April 1, 2010 / 2 Comments

Baby Steps

So, as some of you may have picked up along the way, I used to work full-time as a crewperson on various films and television shows. On one level, this sounds very exciting and cool. People like hearing stories about blowing stuff up, getting to film in cool locations, and that Reiko Aylesworth is about fifty times more stunning in person than will ever, ever come across on film. I mean, she is just gorgeous. And funny. And a pool shark. Yes, to some extent, working in the film industry really is that cool.

On one out of twenty days. Maybe one out of fifteen, depending on the project.

The rest of the time, it’s dull as hell. Honest. No one’s that interested in the long days, the idiots in charge, or the screw up from another department that delayed everything for an hour. In this respect, the film industry isn’t that different from most other jobs, which is why a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you try to tell them about it.

Which isn’t that surprising, if you think about it. It’s a job. It’s real life. And real life, for the most part, is pretty boring. Even in the movie industry.

Real life meanders. Sometimes it wanders aimlessly. It involves people learning the same lessons everyone else had to learn–or sometimes not learning them and screwing up more. The dialogue in real life sucks. Have you ever read an actual transcription? I do it all the time. Most people sound like idiots, trust me, and I include myself in there. We stutter, we second guess and repeat ourselves.

As such, it’s always baffling when people think they’ve done something amazing by writing a story about real life. With real characters. And real dialogue. In a sense, it’s like bragging about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you made for lunch. The only thing more embarrassing is when you try to convince people the PB&J is something bold, daring, and new. Check it out. Bread on both sides. You’ll see I spread the peanut butter across the entire surface of the bread rather than leave it as a large glob in the middle. Also notice, please, that the jelly is between the slices of bread– I came up with that bit myself.

(If it helps, picture Chef Gordon Ramsey staring at me with that stunned look he seems to do so often… and then his next five or six words getting bleeped out.)

Let’s stop and consider for a moment. This is an accomplishment? It’s like congratulating someone for getting pregnant at the prom–so many people do it that it’s almost not worth talking about.

Now, one of the earmarks of this type of writing is when a character has an epiphany. A supposedly real world-altering revelation about their life. I say supposedly because most of them are the sort of simple life lessons most people have figured out by age twenty or so. You know, that it’s better to be loved than to be cool. That drugs are bad. That their destructive behavior is hurting the people around them. Those sort of things. While it’d be tough to prove, I can’t help but think a lot of these moments get put in because it’s something the writer experienced and they don’t grasp that everybody has these moments.

My friend Ace has a neat term for this, developed after years and years of reading for different screenplay contests. To quote: “It’s the moment when a baby discovers their own feet. It may be the coolest thing ever in the life of the baby, but for the rest of us it’s pretty dull and mundane.”

When a real character figures out it’s better to enjoy life than spend time at work, they’re discovering their own feet. When someone realizes they should cherish and spend time with the people that matter to them, it’s their own toes they’re staring at. If someone comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that they’ve messed up a life that was clearly messed up on page one–OH MY GOD! The toes wiggle when I think about wiggling them!!!!

Part of why this rubs people the wrong way is that it’s plain condescending. As I mentioned before, a lot of these lessons are things we figured out in high school, even if maybe we didn’t take them to heart at the time.

Y’see, Timmy, when people talk about something great and say “It’s so real,” they’re making an implied statement. And that statement is (in full) “It’s so real, but I know it actually isn’t. But, wow, if it was real I bet it would be just like this.”

No one likes real life. If they did, there wouldn’t be any market for even the thinnest veneer of escapism. No one would read books or go to the movies. Reality rarely makes good stories, and the few times it does it’s often too outlandish to be believable. Anyone remember me talking about Vesna?

We want quasi-life. We want life +1. We want the good guy to win. We want the villain to get his or her comeuppance. We want the cute couple to overcome obstacles both physical and emotional so they can be together. We want cyborg ninjas from the future programmed by elder gods from the past and million to one odds that pay off and nymphomaniac heiresses who look just like Reiko Aylesworth.

Okay, maybe that last part’s just me…

Of course, that’s also key. We want all that, but we want it to be believable, too. I mean, if the hero beats the cyborg ninjas and beats the odds three times in a row and finds nympho-Reiko… well, that’s just silly.

So, we want life +1–maybe as much as life+3– but it has to be realistic. At least enough that we can believe in it.

Sound tough? It is, believe me. That’s why most people can’t cut it as writers. They don’t have the ability to pull it off or the patience to figure out how to do it.

A lot of them, instead, write these real stories. Gritty, depressing stories. Stories with broken, unlikable character who fail at everything and lead miserable, pathetic lives. That’s art, my friends. The sure sign it’s art–no one wants to pay to see it because they don’t understand it. No, seriously. That’s the definition of art. Just ask any failed artist and odd are they’ll tell you the problem is everyone else, not them.

At the end of the day, if you’ve decided to tell a real story, you’ve just made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’ve done something that’s common, available everywhere, and didn’t take much effort. It may be the greatest PB&J ever, but it’s still nothing compared to a fairly nice filet mignon. Or even a just-adequate slice of cheesecake. Heck a McDonalds 79-cent hamburger beats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Next week, I’ve got something I’d like you to read.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Baby Steps”

a good point, apart from the fact that it's AWESOME watching a baby discovering their feet for the first time. They're so cute when they go cross-eyed. 😀

Totally agree with your main point that fiction generally should be more than real life and too much realism tends to be boring. But so much depends on context.

A story about how Bob goes down to the shops to get some milk is going to be boring.

But if Bob is an agoraphobic engineer who hasn't left his house since the accident ten years ago? Then his quest to do what everyone else takes for granted becomes riveting. (So long as Bob's an interesting character and it's written well). We want to see our protagonist overcome challenges – they don't necessarily have to be things that challenge us. They just have to be impressive in context.

Generally we'll find characters interesting if they're different to us. Which is, of course, what you're largely referring to here when you tell us not to write stories about 'baby finding his feet' – to tell a story that takes us somewhere we haven't already been. But different isn't necessarily better. Protagonists don't have to be cyborg ninjas for an audience to embrace them.

I just feel you've been a bit narrow in throwing out gritty, unlikeable, miserable etc. (and equating it with being incomprehensible, which is a whole separate thing). For example, a novel that gives us the point of view of a psychopath is fascinating to the average reader, because it's entrancingly scary and completely alien to our experience. A novel about a family making it through devastating poverty in the Great Depression is fascinating because most of us have never lived through something like that.

IMO, it's more about novelty, intensity and challenge and interesting (not necessarily likeable) characters than it is about being "better than life".

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