AFTER “A” COMES… WHAT?

A few weeks ago I wrote about where ideas come from. Some say Poughkeepsie, others say life, or as it sometimes seems with some folk in comics, ideas come by stealing Alan Moore’s most current story. I usually check what’s behind door number two, but that’s just me.

But the question now has to be, so, you’ve got an idea, what do you do with it? You can roll it up into a ball and bounce it against the wall, or you can try to figure out what the idea is actually about and do something with it. Once again, door number two.

An idea is a starting point. That’s all it is. The Hollywood exec who tells you he came up with the story for such and such movie, when all he said is – “I want a cop film,” has no idea what writing is actually about. Or, if he does, he probably doesn’t care what writing is actually about. Or, if he does, he’s probably just puffing himself up toimpress you with his genius. But saying “I want a cop film” is only a starting point. It’s barely even an idea. It’s idea-light. Not quite an idea but an amazing simulation. An idea might be “I want a film about a loser cop whose teamed up with an orangutan partner who was trained to sniff out drugs.” Don’t laugh. Well, maybe you should, but that’s at least an idea. Not a good idea (which is why it will probably be stolen tomorrow and turned into a 90-million dollar picture starring Nicholas Cage). But it is an idea.

Ideas, as whoever they are tend to say, are a dime a dozen. They are springboards. That’s all. We used to joke around and say “Banana In Ear lad” is an original idea, but who’d actually want to read that? Of course, that was before Flaming Carrot became a hit. Go figure.

What takes an idea and makes it into a story is what writing is all about.

So, you’ve got an idea. What next?

Everyone knows the answer. You need a plot.

Okay. So let’s first define what a plot is. The plot, basically, is the device around which you hang your story. Note: Story and plot are not necessarily the same thing. Confused? You should be. Most new writers are. Most experienced writers, too. Before I’m done I’ll probably confuse you even more, but, hey, when you get your own column you can leave the air conditioner on all night if you want. So there.

But I digress.

You start with an idea. A simple idea: Joe Shmoe wants to buy the Great Wall of China. (Don’t laugh! I actually had the head of a network tell me that had to be the plot of an animated show I was story-editing, and nothing, not even saying buying the Great Wall of China was impossible, got her to change her mind). Okay. Great Wall. Buying it now. That’s your idea. So, what’s the story about?

Buying the Great Wall of China, you answer. Well, no. That’s just a springboard idea. A catalyst for what is actually a story. A story is about someone. Let’s explore that someone.

Why does this someone want to buy the Great Wall? See what happens already? You’re asking a question. Now, let’s continue. He wants to buy it to turn it into the largest graffiti easel in the world. Now we have his goal and the object of his pursuit. Does someone want to stop him? Now we have conflict. What does our someone do to stop that villain? (more conflict).

While buying the Great Wall, does our guy get help? (more characters. More potential conflicts). Does he fall in love? With whom? What does she (or he) want from our hero? Is their relationship real or is one of them lying to the other? Is there a hidden reason our hero is buying the great wall?

You see, now we’re starting to flesh out the story. Now we’re coming up with our series of events that tell the story. Now we’re actually coming up with a character that has a purpose.

Now we should examine the characters. Done right, we make each character act intelligently throughout our story, pursuing their goal in a fashion logical to them. We bring in secondary characters who either side with or against our hero. Each needs to have their logical reasons for doing what they are doing. They don’t do things because the plot says they do things. They do it because of the baggage that is their life. In other words, keep characters in character.

Don’t have characters suddenly act stupidly. That is the thing I hate most about so many movies I spend my ten bucks on. Characters that, for the sake of the plot, suddenly do something that is blatantly stupid.

Let me give you a for instance. Someone with half a memory will probably correct me, but I think the Jack Ryan movie, “Patriot Games,” ends with a big boat chase. One of the Jack Ryan movies does, at any rate. Harrison Ford is on a boat going after our villain and his two henchmen. Up until the end of the movie our villain has been supremely intelligent. He is out-thinking our hero every step of the way. This guy is good. All picture long I’m waiting for the final showdown. The villain and his henchmen have worked together like gears in a clock. They are strong. Smart. Deadly. Ford doesn’t have a chance.

So, Ford is pursuing them on a boat. One against three. Let’s collect some daisies for the former Han Solo. He’s a dead man for sure. One against three deadly, intelligent killers.

Except…

Just before Ford meets them, for no real reason we can determine, the main villain KILLS his two henchmen. Kills them dead. Bang! Bang!

Why? So Harrison Ford can fight the main bad guy one against one and therefore win. No, no. Don’t do that. Don’t have smart people suddenly turn stupid just to make the story work. If you need to get rid of the two henchmen, do it so it enhances all the characters.

Okay, let’s go back to plot. The plot is the exploration and sequencing of the events that tell the story. When done well, each scene slips seamlessly into the next so you’re not even aware that you’re being pulled along for the ride. The events logically lead you to wherever you need to be next.

So that’s the secret, right? Create a sequence of events around an idea and you’ve got yourself a story.

Well, no. If you follow that all you get is a series of events telling the plot of a story. But what’s the story about? Is it just about a man wanting to buy the Great Wall of China? Well, yeah, that’s a story, but is that going to be interesting? Will anyone care? Isn’t that like the Lara Croft movie this past year? Just a bunch of stuff blowing up good and nothing more? Nobody’ll notice if the boobs are big enough, right?

Sadly, yeah. But that still doesn’t make it right.

A story needs to be about something. About something more than just buying the Great Wall of China. It needs to be about a person. A thought. It needs to have a reason to be, and lots of action isn’t enough. It needs subtext. It needs theme.

In comic books, the chances of finding the theme are roughly akin to being struck by lightning, or a single woman getting married after she’s dead. Yet, the best stories that have ever been in comics, or anywhere else, have to have a theme.

Theme is what the story actually is about.

Let me say that again: THEME IS WHAT THE STORY IS ACTUALLY ABOUT!

Star Wars wasn’t about a person trying to blow up the Death Star. That was the plot. Star Wars was about a young man trying to take control of his life and find the destiny that has been hidden away inside him.

Citizen Kane isn’t about finding out what the word “Rosebud” is about. That’s the plot – the device the writers used to hang the real story around. The story is about a man who is destroying himself, only to realize what he’s done just as he dies.

E.T. wasn’t about sending an alien home, it was about a fragmented family that learns to survive by coming together.

Jaws wasn’t about a shark. It was about conquering your fears.

You get the idea? Themes are huge. Big time stuff. Themes are not about bank robbers or devirginizing teenagers. Themes are about love. Family. Success. Failure. Life. Death. Theme is about the things that really matter.

Story and plot are how you elect to tell your theme.

For instance, because everyone knows it, let’s look at Star Wars. It’s about a restless kid who wants something more in life than he has. He knows deep in his gut he doesn’t belong as a moisture farmer (exactly what kind of rake does a moisture farmer use? I’ve never quite understood that). He meets two droids who show him a hologram of a princess that leads him to a hermit who leads him somehow to learning that his mission is to destroy the largest gun in the universe, only it’s shaped like a moon. Is that right? Note, I left out Darth Vader and Han Solo because, quite frankly, cool characters that they are, they really don’t add anything to the basic theme of the first movie. Note, I said FIRST MOVIE. – Fan boy Marv.

Theme: Luke wants to find his purpose in life and finds it big time by digging deep inside himself and finding something he never knew was there.

George Lucas took that theme and decided to tell his story as a space opera. Maybe the best space opera ever done.

But, he could have done it, say, as a modern day crime drama.

Let’s use his theme and plot, but set it elsewhere. A young boy on a farm in Kansas feels he shouldn’t be a farmer. He’s restless. Angry. He knows he’s meant for something more. He can feel it in his bones. He meets two brothers who show him a photo of the daughter of a businessman in another state. She needs help because a crime boss has killed her father and is now trying to take over her town. The only one who can help him is an old hermit who used to be a Cop. The boy joins the two brothers and find the former law officer. The cop tells the boy to stop the crime boss they’ll need to fight him on his own turf, his protected castle keep. The lawman also tells the boy his Dad used to be a cop, but the Crime Boss killed him. The boy feels that his uncle has lied to him all his life. Now he seeks revenge.

On the way to the Crime boss’s HQ, our guys discover the Crime Boss is destroying towns with a new kind of weapon that can blow through any type of stone, brick or even armor. Our hero has to face the crime boss and destroy his ammunitions locker before it can be used to take over any more towns. But, before he can take on the Crime Boss, the young boy, who was taught to deny who he was by his Uncle, has to embrace his own past. He can’t simply go off half cocked and fight the Crime Boss. He, too, has to become a cop.

Same theme. Same plot. Completely different setting.

The reason this works is the story Lucas was telling can be told in any setting or time. That he chose to do it as an SF story made us all jump for joy. But it didn’t have to be SF, as seen above. Try it yourself. Turn Star Wars into a World War Two movie set on an island off Japan. Trust me, I’ve done it. It can be done. Scene by scene.

Now, let’s go back and change the plot completely while maintaining the same exact theme.
Remember the theme: Luke wants to find his purpose in life and finds it big time by digging deep inside himself and finding something he never knew was there.

Luke, an orphan, is a fisherman in Italy as his Uncle’s family has been for five generations. But Luke has been sneaking out at night, going to the local internet café and reading about the rest of the world. He sees great things and somehow knows he no longer belongs in this small, pleasant village. He has nothing in common with his family. When his Aunt and Uncle die from an outbreak of cholera, Luke finds he no longer has a home.

Luke meets several people along the way including a priest who convinces the boy to embrace religion.

Luke trains to become a priest. At first he doesn’t connect with God but over the course of time he learns to see the truth in His word. During his journey, Luke is tempted by a beautiful woman and by the lure of untold riches. She tries to tell him that everything good in the world could be his if only he goes off with her. She will show him a truth he never knew existed before. Part of what’s inside him makes him want that. But, with the aide of the priest who dies while rescuing his parishioners from a fire in the church, Luke reclaims his faith.

Years pass. Luke becomes a priest and he now has a sense of being and peace he’s never had before.
Theme: Luke wants to find his purpose in life and finds it big time by digging deep inside himself and finding something he never knew was there.

This is a massive simplification but you can still see Star Wars beneath that completely different story. If I didn’t tell you that was Star Wars you’d never know it. Except for the part where he’s having dinner and the Priest tells him to use the fork, Luke.

Structurally and thematically, it’s the same exact story. That’s because Star Wars is about Luke’s journey. Not about blowing up the Death Star.

Theme is what the story is truly about. Story is how you decide to explore your theme. Plot is the sequence of events you use to tell your story.

Got it? Now go and write something great.

To be continued…

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