Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Interesting things happen at the fringes. A yeast cell takes water and sugar and trace amounts of other molecules from its environment and sends out alcohol and carbon dioxide. A border town trades with other communities, and that extends to more than goods. Music, ideas, customs, behaviors, and recipes are rejected, transformed, and accepted by people with different cultures, and then passed on to their larger societies.

Writer James Alan MacPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, understood the dramatic value of interfaces, consciously seeking out the conflicts and compromises of the edge. His ideas caught my imagination early in my career, prompting me to focus on where science and technology meet business, law, politics, nature, global challenges, and our daily lives.

Contrasts, struggles, and transformation belong at the heart of what you write, even if your focus is on small town romances. The differences between lovers, including the endless curiosity between sexes in traditional romances, forces endless adjustments and adaptations. We relate to stories where characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled, pulled together by circumstances and driven apart by the unacceptable.

Odd couple stories do this. So do stories of circumstance, where people are forced together. The stakes for diverse groups can be survival, as with The Poseidon Adventure or many Star Trek shows, where the right answer only emerges when a logical Vulcan and an intuitive human must find a middle path.

How do you find your edge?
  • Look for interesting differences, where neither is completely "right." Pull both ways so the values of each side get a fair shake.
  • Make it personal. Even a story of a fight to the death between aliens and humans needs to include individuals we can relate to who face challenges and impossible choices. And, if you can make it personal to you so you feel as if you are taking risks as you write the story, even better.
  • Make it external. Often writers who have found the opportunity to examine a rich story at the boundaries will get intellectual about it, turning a good tale into an essay. Enough with the reflection. No more talking. See what would happen if you presented the story as a silent movie without title cards.
  • Make it fresh. The reason I like science and technology in my stories is new concept emerge daily, and I can explore and share these. Other writers bring little known cultures and subcultures to the fore in their stories, including inside views of professions. One of the joys of Six Feet Under was how it detailed the funeral industry's interactions with people in extreme situations.
  • Make it eternal. Edge stories are engaging because they provide lots of details. That's the way to draft them. But once the draft is done, take the time to find the theme. If you dealt honestly with your material, it will be there. Then go back and use the details and trim the excess to illuminate your statement on the human condition.
  • Don't propagandize. Theme is not the same as message.
Working at the edge requires research. If you happen upon lesser known interface, you need to dig deeply and get it right. If you are privy to a cultural border town, you need to take yourself outside of it so you can see what you are inevitably missing and share with those outside your situation. If your world is as familiar as a 60s family sitcom, you need to uncover the strange and unexpected.

Never settle for the obvious.

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