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Monday, May 12, 2008

What We Have Here, Son, is a Situation


What is the difference between a situation and a story - that is to say, a compelling crux of conflict big enough to cover three acts of your feature film?

A situation is that I walk into a bank and it gets robbed. A story is it is being robbed by an inept man who needs the money for his lover's sex-change operation. A situation is I cover for my dragon-lady boss while she's away. A story is I cover for her, I do better than her, her boyfriend takes a shine to me and then she comes back, furious. A situation is I decide to put my child up for adoption. A story is that the couple adopting starts to fall apart from the inside out and meanwhile my due date is coming up fast. A situation is I decide to escort a criminal to the train station. A story is when his gang is close on my heels and then he escapes.

So we could say that the central difference between a situation and a story is that a story is a situation which has a set of growing, causal complications. Kind of like a Rube Goldberg machine, right? Not just the marble rolls down the chute and plonks into a cup - but then the cup tips, the marble rolls down another chute and then makes a gear turn which lifts another chute which takes the marble on a hard right turn and the journey continues...

So how do you know whether you have a situation with the potential to really grow complex and interesting? It's all about what happens before and after that situation. And it's all driven by character. That's where the real work of being a writer comes in. Most anyone can come up with a situation - what if you woke up in the morning after a one-night stand and the person you were with was dead? Yeah - that would be pretty weird. But what if he turns out to be a senator. With enemies? What if you start getting phone calls late at night? What if it turns out, he had just announced his candidacy for the presidential race? Now we have a lot more than a situation - we have a story to play out.

Make sure that you aren't just writing a finite situation but rather that that situation, the one you first dreamt up over that second mocha frappuccino has the potential for Rube Goldberg-ness. Complications - unexpected turns - a causal, domino effect that sets other things in motion. You know, sort of like a nightmare - this happens BUT THEN that happens and you can't get out because now THIS happens, you know that funhouse-nightmare you have sometimes? Where things just keep getting worse? That's what I'm talking about. It can be funny-worse or scary-worse or dramatically-worse, but it's all going to feel completely inevitable.

A situation has an easy, predictable way out. A story takes us on a journey.


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