CONCERNING MY “UNSEEN” STORY

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937
Orson Welles, March 1, 1937 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are awash in visual storytelling of all kinds, so – just to be difficult – I have been exploring the dramatic medium… of Radio. I studied shows: the Mercury Theater productions of Orson Welles, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, the X Minus One science-fiction series, and others.

I intended to write a selfcontained, halfhour science-fiction adventure play, but I had too little experience, and too much narrative, to resolve the piece within twenty-six pages. I had stumbled, by happy accident, upon a cliff-hanger ending. My respect for the audio medium has only grown; even after writing six half-hour episodic scripts (so far), I’m still learning how it’s done.

Radio seems the one storytelling medium in which “Show, don’t tell” does not work.  The audio character can only inform the listening audience what is happening, which would lead to a lot of clunky dialogue, stating what would be far too obvious, if we could see it.  These notes apply not only to writing dramatic or comedic stories, but to radio advertising; remember, my dad likened an ad to a short story – or a short play.

I first heard some recorded radio dramas in high school, and thought they were fantastic.  I could ‘recast’ the same story, each time I heard it, with someone new, and sound effects were enough to help me picture the scenery and the action. It was a best-of-both-worlds situation: coupling the intensity of watching a visual drama with the intimacy of reading a printed story.  I remember trying to picture what musicians looked like while they recorded some of my favorite songs; most actual ‘music videos’ later paled, by comparison.

Knowing that is one thing; writing one of these suckers turned out to be… a much bigger challenge.  I had the characters, I had the plot, but I had to “sell it” with dialogue, a narrating track to connect scenes, sound effects, and music, and nothing else. I wouldn’t write someone saying, “Look at that green dinosaur, charging towards us!”  I would write the stage direction, “SFX: [Dinosaur roars.]” and follow it up with more naturalistic dialogue, such as: “It sounds mad… is it supposed to be that green? I’d be sick, if I looked like that.” Modern audiences are sophisticated; they can fill in the blanks.

Advertisements

THE STORY IS OUT THERE

English: The Roswell UFO Museum which is a pop...
English: The Roswell UFO Museum which is a popular tourist destination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something went bump in the night, we’re told, crashing into the dirt a few miles outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in July, 1947 – but… if true, for crying out loud, what was it?

Local newspaper accounts, of Air Force personnel recovering a flying “disk” from a local ranch, gave way to a less exciting (but more plausible) account: the retrieval of a downed weather balloon . Even many UFO believers find Roswell’s ‘narrative’ unlikely, if not a deliberate hoax. Secrecy, imposed under Cold War-era anxieties, made people speculate – and inquire – more, rather than less.

Eyewitness testimony is unreliable; recorded evidence can be faked. Triangular or other hull shapes do not qualify as saucers. Any visible object that is both mysterious and aloft fits the definition of a U.F.O. – that does not make it a craft of extraterrestrial origin/operation. It’s the science-fiction nerd in me that enjoys this topic, though I don’t know what to make of it.

Ruling out mundane explanations for aerial phenomena whittles down the ‘unexplained’ sightings to a handful… if there was nothing awry going on, it should whittle them down to zero – but it does not. Any universe as vast as ours is should have millions (if not more) of inhabited planets – so where are these galactic tourists? Absent hard evidence of either military/spy craft or alien star ships, all that is left is a mystery, and those are magnetic…

THIS IS NOT A “NUMBER”, IT’S A “FREE” STORY

Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, in a scene fro...
Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, in a scene from the episode “Free for All”, appears on the cover of the first continuation novel based upon the series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I became a fan of the brilliant and weird T.V. series, The Prisoner, before I was wizened enough to comprehend just what made it so great.  It’s become a classic of Sixties television and the pop culture of that decade although it strained to be not of its time, but outside of it. Irish-American actor Patrick McGoohan had already played a “more realistic” variation of James Bond in the series Danger Man – renamed Secret Agent for U.S. viewers – but he wanted The Prisoner to push hard in the opposite direction, so his ex-secret agent is abducted to “The Village”, an Orwellian mind-control experiment wrapped in the phony elegance of a resort community (the show filmed at a real Welsh beach hotel), employing all manner of fantasy gadgets and bizarre schemes to break his will.

Each of its 17 episodes forced the protagonist, “Number Six” (his real name is never used) to defend his physical and mental freedom from the creepy minions of an unseen interrogator, the inevitable “Number One” – who “only” wants to know why Six resigned, what he knows, and whether he’d be willing to “join the team”. Six wants to escape, to unmask One, and to shut down the Village. Each scheme to conquer him would involve some fantastic device: a machine to televise his dreams; a mind-swap, with another agent; even a double who apes him so well, he is forced to impersonate himself.  A giant, roaring balloon enforces “permanent guest” status; it’s called Rover, but this is no playful pet.

Some of the materials may feel like Swinging Sixties artifacts (i.e. the “speed-learning” computer, designed to brainwash Villagers, takes up one entire wall; it would fit on your desktop today) but the ideas discussed have real power, even today. Watch any scene in which a control-room team scrutinizes Six in his dwelling – see if it doesn’t remind you of the current firestorm surrounding corporate and government surveillance of our citizenry. Even the ritual hand salute of Villagers looks somewhat like an eye peering through a keyhole; that surely cannot be a coincidence. In a final twist, Six [REDACTED]… well, as the Villagers are fond of saying: “That would be telling.” You’ll have to watch and decide what happens.

THE HERO’S DAYTRIP: AN “EPIC STORY” EXPERT

Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The hero’s journey always begins with the call. One way or another, a guide must come to say, ‘Look, you’re in Sleepy Land. Wake. Come on a trip. There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here? Well, there’s not enough of you there.’ And so it starts.”
Joseph Campbell

The modern master of myth behind The Hero With a Thousand Faces might add: This could apply to anyone’s life, including yours and mine, because we’re all on our individual quests; even if we think our adventures aren’t so much, everyone has a potential to be Luke (or Lucy) Skywalker, and an exhortation to raid the unknown somehow.

LIKE A ROLLING STORY

English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones' Nor...
English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones’ North American tour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Best if you toss the tourist map, look for your own special places, when you travel.  One July day in London, England, an accidental number of years ago, I took a walk in search of the apartment where, decades earlier, the Rolling Stones almost died.

An exaggeration, you say?  Correct, for I refer here to only three members of the band: Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  I had read stories about these skinny young dudes who, crammed together into a tiny apartment, lacking musical (or other) employment, during a punishing winter, had to feed coins into a space heater, time and again, to get through the nights.

The “sensible lads” of the group – Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and “Sixth Stone” Ian Stewart – lived elsewhere, and presumably had regular work.  The frosty air and bare refrigerator must have forced these skinny guys to focus, like industrial-grade lasers, on music.  Imagine these kids – nobody’s future rock stars, back then – trying to stop shivering long enough, while they practiced their songbook, to ignore how hungry they were.

Hard to reconcile that sympathetic image, in the years since, with all the nonsense about how “devilish” they were supposed to be!  (I didn’t find the place, of course, but it’s the voyage that matters; the place could have been knocked down, for all that I knew, or cared.)  Indeed, it wasn’t the place where they had “almost died”; it’s closer to true to deem it to be the spot where the Stones’ unity was born.   It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that they persisted, well past springtime.

A RICHARD MATHESON TRIBUTE STORY

English: American science fiction author Richa...
English: American science fiction author Richard Matheson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Matheson has left us, and more’s the pity, for he gave us so much.  This is not even a full list of his “Number 1 hits”, let alone of his full body of work:

Film: for Roger Corman, he converted Edgar Allen Poe’s gripping prose into the silver-tongued speeches of Vincent Price villainy; The Masque of the Red Death is lurid and comical.  He turned a regular guy into The Incredible Shrinking Man; unleashed a world of vampires upon the anti-hero lead of I Am Legend (that actors as different as Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith have portrayed Neville speaks volumes about how malleable, and mythic, that story has been).  He launched grieving men on otherworldly searches for love, in the distant past (Bid Time Return, filmed as Somewhere In Time) or in the Afterlife (What Dreams May Come);

Television: He dreamed up, for The Twilight Zone, the “toy aliens” who invaded a farm house, a World War I pilot whisked to 1960, the gremlin on the wing of that airliner, etc.  He is “to blame” for the transporter accident that split Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk into warring “angel” and “devil” twins.  He let loose a demented, never-seen (and possibly, supernatural) trucker to besiege Dennis Weaver’s terrified motorist, in Duel.  He sent Kolchak, the Night Stalker on his first monster hunts.  He influenced Stephen King; The X-Files even named a UFO-seeking senator after him.

He was also kind and generous towards his fans; for instance, he once sent out a friendly, and helpful, reply to an awkward letter I had written to him, seeking professional advice from a Grand Master.  Besides possessing such epic talent, he was reputed to be quite an excellent person, too, which suggests that those are not mutually exclusive traits, after all (take that, “divas” everywhere!). He is Legend, all right.

EVERY MINOR CHARACTER LIVES A MAJOR STORY

Fiction Stacks
Fiction Stacks (Photo credit: chelmsfordpubliclibrary)

Let us now praise the innocent bystanders of fiction, for they play an invaluable role: they witness the narrative, and lend it a helping hand.  Ever imagine yourself living in a fictional world‘s setting?  You would most likely expect to be one of the main characters; at least, to interact with them… but one can interact with the pivotal characters, without being one.  Try to picture what it might be like to be a walk-on character in a larger story… even a glorified extra, too, has an entire story of his or her own, as do we all.

Think about how that walk-on views the world.  He or she “stars” in a story not being told in greater detail, at the moment we first encounter this specific, fictional world.  So-called minor characters live entire lives that may happen to intersect just once with the lead figures, but that’s enough to acknowledge their contribution.  (Richard Linklater‘s quirky comedy film Slacker employs an entire cast of walk-ons, to great effect.)  The saloon keeper who knows something about cattle rustlers; the person who provides a lead to a detective working on a case; the below-decks crewman who lends the ship’s captain a helping hand; the folks in the bleachers who cheer at a game: they’ve got their own, huge stories, of which we may learn nothing in the story we’re experiencing.

We may think that the only character whose narrative matters is the main one, because that is the life-path upon which the story is focusing at the moment we are paying attention to it, but think about it: this person, too, has lived a number of years prior to entering this scene, which means a wealth of experiences informs that person’s own viewpoint.  This means there may be no “unimportant” or “minor” characters; only characters possessing some degree of mystery.  To be little more than a “glorified extra” in a larger narrative is something closer to common experience than being the central figure is, and while we all want to be the celebrated figure, each of us already plays such a role, even if unsung, somewhere off-stage.

HOW THE “WHERE” FITS INTO THE STORY

Geography and social studies gripped my imagination; they were among the first subjects I enjoyed in elementary school.  That terminology and I share an American provenance; I could have said “primary school”, had I been brought up elsewhere.  I write differently in Texas than I did in California, not because I have switched technologies.  The backdrop exerts quite a different sort of effect – call it a gravitational influence – on more than just the weather.

Out West, I liked to write about chilly places, snow sheathing foliage and terrain, as well as fog banks, rain, folks mumbling about dark doings, that type of thing; it appealed to me while I lived near the ocean, under warm blue skies.  Here in the vastness of the Central Plains, I write about urban events, cities with tall buildings, overstuffed with millions of people.  When I’m on the East Coast, places of warmth and jaw-dropping, open spaces seem so far away – so then, of course, I write about them more.  Writing about places I’d like to visit has a different appeal from writing about where I’ve already been; I’m drawn to wherever I’m not – that’s the explorer, the sailor, the archaeologist, the astronaut, even the diplomat (I hope) hitting the keys for me, putting my “horizon fever” to good use…

Today it seems like traveling anywhere can only bring us into contact with the same restaurants, the same sporting and cultural events, and other features of modern life, “flattened” by our ubiquitous technology, five hundred channels of the same information, broadcasting, cable-casting, satellite-casting, pod-casting at us everywhere.  Then, too, a well-told joke can make people laugh on both sides of an ocean – because what resonates with people hasn’t “flattened” us at all; quite the reverse.

GREAT ADVICE FROM A STORY-TELLER SUPREME …

Ray Bradbury, Miami Book Fair International, 1990
Ray Bradbury, Miami Book Fair International, 1990 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
Ray Bradbury

“A life lived in wonder” should be every person’s gift, but it was a goal Mr. Bradbury achieved, to the benefit of all who read, and write, and dream.

THE STORY ABOUT MADY’S PICTURE

Of course, you’ve noticed her by now, if you’ve been here at all: she’s beaming in the sunshine, just above whatever I’ve posted.  She just turned up on my doorstep one day: butterscotch-colored, wearing no collar, eager and anxious, no companions in sight.  I fed her something, I think; gave her a bowl of water to drink; she seemed grateful enough – but then, she departed.  Next day, this happened again; she even let me scratch her someplace where she was itching, or contending with fleas.  Third day, and again; it’s a pattern.  I’ve come to enjoy, even to anticipate, her visitations.  Fourth day… nothing, no trace of the gorgeous beast.  Tracked her down: at the pound, miserable.  Made a snap decision, to get her out of there, and  brought her home for keeps. She  was a beautiful golden Lab; I named her “Mady“, short for all the other, suggested names I had found too good to discard.  She lived with me for the rest of her days, and such great days she made them for me, too!

%d bloggers like this: