EPISODE 05: “How to Write Your Own Biography” When her best friend is diagnosed with cancer an empty-nester takes a road trip, leaving her husband at home.
This past Thursday, I came home to the treat of this copy of Chariton Review in my mailbox. Lest you be misled by the 2018 date on the cover, it is actually the most recent volume that just came out. Apparently they got a little bit behind. I’m interested by the choice they’ve apparently made not to skip any issues. I wonder, will they henceforth be a year behind?
But I’m not one to talk, I guess, since it took me years to get around to doing a second round of submissions with it.
The characters and events of this story are entirely fictional, but the layout of the home where Jean and her husband Bradley live is based on the home I grew up in. I can see them moving around each other in that house of my memory.
As always, thanks to Greg Gordon Smith, who composes and sound designs this and every episode, and Ted Giffin, who designed the cover art!
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.
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.