Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wonder Years: Great Short Story Writing

Over the weekend I went to see a friend perform at a local Chicago theater called "The Cornservatory," a very small theater (seats a maximum of about 40) that specializes in off-the-wall comedy. It's also BYOB: The last time I was there, I brought with me a bonafide cuisine of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Snickers. This time I opted for a sixer of Rolling Rock, skipping the candy bar.

Anyway, the show I saw was called "TV Reruns." The concept was simple: Five actors read scripts from actual episodes of campy (mostly 80s) TV shows like Alf, Small Wonder, and Murder, She Wrote, donning various wigs to play multiple roles. An off-stage narrator read the setting at the beginning of each scene (i.e. "in so-and-so's kitchen"), and the actors remained mostly stationary, aside from a few moments where they engaged in over-the-top physical tomfoolery to highlight each script's sublter moments.

A not-too-surprising truth was revealed to me as I listened to the actors read: television writing (especially in the 80s) is just awful. It's formulaic, predictable, and schmaltzy. That, of course, is why a comedic theater troupe decided to put on this show: the unintentional funny is everywhere. "TV Reruns" was engaging and entertaining for the simple fact that watching each reading was like witnessing a literary disaster unfold right before your eyes.

The first reading of the evening came from Doogie Howser, M.D., a show about a whiz kid who became a medical doctor (starring Neil Patrick Harris as Doogie). In the episode, Doogie is assigned by the hospital board to teach a high school sex education course, where he gets in a fight with the school jock (named "Swifty"). Of course, Doogie's mother is horrified when her son comes home with a black eye, while his father takes an unperturbed boys-will-be-boys approach to the matter. In the end, Swifty makes amends with Doogie when he consults Doogie about his too-swift sexual problem.

The second reading came from That 70s Show, which I found disappointing for the simple fact that it was much worse than I recalled. Eric gets suspended from school when he gets caught holding a cigarette that really belongs to his girlfriend Donna, which sets off Eric's father Red and pits him against Donna's father in a case of whose-child-is-a-worse-influence-on-whom. The rest of the episode is fluffed up with random hijinx from the relationship of Kelso and Jackie, as well as an oddball pairing of Hyde and Fez, who wind up on a double blind date with two co-eds.

During both of the above readings, I had little doubt in my mind that the performance I was watching, in which the actors on stage were performing a caricaturization of the original actors, was much funnier than the actual episode of either program. What was funny about each story was not the story itself, but rather the dreadfulness of each story.

But a funny thing happened during the third reading - an episode of The Wonder Years commonly known as the "Square Dancing" episode. About halfway through the reading, I realized that, instead of being engaged with the aforementioned literary disaster, I was engaged with the actual story. I was watching because I was invested in what was going to happen next. I was laughing because the story was actually funny, not because it was too dumb for words. By the end of the reading, I couldn't help but think of this episode of TWY not as a TV show, but as an expertly-crafted short story. (You can watch this almost-complete episode of TWY here, here, and here.) **Update: You can see the complete episode at Pandora. **

Of course, TWY uses an element common to prose storytelling: the first-person narrator. In this case, it is the voice of an older Kevin, looking back on his experiences as a teenager. This episode opens with panning shots of a yearbook as the narrator gives a brief introduction, which sounds not unlike something you'd read at the beginning of a short story or novel:

Kevin's VO: Some people pass through your life and you never think about them again. Some you think about and wonder whatever happened to them. . . Some you think about and wonder if they ever wonder whatever happened to you?

And then there are those you wish you never had to think about again. But you do.

Right away, we are given a sense of the themes that the episode will cover - most notably, friendship, regret, and betrayal.

The opening scene sets up the major complication. Kevin's all-male seventh-grade gym class is informed that they will spend the next week learning to square dance. At first, the boys are incredulous at the idea, but quickly warm up once the girls' PE class is ushered in for pairing. Of course, Kevin's geeky best friend Paul lands the hottie, while Kevin gets stuck with the class weirdo: Margaret Farquhar (FAR-kwar).

This opening complication is little different from an opening scene in any other crappy formulaic sitcom. So why does it work? Part of it is due to the opening narration. We know that Margaret is not just some weird chick who will breeze into Kevin's life and be gone in thirty minutes. At some point, she will have a profound impact on him. The other part is due to the way that the rest of the episode is executed.

First of all, the writing doesn't rely merely on telling us that Margaret is weird ("Some people marched to the beat of a different drummer," Kevin's voiceover says, "Margaret had her own percussion section"), it also wastes no time in showing us exactly how weird she is, both to the other students and to the adults. Immediately after she is paired with Kevin, she begins asking the PE teachers questions in rapid-fire:

Margaret: Are we gonna dosie-do?
Coach: We'll get to that.
Margaret: Why is it called dosie-do?
Coach: Because that's what it's called.
Margaret: Is that clockwise or the other way around?

The next scene (which has unfortunately been edited out of the provided Youtube clip) takes place in the Arnolds' kitchen at dinnertime. After repeated teasings from the bully-older-brother Wayne, Kevin reveals to his family that he has been paired with Margaret for the week of square-dancing. Very cleverly, the writing hints at Margaret's epic reputation for weirdness when Kevin's older sister says, "Judy Farquhar's sister? She's a little different, isn't she?" But it is Kevin's who mom delivers the coup-de-grace. When Kevin, frustrated, says that he'll just find out a way to switch partners or "dump her," his mother intervenes: "Kevin, I expect more of you than that."

So, now we have Kevin being pulled in two different directions. If he is too nice to Margaret, he becomes a social pariah. If he is too mean, he will disappoint his mother. In fact, in subsequent scenes, the "I expected more from you than that" mantra is played in the voiceover, stopping Kevin at the last moment from saying something hurtful or doing something mean to Margaret. And it won't be easy for Kevin to achieve the balance between being nice and being too nice, as we see when Kevin and Margaret meet in the hallway during the following day at school:

Margaret: Miss Billings sent me out here. She says I ask too many questions. Were you in the bathroom?
Kevin's VO: Great. I'd said three words to her, now we were going to have a whole conversation.
Margaret: I have to go a lot, too. When I drink to much water in the morning. Do you like bats?
Kevin: Bats?
Margaret: I have a fruit bat. Do you like the name Mortimer?

Needless to say, we see Kevin's point. She really is weird. The writing doesn't merely rely on cliches (such as a strange voice or an oddball fashion sense - even if she does have a third pigtail) to showcase Margaret's weirdness. Her weirdness is just enough to put off any "normal" person, without being over-the-top or unbelievable. Later, she shows up at Kevin's house, toting a shoebox in which her pet bat Mortimer is hiding:

Kevin's Mom: Is that Margaret?
Kevin's VO: Uh-oh, I could see mom's radar working overtime. In about three seconds, she was going to fall in love.
Kevin: She can't stay, mom.
Kevin's Mom: Now, I'm sure she can stay for a little while, can't you Margaret? Maybe she'd like to sit down.
Kevin's VO: That was it, Margaret was in like Flynn.
Margaret holds the box out to Kevin's mom.
Margaret: This is my bat!
Kevin's VO: But hold on, here.
Kevin's Mom: Bat?
Margaret: He won't go in your hair unless there's bugs there. I would have brought Isabelle, too, but her terrarium is too hard to carry.
Kevin's Mom: Isabelle?
Margaret: My tarantula. I also have a lizard, but he's sick.
Kevin's Mom: Oh. That's too bad. I hope he feels better.
Kevin's Mom exits.
Kevin's VO: Amazing. Mrs. Be-nice-to-everybody had been chased out of her own kitchen.
Margaret: I guess your mother doesn't like bats.
Kevin: No
Magaret: Yeah, neither does mine.

Two interesting things happen in this scene. First, the moral center of the story, Kevin's mom, can't even bring herself to stay in Margaret's presence very long. Second, during the last quick exchange between Margaret and Kevin, we are told something new: Margaret gets it. She knows that people don't like her. This adds a whole new dimension of self-awareness to Margaret's character that we never knew she had.

Shortly thereafter, in a very efficient, effective manner, the writing shows us exactly why Margaret is so weird:

Kevin's VO: And so I spent an hour with the most unpopular girl in school.
Margaret: Do you know where the word "tarantula" comes from?
Kevin: Huh.
Margaret: Well, they had this disease in Europe where if you got it, you would jerk around like you were dancing and they thought it came from spiders.
Kevin's VO: She was weird all right. The funny thing is, she was also interesting. In a weird way.
Margaret: So they named the spider after the dance. Taran-tella. Tarantula.
Kevin's VO: I'd never met anyone like her. Not that I liked her, you understand.
Kevin: So your dad was in the army?
Margaret: We travel a lot. Do you know anyone that's been to twelve schools in eight years?
Kevin: That's a lot of schools.
Margaret: Bats are good travelers. Dogs you have to leave behind.

And that's all you need to know about Margaret. This exchange reveals Margaret's inner-workings without over-explaining or leaving us pining for more information. It's a near-perfect reveal-of-character through dialogue.

So, now that we've covered the friendship, it's time to move on to betrayal. That night, Kevin loses his nerve on a promise he made to come over to Margaret's house and meet Isabelle, her tarantula. The next day at school, Kevin proposes an idea to Margaret: they can still be friends, but they won't talk to each other and no one will know that they are friends. Margaret becomes understandably upset, and a crowd gathers. This time, it is Margaret that delivers the coup-de-grace: "I thought you were different."

The line is ironic because it is essentially the same line that Kevin's mother used earlier ("I expected more out of you"), only phrased a bit differently.

Finally, regret. As Kevin and Margaret are shown engaging in a final day of joyless square-dancing:

Kevin's VO: And so, that last day of square-dancing, I danced alone.

Maybe if I'd been a little braver, I could have been her friend, but the truth is, in seventh grade, who you are is what other seventh-graders say you are.

The funny thing is, it's hard to remember the names of the kids you spent so much time trying to impress. But you don't forget someone like Margaret Farquhar. Professor of Biology. Mother of six. Friend to bats.
Now how many sitcoms - especially in the 80s, of all god-forsaken decades - had all of that in one episode? How many short stories have you read recently that had all of that? Shit, how many novels have you read that had all of that?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Keep Your Awesome To Yourself

I really enjoy attending readings. Sure, sometimes it can be painful - some (maybe even the majority) of authors are simply not good public speakers. Their lack of a powerful oratory presence is probably one of the reasons they've chosen to be writers in the first place. This is not a finger-pointing criticism; I've given a couple readings before, and believe me - it's hard.

But the reason I really enjoy attending readings is that I always learn something. I might discover the work of an author I wouldn't otherwise have found, or some interesting use of language might catch my attention, or I might just learn how to become a better public reader myself.

Earlier this week, I attended a reading given by four local authors. On this occasion, I learned something from an author who, strangely enough, didn't read anything at all.

(Note: I'll refer to this particular author as "he/him," although this may or may not reflect the actual gender of the author in question.)

The author in question was the evening's feature author, the last of the four local authors to read. His next book (the newest edition of a somewhat popular historical fiction series that I hadn't heard of before) was coming out soon, and he began by explaining that he was so tired of his own words that, in lieu of reading, he would give a brief talk about how he became a working writer.

I was slightly put off by this introduction. After all, all the authors that evening were probably more or less tired of their words, but they read them anyway. Furthermore, his complaint of being exhausted over his own soon-to-be-published novel in the presence of a literary-minded crowd - many of whom were no doubt fledgling writers themselves - made him look more than a little out-of-touch. (The words "let them eat cake" kept echoing in my mind as he spoke.)

But I decided I was being petty: the setting at this particular reading was informal and intimate, so certainly he was not receiving any monetary compensation for appearing, and therefore he retained the right to read or not read whatever he wanted. Also, at any reading, there are a collection of wannabe writers (such as myself) who want to learn more about the publishing industry. Maybe, I thought, he could teach me something I didn't know.

Unfortunately, his story contained few surprises. He began with the all-too familiar you-can-do-it motivational speech for writers: For years, he talked about becoming a writer. He talked and talked and talked about it, told everyone who asked him about his work and interests. Then one day his three-year-old asked him why he always lied to people about being a writer. So that lit a fire under his ass and he wrote and wrote and wrote. The story ended with an oh-shucks-my-first-query-letter-hit success tale. Now, he writes for a living. He achieved the holy grail: living as a gainfully employed, full-time writer.

At its core, I found no particular fault in this little speech. He put in the work and became successful, good for him. I would have been fine with everything if this writer had been reading alone, or if he had read with other writers at the same or greater level of success than his own. But what pushed the whole ordeal into the realm of bad taste was the fact that this writer was reading with people who had been published at small presses, who still worked regular full-time jobs, and at least one writer who had self-published her book. Again, the utter lack of situational awareness certainly didn't win her any new fans that evening.

During the Q&A, one person asked the author who self-published whether or not she'd do it again. Her response began: "Well, I didn't have the magic fairy dust that so-and-so had...." The comment was made in jest, and a good-natured chuckle spread through the room, but I sensed just a bit of uneasiness in the successful writer's smile, as if he finally understood the mistake he had made.

The lesson to be learned: If you're asked to read your work, just read it. Even if you're genuinely impressed with your own success, it's faulty to believe that anyone else will want to hear about it.