Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
One of the things I enjoy reading about is how businesses solve problems. When the business involves storytelling, the reading is, for me, all the more interesting.
Consequently, reading about how Merian C. Cooper, the executive producer of Son of Kong (he had also produced King Kong, of course) was told that he had to limit himself to a budge to a budget of $250,000 (originally $238,000), solved the problem of making the movie on a shoestring, as it were, was fascinating.
What he did was to “scale the project back considerably,” Ray Morton recounts in King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. This scaling back required Cooper to revise “the script, condensing and simplifying all the way through,” so that some scenes were eliminated altogether and the film’s action sequences were combined or juxtaposed without the originally intended transitions. For example, Morton writes:
To save money on recreating the native village and the Great Wall, the scenes set in the village were eliminated--the natives would nor confront the landing party on the beach and refuse to allow them to come ashore, forcing them to row around the island looking for a landing spot. When Denham’s party finally did land, it would be right near the site of the temple, eliminating the need for any lengthy treks through the jungle. The remaining jungle and temple scenes were all consolidated so that they would take place in just two primary locations. . . (95).Short story writers and novelists don’t face such restrictions, because they don’t have to film their stories. However, by imagining that they are forced, by the vagaries of the economy, the whims of studio executives, or other unanticipated problems, to make similar changes to their plots, settings, or cast of characters, such writers could learn (or hone) their skills in plot development, description, and characterization, which is always a good thing.
Imagine that you are plotting a story about a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist is a consultant for a secret government project which is recording a history of an alien species in its own language--the strange characters on the artifact that the talk show host found--and the linguist alerts the government that the talk show host has discovered the object that was lost decades ago. The talk show host is taken for a ride by government agents who inform him that the government has confiscated the artifact and threaten him not to divulge anything about his discovery. After going into hiding, the talk show host tells everything to his audience during a show and promises to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.
So far, so good, you think.
But, then, out of the blue, you are told that your story cannot feature either an alien species or the government. You have to shoot a retake, as it were, to provide another explanation for the mysterious characters.
Perhaps you come up with something like this: a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist identifies the characters as belonging to a lost tribe of ancient mystics. Finally able to interpret the characters, the linguist says that they are the words to an incantation that supposedly summons The Nameless One, which he believes is the tribe’s guardian daemon. On his show, the radio talk show host recites the linguist’s “wild story” and reads the translated text aloud, joking that he hopes he hasn’t thereby summoned the tribal daemon.
You’d now have two explanations for the origin and significance of the characters. As a result, you can create a more sophisticated plot. For example, perhaps the linguist’s account of the artifact’s characters is a deliberate falsehood, told to deceive the talk show host as to the true origin and significance of the inscription, which is that it really is a history of an alien species, written in their own language, which the government wants to cover up. When he subsequently learns the truth, the host can then tell everything to his audience during a show and promise to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.
By further tweaking the original storyline, you can add more twists to the plot. Maybe your imaginary studio executive says he wants the host to advertise the characters on billboards before he announces the truth bout his discovery on his radio show, and, in major market areas across the country, the strange symbols appear on billboards, without explanation (ore perhaps with the caption, “Curious? Listen to KXYZ radio’s Hot Talk.” At first, you may think the exec’s demand asinine, but what can you do but humor him. You revise your plot, incorporating the billboards. In the process, you must explain why the talk show host posted the message on billboards rather than just explain things on his radio show.
Maybe his show is local, but he wants a national audience. Maybe he wants to protect himself against possible reprisals by the government or the aliens (or both). Maybe he is trying, as it were, to smoke the extraterrestrials out of their hideout, wherever it may be.
In this manner, by forcing yourself to plot and revise, shooting “retakes,” as it were of scenes and acts that you’ve already filmed (that is, written), you may facilitate your creativity as a writer, develop less straightforward (and predictable) plots, heighten suspense, and compose more sophisticated and complex plots.