Feeling stifled by her household and her giant panda, a woman contemplates escape.
I brought this story into a writing workshop early in my MFA experience, and the professor hated it. However, other people encouraged me, and “I” liked it, so I polished and submitted it anyway, and it found a home at Sycamore Review with people who loved it. It was a good lesson to learn — that everything is a matter of taste! One of the encouraging people was my classmate at the time, the multi-talented artist and writer Katie Burgess, who later made me the cover art you see above.
EPISODE 3: “Monster Leaves Dog” (After the Storms, Part 3)
As a long-married couple prepares to part ways, the husband tries to convince his wife to change her mind.
This story is the third of three interrelated stories called After the Storms. As with “Room” this story originated with a prompt:
Two characters part ways forever.
We were asked also to think about the questions: “Who and when and where?” “Do they know it’s forever?” “Do they have different feelings about it?” and “What causes the parting?”
I let years pass — literal years! — before I came back and finished this one. As the third story in the trilogy, it felt like writing a flashback episode of television. I enjoy flashback episodes, but they present their own set of challenges to the writer. Often a flashback episode needs to incorporate information the audience has already knows from regular episodes and that can change the source of dramatic tension in the story. If this story stands alone, the main question that unifies the narrative is “can Jerry change Beth’s mind and convince her to stay in the city?” But someone who reads it with the context of the previous stories already knows the answer. So for them the the question is not “what happened?” but “how and why did it happen?” Which tends to be a “weaker” dramatic tension…
… but hopefully still worthwhile! For me, the appeal of a flashback episode is traveling back in time and seeing characters I already know as they once were — before I knew them. In this case, seeing Jerry in “Room” and Beth in “Tribe” each reminiscing about the other made me want to see them together for a little while, and witness the moment that sent them on their separate trajectories.
Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs this and every episode. Ted Giffin did the show art. And Barrington Smith-Seetachitt (that’s me!) wrote and read the story.
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:
A character has a goal.
The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
The character attempts to execute the plan.
The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.
Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)
A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
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)
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.
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.
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!
The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.
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.