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.

 

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: The Pseudo-Sequel

Except where Chrestomanci is concerned, I usually find that the end of the book is the end of the important things I have to say about the central character.

“A Whirlwind Tour of Australia,” 1992

As far as I have read in Diana Wynne Jones’ work, this quote is quite true. The castle-in-the-air-by-diana-wynne-jonesChrestomanci series is the only one that a reader can point to and say, “Chrestomanci’s always important, even if he only physically shows up near the end sometimes. A presence in every story = series!”

And yet, if you have read through any number of her books, you’ll know she’s written sequels. Howl’s Moving Castle is followed with Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Don’t forget The Merlin Conspiracy stems from Deep Secret. The Year of the Griffin comes after The Dark Lord of Derkholm. (I would also expound on The Dalemark Quartet, but I have yet to read the third or fourth books, so that wouldn’t be fair.)

So how can her quote still be true?

Diana Wynne Jones pulls off something brilliant with these pseudo-sequels, something I wish more writers would feel inclined to do: shift away from the central character and let readers have more of this brilliant world they’ve worked so hard to create.

Take Castle and House. Each story starts with a fresh cast of main characters. Each book starts in a different country, but Jones quickly establishes that these countries are in Howl’s universe by relating the countries’ locations to Ingary, where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. Castle in the Air introduces some rather odd second-stringers the reader wouldn’t care much about: a magical black cat and her kitten, a cranky genie, a magic carpet. In the third act spells lift to reveal the magic carpet is Calcifer, the genie Howl, and the black cat Sophie. The kitten is a new addition: Morgan, Howl and Sophie’s child. House of Many Ways utilizes the Howl family, too, but not until halfway through the book, and they are again NOT central characters.

I should also note how much time passes between publications: Howl came out in 1986, Castle in 1990, and House in 2008. This may be presumptuous on my part, but I doubt Jones had House of Many Ways in mind back in the 1980s. She wrote Howl to stand alone, and it does. Both Castle and House give us a glimpse of what our beloved characters are up to a few years later while at the same time providing fresh stories. (PS—never has a story made me snort so loud I thought I’d wake the kids like Castle in the Air. Absolutely hilarious.)

This same tactic applies to the previously mentioned titles. In The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Elda is just a young griffin sibling in a family of griffins and humans (best read the book to understand that), but in Year of the Griffin, she is the central character we follow to The University. Deep Secret has two narrators: a junior Magid and a struggling young woman named Maree Mallory. Her teen cousin Nick Mallory is an important second-stringer who impacted fans so deeply that one boy told Jones at a book-signing that he wanted to learn more about Nick. Jones thought about it and agreed. Lo and behold, Nick becomes an important character in The Merlin Conspiracy a few years later.*

Of course there are those stories that won’t fit in a single volume; writers shouldn’t think they only have so many pages to cram with conflict and character. But one shouldn’t pad out for the sake of a series, either, as Jones explains with some criticism in “Two Kinds of Writing?”: “A book should conclude satisfactorily; to leave the ending for the next volume is cynical (and annoying for readers).” Let’s not annoy our readers. Let’s not feel the world we’ve built up from nothing can never be used again. And let’s not forget the characters to whom we’ve given birth. They may be just the right touch for a whole new story we have yet to imagine.

*As explained in Jones’ “The Origins of The Merlin Conspiracy,” which can be found in the 2012 edition of Reflections on the Magic of Writing. Which you should read. Now.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Click here for more on REFLECTIONS ON THE MAGIC OF WRITING.