Monday, February 11, 2019

Shit The Beloved Spouse Asks Me

The Beloved Spouse™ sometimes asks questions that deserve broader distribution than just replying to her. This is the first in what may become a series of how I reply and why.

The Set-Up:
Discussing TV shows we consider to be “in the rotation,” i.e. series we liked enough to buy the DVDs so we can watch them over and over again. We decided the two best pilots were The Shield and Justified for how well they were good episodes in and of themselves, yet set up the rest of the series without making the machinery for doing so too obvious. I mentioned how Justified did such a great job in the first few minutes by creating a situation where Raylan provokes Tommy Bucks into drawing so Raylan has an excuse to shoot him. No one is crying over Tommy Bucks and the Marshal’s Service certainly isn’t going to go public with how their man provoked Tommy into letting Raylan shoot him, but they’re not going to encourage that kind of behavior, either, so Raylan is given a variation on what I call The McNulty Dilemma: “Where don’t you want to go?” The whole series runs from there.

The Beloved Spouse™’s Question:
What happens if Tommy Bucks just lays his hands on the table and refuses to draw?

My answer:
Tommy has to draw. The story depends on it. This is the best part about being a writer: Everything your character does to provoke a reaction works, unless you (the writer) have a good reason for it not to. There is no story if Tommy lays his hands on the table, so he cannot. Ergo (i.e., e.g., fuck you) he had no choice.

One of the best teachers I ever had was Lawrence Seely for 12th Grade AP English. We studied Hamlet and Mr. Seely cut right to the chase with the eternal question about Shakespeare’s play: What does it take Hamlet so long to do what he knows he has to do in the first scene? Seely’s answer: Because then the play is fifteen minutes long and no one will pay to see that. The trick is in making Hamlet’s dithering seem to be the actions of a real person, beset by all the insecurities and indecision we are all heir to.

We can talk about how stories get away from us and how our characters talk to us and we let the story go where it wants, but before we get all New Age about it let’s remember one thing: when writing a story, the author is God. If we let the voices in our heads dictate where the story goes, it’s because we choose to, not because they have any real say in it. We can alter the space-time continuum or the law of physics with the stroke of a pen so long as we set things up so people will believe it. Let’s see a real god do that. Pikers, all of them.

The key is the pact we all must make with ourselves before we sit down to write a word, when we promise to use these awesome powers only for good.

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