Know. Your. Setting.

My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.

We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.

This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.

First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:

The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)

Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).

Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.

Indeed, nothing seems to develop!

When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.

“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.

The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.

Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”

A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.

Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”

“What starts from there?”

“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”

Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”

Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)

Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.

Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.

Click here for more on Peter Bart’s FADE OUT.

 

Advertisements

Roads II

Traveled through the farmland to visit my friend Rachel (see “Roads”and “The Consequence of Denying ‘What If'”). Winter brings a harsh beauty to Wisconsin.

20160118_083249

The landscape dazzles thanks to snow and subzero temperatures. The first sunlight in days, too, and a clear sky.

20160118_083640

20160118_083625

20160118_082648

For some reason, this river refuses to freeze over.

20160118_082627

20160118_082130

Silence holds the air, numbs fingers and lungs.

20160118_081722

I think of winter, how it halts life here. To press forward, to even breathe, is to struggle against Nature. I think of Rachel, whose progress has been halted by cancer’s return to her brain stem. She struggles to speak, to walk, to eat. She fights against that which Nature has planted in her. Twice. I think of her, and winter, and remember that the thaw has to come, and with it, life, and hope.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley

The let-down. The loss. However your characters experience it, there will come a time when the conflict snaps the characters’ will in two, and everyone needs a chance to cope.

I stumbled upon Anne Dudley’s album A Different Light in my father’s collection. Like me, he had rather eclectic taste in music. He didn’t always have patience for instrumentals, so I was rather surprised to find this.

“A Different Light” burdens a violin with most of the melody. Strings are all one hears in long, mournful chords. The solo violin seems to be lost in a disconnect from the rest of the strings, dwelling upon its own pain while the rest of the world presses forward, until the final minute–all the harmonies of sadness become one great swell, and then break apart again to fade, and to fade. When plot pauses to deal with loss, cast your characters in “A Different Light.”

Click here for more on Anne Dudley.

Click here for more on A DIFFERENT LIGHT.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Just because the series rallies around one character, doesn’t mean the stories have to.

tumblr_m58875jVil1rs5dmbo1_500

Diana Wynne Jones has mentioned in her essays that she did not much care for series writing. A complete story can be told in a book, and that’s that. If you see a sequel, or a continuation of some sort, you will see it is because the story has picked up with another character, perhaps with characters in the previous story tied onto the thread.

This is what makes the Chrestomanci Series so unique. In some stories, he is the main protagonist. In others, he does not show up until the last couple of chapters, or even the last few pages. Chrestomanci is always a presence, a force: a solution to whatever problem the protagonists, the actual main characters, are battling.

Take “Sage of Theare,” one of the stories in Mixed Magics. Chrestomanci shows up for a moment in the middle of the story to place the protagonist safe, and then returns in the last few pages to help the protagonist face off with the gods. In Witch Week, the third book in the series. Chrestomanci doesn’t arrive until the end of Chapter 11 (there are fifteen chapters total). He’s not even mentioned before that. In this upside-down world of bountiful magic and witch-burning, his name has been kept secret as the last resort among the magic underground. Chased by police, some young witches manage to uncover his name and bring him into their world. Only he can right the tear their world has suffered. The feud of two families in The Magicians of Caprona causes widespread magical problems, especially for the children; because Chrestomanci was met briefly in the first half of the story, the children know to acquire his help in the last few chapters of the book.

In other stories, Chrestomanci is present throughout, but he is still not THE primary character. Charmed Life and Pinhoe Egg are terrific examples of this; plus, they have the same protagonist: the boy Cat Chant. I’ve written about Charmed Life before, that because we experience the story from Cat’s perspective, we originally perceive Chrestomanci as the antagonist (this, of course, is proved otherwise). In Pinhoe Egg, Cat and a girl in the village are doing their best to solve the problem and only involve Chrestomanci as necessary.

And then, of course, Chrestomanci gets to be the star in his stories (finally!). I am NOT always a fan of prequels—as the comedian Patton Oswalt said (without the cussing): “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love!” However, The Lives of Christopher Chant satisfies on many levels: yes, we learn how this kid Chris became the Chrestomanci. But we also learn where he met his wife, why he is so obsessed with fashion, and the difficult coming of age he had to experience while being exploited by his family. Conrad’s Fate, though written almost twenty years after Lives, returns readers to Chrestomanci’s youth. Yes, Conrad is THE main character, but Chrestomanci is a teenage boy with him, off to become servants in a bizarre house. Why is Chrestomanci there? Because his childhood friend (and budding sweetheart) is lost somewhere in that house, and he’s NOT going to lose her.

It strikes me now that on the one hand, it’s strange Chrestomanci can’t be a star player in his own series unless he’s young. But then, these are stories for the young. The young, therefore, must be in the spotlight. And considering how so many children’s stories portray adults as stupid, evil, or willfully unhelpful, it’s refreshing to see there is an adult, odd as he is, who listens to children, wants to help, and actually does it. In style.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones and the Chrestomanci Series.