Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END

I Made A Short Film

I made a very short film — under three minutes. THE CHASE stars my niece and nephew, who are both much bigger now than when this was shot. I wanted learn a particular editing program, and my computer wasn’t robust enough for the task, and other work was on the front burner, so took a year for time and resources to finally align, but I’m happy with the result:

The credits go by fast, so I’ll call attention to the fact that even on a three-minute film, it works better if you have a village. My friend Christine was behind the camera, while another friend, Caroline kept things moving doing an A.D. / producer duties. My mom handled craft service, Paul acted as consultant and “spackle.” And, of course, the whole enterprise was elevated by the great original music. I’m very lucking to be able to use my sibling card to draft Greg Gordon Smith to compose and perform.

Words to Drive By “Room”

EPISODE 01: “Room”
(After the Storms, Part 1)

SUMMARY: In a near-future dystopia, two people check into a hotel room knowing only one will check out.

NOTES:
This story was first published in Devilfish Review (sadly, now defunct). It stands alone, but is the first part of a trilogy of stories called “After the Storms.”

A few years back I took a class taught by one of my favorite teachers,  Richard Rayner. Each week we were tasked to write 400 words from a prompt provided by Richard. This one was: 

A sick man and his younger wife check into a hotel room. He tells her a story and orders drinks which are brought by room service. The man has something to drink, says something, and then he dies.

I don’t remember what I turned in for my 400-word assignment, but it’s safe to guess that my constant and pervasive anxiety about climate change was already seeded in. The hotel room setting is inspired by The Hollywood Athletic Club, where, like Jerry and Beth, my husband and I took a weekend “staycation” one sweltering summer. 

Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs for this and every episode. You can see more of what he does on his Vimeo page

The cover art is by the talented and prolific Ted Giffin.

Also, you can SUBSCRIBE to this podcast on your favorite player:
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Podcast Coming Soon

In upcoming weeks, you’ll be seeing a new tab on this website. I’ve had the plan for awhile to make a landing page with some of my short stories and essays, but had been dragging my feet. Or maybe not dragging my feet, I was just running around in different directions — but it was on my mind.

Part of the delay was that I had to work through some trial and error: I had an okay microphone but my “sss”s were hissing so I needed to order a pop-screen;  I had time allocated to record, but the neighbors decided to do construction right outside my office, etc. I got an Adobe subscription so I could do an edit, but my computer isn’t up-to-date enough to run it the latest version of Adobe…

But then because my brother announced he was moving back to Los Angeles. Lucky for me! He has the skills and equipment I lack. As soon as he finished painting the walls and  be re-assembling his home studio,  I jumped to the front of the line before he got too busy. 

It’s been going well, but I’m discovering learning curves in new areas. This is the first time in a long time that I am “the performer.” I recently went back and re-recorded the first episode because when I listened to it, it felt a little lackluster and I realized it was because I wasn’t committing  to doing different voices for everyone’s dialogue. I think it felt a little silly so I only half-committed — and half committed is half-assed.  Listening to myself, I realized that there’s a reason it’s easy to get caught up in audio books and LeVar Burton Reads, and a reason it’s harder to get lost in the The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (although I listen to it still). For fiction, I like hearing actors who bring things to life, so I re-recorded to try to come closer to that bar, even though it’s out of my comfort zone.

The next hurdle is picking a “podcast host.” I can post episodes from this WordPress site for free, but they seem to be part of the blog post — and because I also blog about non-podcast things, that might be a little weird. I’d like to have a separate landing page, and, it turns out, my tastes aren’t as cheap as I’d like them to be. It costs not to run any ads, costs to have a pretty picture next your player  (also, I need to design the picture for the player).

Too late to make a long story short, we’ve got three in the can now.  I’m still figuring a few things out, but it’s coming soon!

IMG_5396.JPG
Greg adjusting the first episode.

 

Here is our theme song!

Still Working…

A couple items:

  1. I got  very nice note from the editor of the Chariton Review wanting to print a short story I submitted called “How to Write Your Own Biography.”
  2. I’ve been writing a treatment for new media project and last week I got a letter saying I’d soon be receiving a contract for an actual script.

I’ll update if/when either of these things become a reality.  Even at a “contract’s in the mail” stage, I’ve had projects disappear, so that could happen.

But for right now, I’m appreciating the good news…
… and I’m continuing to develop several other projects that I’m excited about…
… and I’m “visioning” that miracle TV staffing job…

… and I’m also browsing LinkedIn and Glassdoor…  looking at “real” jobs.

Hope and gratitude and passion can co-exist with anxiety and even grief.

Back when I was diagnosed with cancer and the odds were about 50-50, I exercised and meditated and read medical articles and nutrition books with the intention to nudge these odds as much as possible and survive.  And at the same time, because it was a real possibility, I felt I should try to mentally and emotionally prepare for a different future where I did not stay alive. Really considering the thought that I might not survive brought about an odd combination of feelings: grief  and loss, but, at times, also the possibility of relief. I figured that if it got to the point where I knew, then I could give myself a break– eat sugar, and drink alcohol and just mentally let go. I saw friends reach that point, and while it wasn’t what they would have chosen, they accepted that a choice had been made for them, and there was a kind of peace in knowing that. Once they acknowledged that their time on this earth was limited, all the “fighting time” became  time they could use in whatever way was the most rewarding for them.

It might seem ridiculous to say that contemplating failing to establish a writing career is comparable to contemplating dying of cancer.  Except that I have now experienced both, and — without wanting to sound overwrought — in my experience, there are similarities.

I’ve invested very heavily — money, security, and years of my life and just a lot of emotional intent — in the idea that someday I would be able to sustain myself through writing. I’ve hoped that would involve working and collaborating with other people in a writers room to make good work. That has been the dream.

But the closer I get without getting, the more I’m having to face the idea that the odds of this happening are not in my favor. They are much worse than 50/50.

And so I’m doing two things at once: One one hand I’m hoping I can beat the odds, and to that end I’m doing the work that anecdotally helps: I’m doing the networking and writing  and producing outside projects to help break through the noise…

But I am also trying to look at things honestly, and that means contemplating what it might be like to admit failure and give up. When I visualize doing that, I feel  is the grief. I feel so heartbroken that I start to cry at random moments.

But I’ve also begun to wonder if it might be a relief.  I think about the possibility of being financially solvent, of binge watching TV just because I like it, of  casually clicking the $25 or $50 dollar donations on people’s GoFundMe pages. I think about looking for a job that isn’t just a crutch to lean on while I give myself to an industry that doesn’t seem to need me, but a job that is also meaningful and where my employer sees value in me.

Those are the two things I’m thinking simultaneously each day when I wake. Carrying them both is work.

I’m still working.