Monday, May 20, 2013

Bigger 16 - Making Your Tale Epic

What do you think of when you think of an epic tale? Characters and the great changes they go through, for sure. But you probably first mention the concept.
·      Jaws – Shark terrorizes coastal town.
·      Liar, Liar – Lawyer forced to tell truth.
·      Home Alone – Kid defends household singlehandedly.
·      Jurassic Park – Dinosaurs brought back to life in our time.
These are all good-sized concepts. They all are accessible. When I mention them, you know what I’m talking about. You “get it.” But a full concept, one you can really run with, requires more.  Being accessible is only one of five dimensions needed for a great premise. Let’s look at each in terms of Jurassic Park.
Accessible: People need to “get it” without a long explanation. Jurassic Park - Dinosaurs brought back to life in our time.
Surprising: A premise needs to reach beyond the mundane. Bringing life back from the past in itself does not create a big concept. Someone recently grew an “extinct” date palm from 3,000 year-old-seeds.  Not epic. In Jurassic Park dinosaurs are big. Literally. And they have captured our imaginations since childhood.
Emotional: All good stories need a heart. The Odyssey has a man trying to get home despite great challenges, but the heart of it for me (and what leads to a great ending) is his getting home to his wife. Without Penelope, it is not as epic. The park part of Jurassic Park ties it to Disneyland and other places families gather. And sure enough, people (including children) are in the park, and they are in jeopardy.
Question raising: Along the way from concept to full premise, the ideas should make people curious enough to ask questions. People will have a series of these that must be answered in the story or their expectations will not be met. When Blake Snyder talks about “The Promise of the Premise” in Save the Cat, this is what he is talking about. As a writer, the premise stage is a good time to explore this. In addition, there is an important question worth raising – the story question. What question will people a reader or an audience member look to see answered by the end? 
For Jurassic Park, there are a number of questions that come to mind (and, indeed are developed in the story). How will you feed these animals? How will you maintain control? How will you pay for such an enterprise? What are the legal concerns? Will the animals escape control?
Of course, the story question in Jurassic Park is will the characters we love survive?
Credible: You have to give people a chance to willingly suspend disbelief. Some people cannot abide fantasy and science fiction in any form. (Most men in the U.S. never read novels. They require nonfiction.) Some people require elegant world-building, like Lord of the Rings. For comic book fans, a spider bite might be sufficient. As for Jurassic Park…
Crichton provides an elaborate explanation involving blood-sucking insects, amber, DNA, and frogs. The movie actually includes a short documentary (with, appropriately, a Disney-esque style). Crichton wanted a large audience to swallow his premise. He also used that concern as a jumping off point for research.
Digging in to learn more will create a strong foundation for a big story. It will provide details that suggest plot points. (Using frog DNA enables sex switching for the dinosaurs so they can reproduce.) Crichton actually added another element to Jurassic Park, chaos theory. I don’t think he needed that theory to make the story more believable (though it does). But it became vital to his theme, which is “we cannot fully control nature.”
So, the premise for a big story needs to be accessible, surprising, and emotional. It needs to raise a question. It needs to be credible.
I’ll put these aspects to work on something new. I had a vision of WaterMan, a guy who could seep through cracks, travel through drains, and basically reduce himself to molecular scale, go through small spaces and reassemble himself. As I consider this, I have a precedent, T-1000, the metal guy from the future in Terminator 2. (Most ideas have precedents. If they are not specific enough to raise a lawsuit, see if they develop into something that’s truly yours.)
Accessible: Hmm. Hard to get this correct right off. Water-Man doesn’t quite do it for me. SmokeMan? ParticleMan? I like the idea of leaks. If fresh air can get to you, so can he. (Is it a draft? Or ParticleMan’s chilly fingers?) Okay this still needs some work. For now, my sentence is “A man can turn himself into a mist of particles, fit through tight spaces, and reassemble himself at the other end.”
By the way, this is going from crazy to mundane, but accessibility can be worked from mundane to crazy. Mundane: A teenage boy falls in love with a girl.  Less mundane. A poor teenage boy falls in love with a rich teenage girl. Even less mundane. A poor teenage boy falls in love with a rich teenage girl who has Down’s syndrome. 
Surprising: I think the idea of ParticleMan itself is unexpected. Not a bad superpower for the comic book crowd, though I would like a larger audience.
Emotional: A brilliant government scientist comes home to find his family has succumbed to radiation sickness. (See the sad story of Alexander Litvinenko.) His home has been dusted with particles of polonium-210, and he knows he is doomed, too.  He transfers his mind into his experimental project n animating self-assembling nanoparticles. Then he seeks revenge. (I need to sort out an easy explanation of the science, but the revenge part is what’s important here.)
Question raising: What if you could go through locked doors? Turn water and natural gas lines into your private subway systems? And what about your emotional life? Would you be lonely? Would you miss the touch of others? Finally, how would your new powers make you both vulnerable and able to take revenge? The story question would be, Will ParticleMan find and get revenge on the people who killed his family?
Credible: The idea of memory metals has been around at least since the 70s, and probably inspired T-1000. My glasses frames can be twisted into knots and pop back. And self-assembling systems (where pieces come together to create something bigger and different) are the subject of intense research. Nanotechnology, of course, is a headline item, very similar to what genetic engineering was when Jurassic Park was written.
Self-assembling nanoparticles? Not too much of a stretch. In fact, I just googled that phrase, and I got over 58,000 hits. A lot of opportunity for research and finding the sort of details that could make ParticleMan a winner. (That’s good because this story is just beginning to catch my imagination. Much more to do.)
Overally, the idea here is to explore your concepts across dimensions that will make it more enticing to an audience and that will suggest avenues for research. And more fun.



  1. Great tips Peter! I like how you explained them and then applied them to an example--made it much more concrete and understandable.

  2. Thanks, Kourtney. This post was inspired by my students, and I always try to make class lessons example-rich.