A Documentary, a Podcast, and a Dark Confession

First, I want to briefly discuss a surprisingly good documentary (well, more of a docudrama, since it features actors and fictionalized versions of real events). Earlier this year, Netflix released a film called The Most Hated Woman in America, about the life and death of outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (this was before the Casey Anthony thing).  Although over 20 years old now, the case is one of those so bizarre in a “I couldn’t write this stuff” kind of way that I’m surprised it hasn’t received more media attention. The narrative cuts back and forth between Madalyn and her family after their 1995 abduction and her past as a single mother in 1960s Baltimore, where she became an increasingly abrasive advocate for religious freedom. Melissa Leo does a great job of portraying O’Hair at different ages, and together she and the writers manage to humanize someone who was by almost all accounts a difficult, unpleasant person. Vincent Kartheiser (smarmy Pete Campbell, for those who have watched Mad Men) plays her estranged son and the talented but somewhat underused Juno Temple plays her loyal granddaughter. Then there’s Josh Lucas as bitter former employee turned kidnapper, who projects a kind of menacing charisma and, in the scenes with Leo, creates an almost palpable tension. The narrative strikes the healthiest balance it can between “this woman has enemies? I can’t imagine why” and “okay, that shouldn’t happen to anyone.” I’m tempted to say more about it , but I have other things I want to get to without being too long-winded. So my suggestion is to Google the case to get the basic facts of the story, then watch.

I’ve also added Writing Excuses  to my ever growing podcast list. Each episode is a concise 15 minutes, full of great perspectives on writing. Then the hosts yell at you to get back to work at the end of each. Also, I checked out Last Podcast on the Left. It’s a sophomoric, tasteless comedy podcast about true crime and unexplained events, and when in the right mood, it’s hilarious. It makes me laugh, then feel ashamed.

So, the thing I’m really here to talk ab0ut today is the “dark confession” alluded to above. I’m a writer, and I hate world-building. In fact, world-building can go right over and stand next to cooking on my “it improves my quality of life but I still kind of loathe the process” shelf. I have a theory that some writers start by drawing a map–or perhaps just a tastefully decorated sitting room–and then people it with characters. That’s great, but it’s just not me. I’m more likely to stumble into a character who insists on being written about, sometimes with a filament of plot attached if they’re  being charitable. Then some other characters emerge from the shadows, and oh wait, two of them are fighting, and one of them is hitting the other with a chair. So, um, I guess my setting needs chairs now. I don’t really draw maps, and naming fictional cities, countries, rivers, and mountains makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Every time I realize that a proper noun is required, I have to spend a good twenty minutes rejecting city/river/coffee shop names, all while my characters are getting impatient for the actual scene to start.

Now, at this point, you should all be asking, “But, L.R., why don’t you just use real world locations? They come with names, maps, and descriptions, no assembly required.” First of all, it is entirely possible that one day I will use a 100% real world setting, when the characters and plot seem to demand it. I think the reason that I’ve been using not-quite-real world settings (a few dimensions down settings?) is due to the fact that A.) I feel weirdly self-conscious about writing about real places, for fear of Doing It Wrong somehow, and B). as much I dislike flushing out my settings, I’m also very picky about them in some ways. I want every aspect of my story to feel like an organic part of a whole, and if my plot and characters can’t be plopped down into a real setting without feeling forced, then I have to come up with one that will fit them.

Now, I could get away with sparse world-building in my first novel, since the majority of the action took place in one city and the plot demanded only vague references to other places. Recently, however, I’ve been working on a project that is clearly going to demand more development in that regard, so I have to confront my distaste. How am I doing that? Here are some methods I am trying.

A. I already have some characters and loose plot points sketched out, so I’ve created a separate document listing every city/region/geographic thing I might need, with a few lines of description. I’m not trying for too much with these descriptions, at least at this stage. I start with something simple like “it’s near the ocean.” Then: “Because of this, it’s heavily dependent on maritime trade.” And then: You know what would totally ruin this place’s week? Some kind of embargo or blockade. This could be a point of conflict.” Then I start trying to think of how some of these things might be relevant to the characters and plot points I already have. The names usually come last, and yeah, I still hate coming up with them, but there are random generators.

B. I shamelessly copy, paste, and recombine real places and events. I did this in The Foreigner,  I’m going to keep doing it, and honestly I suggest everyone do it. This suits me, since I’ve never gravitated to fully invented languages and cultures–I prefer my characters to dress, talk, and be named like real people. So world cultures and history offer a near-endless yard sale of props.

C. Lastly, to come full circle, while I’m trying to keep my writing weaknesses from becoming a full handicap, I’m not going to develop them at the expense of what I really want to accomplish with my story, either. I’m going to write the book I want to read, and I’m only going to develop the setting as much as I need to make the story that needs to be made. I’m going to expand my comfort zone, but not abandon it.

 

What about everyone else? Does anyone else struggle with some of these same issues, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Writing Lesson From How I Met Your Mother: So Many Ways to Tell a Story

Below, I discuss spoilers for Season 3, Episode 7 of How I Met Your Mother (I mean, it aired back in 2007,  but I’m sometimes really  late to the TV party myself so I’m trying to be courteous. Seriously. I watched my first and so far only episode of Gilmore Girls three weeks ago).

As popular and well-known as How I Met Your Mother was, and for all the flaws it did have, I still don’t actually think it gets enough credit for some of the clever narrative techniques it employed. One of my favorite episodes is “Dowisetrepla”, and what makes it memorable isn’t what the episode is about. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s how it’s about. All that happens is that my favorite fictional couple, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshal (Jason Segel) buy an apartment, despite the fact that Lily is neck-deep in credit card debt and hasn’t been able to bring herself to tell her husband. He finds out. They fight. Then they make up.

Now, here’s the thing. We never actually see the fight. What we see instead is three of their friends stopping  by their apartment and concluding, ominously, that a fight happened. A water bottle with the label peeled off? Lily peels the labels off things when she feels guilty about something. An empty quart of ice cream? Marshall eats when he’s mad! The calendar on the wall is crooked because someone slammed the door! By using this technique, the writers actually accomplish several things. For one, they avoid boring the audience with things the audience already knows. We know why Lily and Marshall are fighting. We know, or can safely assume, that Marshall is shocked and angry and that Lily is guilty. We don’t actually need to waste five minutes of screen time hearing them verbalize these feelings (and perhaps becoming less likeable in the process), when we could be watching the impromptu film noir parody instead. Secondly, it gives the other three members of the main cast something to do in a story line that mainly hinges on Lily and Marshall’s actions, and do it in a very funny way that still conveys the main plot points. We know exactly what we need to know about the argument without seeing any of it.

I still haven’t discussed what “Dowisetrepla” means, and I’m not going to here. If you don’t know, you’ll have to watch it and find out. If you just plain don’t care, that’s fine too, and probably healthier.

My point here? There are a lot of ways to tell a story or script a scene. If a blow-by-blow account of events in your story just isn’t doing it for you, you might want to explore an less conventional approach. Narrate the same scene from a different character’s point of view, or summarize what happened by showing the impact (“In the end, she got the house, I got the car.”)  You can even skip to the next part of your story and include the missing scene as part of a character’s flashback at a point when it has new relevance (Mad Men has also made at least one good use of this technique). Step outside the stubborn scene or plot point, figure what really needs to be said, and try new ways of saying it.

Best of luck with that!