extensive knowledge of Detroit Tigers history.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Just About Everything

Discussion:
Veronica Mars is coming back and there are few people who are more excited than I am.  Although my memory is increasingly Swiss-cheesing in so many areas, I distinctly remember how I fell in love with the show.  I bought the Season One DVD on sale at Target because the price was nice and I like detective stories.  I popped the first disc into my DVD player and sat down on the chair/bed that furnished my apartment in Eastwood.  I knew nothing about the show, but was quickly drawn in by the GREAT BIG ISSUES that are raised in the first few seconds of the show.  Neptune, California has big class issues and the protagonist is from the wrong side of the tracks.  Wallace Fennell has been duct-taped to a flagpole because he ratted out gang members who stole beer while he was jockeying the register; the rich kids are taking their pictures with him.  Veronica cuts him loose, no matter the risk to her reputation.  Veronica is killer in English class…even though she sleeps and daydreams through it.  Veronica and I have something crucial in common: we were both abandoned by our mothers and had a good-hearted father who tried his best.

The first season knocked me out and I was a confirmed fan of the show when it returned to UPN that fall.  Why?  Mr. Thomas created a very deep protagonist and surrounded her with a very complicated world that is populated with equally compelling characters.  Best of all, Mr. Thomas (a novelist and former teacher) really hit the ground running with his pilot.

Veronica Mars is a strong and confident woman who is also funny and vulnerable.  We learn in the pilot that she’s had a pretty bad year:

  • Her best friend, Lilly Kane, was killed and the murder has never been solved.
  • Veronica’s father was the Sheriff until he accuses Lilly’s crazy-rich father of the murder.  He was ousted in a recall election and is now scratching out a living catching bailjumpers for small bounties.
  • Veronica sided with her father in the matter and has lost her friends and social status.  (A big deal for a teenager, no?)
  • Veronica’s mother abandoned the family.
  • Veronica attended a party to try and show her tough façade to her friends and ended up being drugged and raped.  The morning after, she even found “SLUT” scrawled on her windshield.

Mr. Thomas did not take the easy route.  After all Veronica has been through, you might expect her to be written as a one-dimensional damsel-in-distress.  Not even close.  Mr. Thomas made her fully three-dimensional.  Veronica certainly bears the psychological scars resulting from trauma, but Mr. Thomas imbued her with a full range of emotions.  She is allowed to be jealous and vengeful and petty at times.  I LOVE Encyclopedia Brown, but it’s hard to argue that he is a fully drawn character.  (Nor should he be, really; not in the context of Mr. Sobol’s intent.)  We love Veronica Mars because she’s as human as a fictional character can be.  In the Pilot, we see Veronica finding out that Lilly has been killed, outsmarting the new Sheriff and basking in her revenge, helping the new kid out and befriending him, sleeping in class, crying to realize she has been raped and lamenting the loss of her virginity, revealing indifference about her absent mother…the list goes on.  Veronica has conflict with everyone she knows; she gets snarky with her new friend Wallace and snaps at her father.  Just as in real life, however, these moments of conflict are leavened by moments of real emotion.  (During one of their first lunchtime discussions, Veronica tries to push Wallace away even though they both know they need each other’s’ friendship.  Beautiful.)  We love Veronica Mars because she is not a perfect person; this is part of why she’s a perfect character.

Mr. Thomas created a town that is awash in conflict.  You have the Hispanic biker gang and the trust fund kids who think they’re tough.  The rich adults who use their wealth to manipulate the law against those who are supposed to protect and serve.  Even better, Mr. Thomas places the characters in helpful positions.  Wallace becomes a helper in Neptune High’s main office…which means that he can get her student files.  Veronica locks horns with the biker gang…but the relationship allows her to mess with Sheriff Lamb.  Veronica is a crackerjack photographer because she works for her father…which puts her in wonderful position to solve her own cases.

The most important lesson we can learn from the Veronica Mars pilot is how to cram a TON of exposition into a short period of time.  Mr. Thomas uses all of the techniques available to a writer, including flashbacks and voice over and allowing his characters to be themselves.  Why don’t the flashbacks in the pilot stop the narrative?  Because they are tied into the conflict that Veronica is dealing with in the dramatic present.

And let’s not forget the most beautiful part of the Veronica Mars story.  Mr. Thomas and Kristen Bell and everyone else involved in the production love the characters and the stories they told.  Their love was unabated in the years since the show was cancelled by The CW and this dedication is currently paying off; the movie will be released early in 2014.  Bottom line: if you love what you’re doing enough, you’ll eventually find success and the audience will be there to see what you produce.

What Should We Steal?

  • Load up your protagonist’s To-Do List.  Veronica has a lot of goals.  Some of them are long-term projects and some are short-term projects.  Mr. Thomas maintains such great tension over the course of the series by juggling all of these.  Veronica is working through something important, no matter what episode you’re watching.
  • Empower your characters to express negative character traits. Aside from Jean Valjean, no one is perfect.  (And even he messed up.)  If you want your audience to sympathize with your character, pass up the cheap pathos and go for a complicated representation of a human being.  A person who has been raped, to use this example, isn’t thinking about the experience every moment of every day.  (As a decent guy, I can’t help but interject that I hope those who have been raped get the counseling they need.)  These kinds of characters—and people—are sometimes angry and jealous and happy and impatient and abrasive and vulnerable, just like everyone else.
  • Set your story in a complicated place and plant your characters in crucial positions.  Your characters must be surrounded by live wires and must be able to take advantage of their chances to advance their stories. 
  • Tie your flashbacks and other narrative “tricks” into the dramatic present.  Releasing a lot of exposition can be tricky, but make sure that everything you reveal about the past ties into the characters’ current struggles.

What Can We Steal From John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt?

Title of Work and its Form: Doubt: A Parable, play
Author: John Patrick Shanley
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The script is available in a trade paperback edition as well as an acting edition from Dramatists Play Service.  (They’re a great organization, by the way.  You can buy acting editions of all kinds of plays at very low cost!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Doubt, in my opinion, is one of the best plays ever.  Sure, I’m a little biased; I had the honor of working at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the play’s Off-Broadway and Broadway runs.  After I walked out of the third Off-Broadway preview, I knew that I had just experienced a magical evening of theater.  (And world-class performances from Cherry Jones, Heather Goldenhersh, Brian F. O’Byrne and Adriane Lenox.)  The play won a zillion Tonys and a Pulitzer and everything.  The film, directed by Shanley, is very good, but I am somewhat sad that the original actors couldn’t have their performances immortalized on film.

Mr. Shanley drew on his childhood, setting his play in a Catholic school in the Bronx.  It’s 1964 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, overseeing many teachers, including young Sister James.  Sister Aloysius has…well…doubts about Father Flynn, a priest who coaches basketball and tends to the spiritual needs of the children and their families.  Father Flynn, she believes, is a little too friendly with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student.  The religious hierarchy restrains Sister Aloysius from confronting Father Flynn directly, so she deals with the situation in the only ways she can.

One of the reasons I admire the play so much is that Mr. Shanley deals with an awful lot of complicated issues.

  • Feminism – Sister Aloysius, as a woman, does not have authority over men.
  • Race – Donald Muller is the only black student in a sea of Italian and Irish kids.
  • Pedagogical Theory – Should a teacher be feared or loved?
  • Child Molestation – They’re out there…how do we find them and what should we do with them?
  • Parenting – Mrs. Muller wants the best for her child, even if it means being “interfered with” until graduation.
  • Attitudes Toward Homosexuality – Is Donald Muller a homosexual?  Does that change anything?
  • Our Moral Obligations – When we believe someone is doing something really, really wrong, what are we obligated to do about it?

Does he hit you over the head with them by releasing them all at once?  No.  They come out in a natural, organic manner.  Here’s how the audience learns that Donald Muller is an African-American child.  Five scenes into the play, Sister Aloysius finally confesses her real suspicion: that Father Flynn has been molesting the boy.

Sister Aloysius: Of all the children.  Donald Muller.  I suppose it makes sense.

Sister James: How does it make sense?

Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated.  The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for.

Sister James.  I don’t know that anything’s wrong!

Sister Aloysius: Our first Negro student.  I thought there’d be fighting, a parent or two to deal with…I should have foreseen this possibility.

Instead of launching into a big, melodramatic monologue about the equality of people of all races and yada yada yada, Sister Aloysius simply gives us the exposition.  Mr. Shanley respects the audience enough to know they’ll understand what he’s doing.  In lesser works, such a realization would be dealt with in a maudlin way such as this:

Can you believe it?  Father Flynn is molesting our first proud African-American student.  A young man who, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, simply wants to gain knowledge about himself and his life!  Haven’t African-Americans been through enough?  Hundreds of years of slavery, another hundred years of institutionalized racism.  When, oh when, will our proud African-American brothers and sisters be allowed to be free!?!?!1?!?! (Sister Aloysius begins wiping away dozens of tears.)

Nope.  Mr. Shanley gives his audience realistic scenes and graceful exposition.  In Mr. Shanley’s scorching Scene Eight, Sister Aloysius has a talk with Mrs. Muller.  Could some of the lines be shouted?  Sure.  These extremes are earned.  Does Mrs. Muller offer an unexpected analysis of the situation?  Um…yes!  The extreme is in the situation, not in the tone of Sister Aloysius’s response.

The ambiguous ending of Doubt receives a lot of attention because the audience receives no cut-and-dried answer with regard to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence.  That’s okay!  First of all, the play is titled Doubt.  What do you expect?  I wrote about this issue in my essay about the Law & Order: SVU episode with the same title.  The play puts the audience in the same position as Sister Aloysius (or anyone who read about the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal).  We’re probably not around when these terrible things happen…how do we know what really occurred?  At what point do we believe a person is guilty of a heinous crime?

What Should We Steal?

  • Confront a great deal of vital issues.  Isn’t why this a lot of writers get into the game in the first place?  Society has a lot of problems—and always will—and a lot of these problems are interrelated.  Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end of the emotional pool.
  • Avoid melodrama by treating the extremes in your work as though they are not.  Have you ever been to a wedding where someone had a little bit too much to drink and they spend the entire reception crying in a corner and then crying in the parking lot and then crying in the bathroom because their boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t like the Nicki Minaj song the DJ played?  While I can’t blame this hypothetical person for having such a negative reaction to Nicki Minaj, there’s just too much melodrama going on.  It’s not realistic and it’s generally not as compelling as works with more verisimilitude.
  • Leave your audience guessing.  Yes, yes.  It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  There’s nothing wrong, however, with inviting your reader to interact with the ideas in your stuff.  The dilemma of Doubt is played out in countless places in the country every day.  Isn’t it valuable to confront these questions in fiction before they face us in fact?  

What Can We Steal from “Doubt,” an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU?

Title of Work and its Form: “Doubt”, an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU
Author: Written by Marjorie David & Paul Kolsby, directed by Ted Kotcheff
Date of Work: Originally broadcast November 23, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is on approximately four times a day in syndication and can be found on the program’s Season 6 DVD.  “Doubt” is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creation of Suspense

Discussion:
Don’t even pretend to lie: when you’re not feeling well, you grab a tub of ice cream and sit down on the couch, stuffing your face with Cherry Garcia and your eyeballs with Law & Order.  The program is a spiritual successor to Dragnet, one of the first police procedurals and one of the most realistic.  As you well know, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit sends Detectives Benson and Stabler in search of all kinds of evil sex criminals.

One of the reasons the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is because Dick Wolf and the other producers use the least amount of serialization possible.  The episodes are about the crimes and their resolutions in the justice system.  Sure, we hear about Stabler’s wife on occasion and we wonder when Benson will find the right guy.  Further, every episode can take place in a different world.  Here’s the formula: In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of SOME FUN MILIEU  to get justice for VICTIM who has been SEX CRIME.  In this case, the story goes like this:  In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of THE UNIVERSITY ART DEPARTMENT to get justice for A YOUNG WOMAN who has been RAPED BY HER PROFESSOR.

The story is not complicated, but David and Kolsby are very shrewd in the way they create suspense in the viewer.  When you watch a crime show such as this, you’re wondering whodunit and looking for clues.  David and Kolsby change your thinking about the he said/she said story every couple minutes.  Look at some of the “story beats” in the show.

  • A student claims she was raped.  (HE’S GUILTY! —we all dislike rape.)
    A professor openly tells the detective the student will blame him.  (HE’S INNOCENT—he’s being open and honest.)
  • The student recoils at being touched.  (HE’S GUILTY—that’s what happens to rape victims.)
  • The professor points out his bruises and claims they were having consensual rough sex.  (HE’S INNOCENT—it’s hard to distinguish between the two and why should he have his life ruined?)
  • The professor’s door open to the detectives, revealing a very young and very pretty girl.  (HE’S GUILTY—he clearly likes girls who are too young!)
  • The little girl is really his loving daughter.  (HE’S INNOCENT—and we feel a little bad for thinking he’s a monster.)

The episode keeps the viewer guessing and humanizes a man who may or may not be a rapist.  By the same token, the episode humanizes a woman who may or may not have falsely accused a man of rape.  These situations are often more complicated than people give them credit for.  Should a rapist’s life be changed by the punishment he (or she) receives?  Of course.  On the other hand, what about the innocents who have suffered this same punishment?  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t envy the judges and attorneys and officers who deal with these cases.

If you’re going to do a he said/she said, then the man and woman have to say stuff.  This episode accomplishes that exposition in an awesome way.  Instead of having a scene in which Stabler and Benson sit the guy down at a table, the viewer gets his side of the story while he’s stripping down for the medical examiner to pull evidence off of him.  We contemplate the invasion of his privacy while we hear what HE says happened.  These scenes are intercut with the she says.  The woman explains her side of the story while she’s undressing and doing a rape kit for Benson.  Not only is the exposition accomplished in a fast and efficient manner, but the writers are also given yet another opportunity to evoke sympathy and anger.  (They’re manipulating you.  I hope you realized that.)

The best turn occurs at the end.  I’ve presented this episode to my class, and many folks were not pleased.  The foreman of the jury announces that a verdict has been reached.  The piece of paper is handed to the judge.  She reads it.  The foreman gets the paper back and reads: “We, the jury, find the defendant…”

And that’s it.  It doesn’t matter what the jury (by way of the writers) thought.  It matters what you and your family think.  If you watch this episode with others, maybe a discussion will ensue.  What could be better than that?

What Can We Steal?

  • Own your status as a manipulator.  As a writer, it’s your job to lead the reader (or viewer) along.  Fake them out.  Trick them.  How do you do that?  You play with their perception of the story in order to increase the joy in their experience.
  • Compress exposition in interesting ways.  Why have two interrogation scenes when you can have just one.  Even better, you get to set the scenes in a much more dramatic way than officers and suspects on opposite sides of the same table.
  • Respect your audience enough to let them think for themselves.  The ending of “Doubt” mimics real life.  Do you think a jury member ever REALLY knows if he or she is right?  Do defense attorneys know they are sometimes unsure as to their client’s innocence?  Doubt is a part of life, friend.  The argument goes on, in the episode and in the real world.