Tag Archives: Writing Exercises

THIS STORY SAYS “BOO!”

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Halloween“Hallowed E’en” (Evening) – is what most people today call the last night of October.  Ancient Celts preferred their own word for it: Samhain, from their god of the dead, who drew back the curtain that separated a dead soul from a living world, granting it freedom to move, just for a night – October 31, the last night of their calendar year.   That’s right: what we call Halloween originated as the harrowing, pagan version of New Year’s Eve!

The scary monsters we associate with Halloween aren’t real, in the physical sense, but they strike a chord within us, for what they symbolize:

Vampires, for example, are depicted as sophisticated, cool under pressure, versatile menaces – the “royalty” of movie monsters – but they also epitomize lack of empathy for others, addiction (to blood), and fear of strangers; they reflect back at us our fear of isolation from others. Whether it’s Count Dracula or Edward Cullen, vamps are hardy perennials.

Werewolves, the more primal “country cousins” of the vampire, push this further, exploring a vision of ourselves, stripped of our literal humanity, altered by a full moon’s radiance into bloodthirsty animals of staggering power – our fear of losing our self-control. This may have found their inspiration in the wildness of ancient human totem-warriors – and yes, lycanthropes have their own fans.

Zombies, namely the fast-running version, are all the rage right now. They focus our fear of literal death, physical disintegration, and mindlessness – but they also seem to be the one such monster an ordinary person could defeat, given the weapons and sufficient ruthlessness, so that, I suspect, plays some role in their popularity, with literary and cinematic audiences.

Ghosts are about our fear of being forgotten,  regrets, frustrations – the kind that couldn’t end in a person’s bodily demise (talk about frightening, if it were true!).  They may also represent our wish to “liven up” our basic, everyday homes and work places, as well as our yearning to remain in contact with our lost loved ones. It may be that they act as a ‘container’ for our fear of oblivion – an odd thing to say about a disembodied spirit, perhaps.  They all pluck some strings within us, someplace where we still shiver at the thought of facing unknown menaces.

They also provide templates for excellent costumes… Happy Trick or Treat!

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A LIKELY STORY (PART I, OF MANY)

American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The two most beautiful words in the English language are “check enclosed.”
Dorothy Parker

As an ink-slinger who has sold words in the past, I know a little about what Ms. Parker is saying here: artistic satisfaction alone does not pay the bills.  I have been away from this blog, focused upon selling what I write elsewhere; please excuse my inattentiveness of late – trying to raise my return on investment is currently proving to be a challenge.  I will expand on this more, as time and energy permit, in future posts.

WRITE THE ENDING OF THE STORY YOURSELF …

Deutsch: Zentrale Heterochromie: Grüne Iris, u...
Deutsch: Zentrale Heterochromie: Grüne Iris, um die Pupille herum jedoch ein braun-gelber Ring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s what I often try to do, at least, when I’m not satisfied with the one I’m given.  I don’t rewrite their endings, I just… add onto them, if I find I’m wanting something more.  This is not a special privilege, for us ink-stained wretches alone; you can, and perhaps ought, to do the same: I have found it’s more than just an excellent writing exercise.

Last night, I remembered, a million or so years ago, having wished I could do this with a newspaper cartoon I’d read.  It eventually came as a genuine revelation to me, to work out that it was well within the “unspoken rules” of the writer-reader relationship to ask, “And then what happened?”

I read this cartoon, as I said, that portrayed a middle-aged fellow, working in a service-industry job, who reeled off the educational and other credentials he possessed, to disbelieving customers.  The point of the piece, of course, was to evoke support, even outrage, for this poor, fictional man, who’d had to accept a job that paid him less, in dollars and in dignity, than he had been trained to earn.  At first, of course, I felt sympathy, because I had done the sort of minimum-wage job he was doing; I didn’t like it, either — of course, I didn’t have the graduate degree, and years of white-collar work experience, the character possessed.

Later, after knocking about, trying to gain some wisdom, I grew to feel empathy for him (which, as I understands the terms, is more about identifying with another, not projecting support at him or her), as well as for his current work situation.  I realized that he wasn’t, as my adolescent brain must have envisioned him to be, a victim, after all; his life was still underway.  He was healthy, employed, and certainly, not frozen in place.  Then I remembered that I had the power to imagine what came next.  Maybe, I mused, he grows to like the lower pressure of his service job; maybe, he even likes his coworkers.

Then, one day, a woman who used to date one of his high-tech, white-collar coworkers happens into the place, and she’s pleasantly surprised to find him working there, of all places.  Soon, she’s coming in a couple of times a week, to grab a quick dinner and just maybe, to keep his spirits up… which works only too well, when he decides he’s not getting any younger, and he asks her out.  Her response is “I thought you’d never ask.”  Once they’ve been dating a while, who knows, perhaps he sees no reason to leave the position in such a hurry, after all… or perhaps, at her urging, he starts his own business.  You may be thinking: Pie-in-the-sky thinking, right?  Particularly in this economy?  Sure; this is my ending.  I’m saying you can write your own, too.

Empathy is the thing I’m getting at; it’s the ability to inhabit another person’s predicament.  Philip K. Dick devised a machine that could test for empathy, or the lack thereof, in his brilliant science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (though you may know it better under its cinematic title — Blade Runner).   Fiction isn’t the only place that rewards and requires empathy, both for and from the characters; advertising rises or falls on it, if you think about it, because it’s a lot harder to feel much of a desire to buy a product or a service if you feel a distance from the seller.  This is not “dishonest”, by the way; it’s our ability to grasp what others are experiencing, positive as well as negative, that gives us common cause with them.  We want to buy a product, indeed, because we want to feel what the person in the advertisement feels (which is empathic), not something like it (which is sympathetic) — notice the difference?

The man from the cartoon, and the girlfriend I invented for him?  They eventually get married, of course, a little over two years later.  It’s not the story the cartoonist envisioned, of course; it doesn’t pack the punch s/he wanted to throw.  it’s just something I wanted for the man in the cartoon to experience: a bit of success.

  • Empathy (pdinspire.wordpress.com)

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.

THE STORY DESIGNED TO SELL YOU SOMETHING

Writing journal
Writing journal (Photo credit: avrdreamer)

So: my writing background is rooted in fiction. As a kid, first I wrote about heroic spacemen; as I grew older, I expanded my interests to include heroic spacewomen (art imitating life). I knocked around a while longer, learned some more, and took to also writing about folks living here and now, on planet earth.

Alas, we fiction writers who lack wealthy relations and/or representation have to earn the means to eat some other way. Copywriting seemed like a viable means of feeding the beast, but early in my studies, I struggled with a new “skill set”.  This seemed a bit too much like having a job in sales, which I’ve never felt that I could do all that well.

It took a recent conversation – with one of the smartest guys I know – to set me straight. I was explaining how tough I found it to write a pitch for something. He has done some sales – enough to know that it involves engaging people’s emotions.  “It seems to me,” he said, “that an ad is like a short story.  So, just write that.”

I have to agree – and not just because he’s my father. It makes a good bit of sense to see dramatic, or story-telling, possibilities in any sort of writing – it all drives towards the same thing: communication.  I’ll post “spec” ads on the Wares page.