An Adaptation? As Loosely Defined, Perhaps.

I was perusing the DVDs at the library last week when I happened upon “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”.  I fondly remembered the film from twenty years ago, so I checked it out.  The kids and I watched it the other night and I was amazed at how much it was influenced by Chinatown, one of my favorite films.  Twenty years ago, I had not yet seen Chinatown, and in the intervening twenty years I had not seen Roger Rabbit again, so I never put the two together.  I was also surprised to discover that the film was based on a novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” by Gary K. Wolf.

After reading the dust jacket of the book, it would appear that the two share very little other than character names and the overarching premise of the interaction between our real world and a fantasy world.  Upon reading the initial chapters, the first divergence I noticed was in the type of cartoon involved.  In the book, the interaction is with comic strip characters who speak in word balloons and in the film the interaction is with animated cartoon characters.  After that break with the source material, the adaptation clearly took a left turn at Albuquerque since the book deals with seedier topics than the themes of corruption and hidden identities that form the basis for the film.  I am going to continue reading the novel, since one of my kids expressed an interest in it and I need to determine if it is age appropriate or whether she will need to wait a few years.

After the success of the movie, Wolf penned a sequel of sorts which appears to retcon his toon universe to align with that of the movie.  Presumably, the intention was to keep the train rolling along, but the movie sequel never got made (the expense of the first one might have been a factor as might have been the turn towards computer animation).

Referencing Figures from History

I am currently working on research for a future writing project, a steampunk story (not sure yet if if will manifest as a novel or screenplay).  For those unfamiliar with this speculative fiction sub-genre, the general premise is to set the work within an era where steam power is widely used (such as Victorian era England), but with the addition of technological advances both real (such as an accelerated invention of the computer) or imagined.

Since the work is, at its core, historical fiction, one of my notes is “other historical figures to include” followed by a list of possibles.  After some contemplation, I have decided to forgo loading up the story with such notable people.  The story itself requires inclusion of two historical figures, they are central to the plot; but the others would just have been extraneous and likely would offer no true advancement of the story.  Since we tend to view history in the context of the notable people and events, it can be easy to fall into the idea that they would interact, but I am crafting a story of events tucked away in the corner involving a group which by its very nature would not be mentioned in mainstream history.

What my characters need is a “third place”

So, I went to a lunch time talk on “Social Media and the Third Place” at the nearby co-working space @gangplank last week.  The speaker was a local restaurateur who has been active in social media lately (and who happens to own my favorite BBQ restaurant in the area).  I had never heard the term “the third place” before and didn’t really give it much thought (see, I figured it was a saying along the lines of “he wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place”… in my mind, it was just the thing that came after whatever was the “and second of all”).

My re-education in the matter came about 3 or 4 minutes into the talk when the term was defined as a place where people gather for a social purpose that’s neither home nor the workplace (’cause, ding-ding, those are the first and second places).  It was like a big ol’ lightbulb (an incandescent, mind you, not one of them fancy newfangled, curly, Escher-inspired CFLs) went off inside of me.  I quickly opened my trusty Moleskine and added a line to the page dedicated to the story idea I have been working through: “these characters definitely need a third place in which to interact”.  I’m sure the speaker wondered what the heck I was writing down so feverishly (I was seated in the front row), but this was a real epiphany for me and I didn’t want to let it get away.

With the important revelation captured, I returned my full on attention to the talk.  It turns out there are 8 “rules” that define whether or not a place is truly a third place and there was a handy handout right in front of me with these rules set forth.  Now, as a writer I’m pretty good with rules (probably has something to do with the fact that I’m also a computer programmer), so as I dive into this endeavor I will seek to come up with a few locations that fit the story’s time period and geography, while keeping in mind the eight rules: is neutral ground, is a status leveler, conversation is the main activity, is accessible, has “regulars”, has a low profile, fosters a playful mood & is a home away from home.

The term “third place” was coined by sociologist/author Ray Oldenburg, who has published two books on the subject.

Character vs Plot

Plot is not Story.  Plot is a tool that can help you with your story.  It might help quite a bit.  But it might not.  It might even hurt.  Who remembers learning all the ‘versus’ categories in school?  The Most Dangerous Game…Man vs Man.  The Old Man and the Sea…Man vs Nature.  The Lady or the Tiger…Man vs Doors?  Whatever.  I’m still not sure what those categories were supposed to teach us about literature. What about The Call of the Wild? I might ask the main character’s a freakin dog.  Ummm…my teacher might reply…It’s still Man vs Nature, the dog really stands for man.  Yeah, I might have said back, but every step the dog makes takes him closer and closer to nature, not versus nature.  Then my teacher might ignore me because she might have to admit that the versus categories, even broader than plot categories, are pretty much meaningless and have no effect whatsoever in how good the story is.

Plot is neither good nor bad it’s just a tool.  Learn it quickly and move on to something better, more fun, and more interesting.  Your characters.  If you can write a good character, plot will become meaningless.  People remember the characters, not the plot.  Ask someone what Raiders of the Lost Ark is about.  They might say it’s an Adventure Plot.  They might say it’s an Underdog Plot, or a Quest plot, or even Man vs. Man.  But more likely it will be some version of this–“This dude, Indiana Jones, is a professor of archaeology.  He wears a fedora and leather jacket and carries a whip and he looks for lost artifacts and he’s trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s do.  Oh yeah it takes place in the ’30’s.  So, you know, there’s Nazis.”  It’s about this guy, it’s about these two young girls, it’s about a freakin sled dog.  Always the character first and what happens to them or what they do second.  Something to think about.

Visualizing your plot in full color

I’ve started using a visual way to develop my screenplay, which is working out rather well. I’ve been working on a rather intriticate story that covers multiple timelines (past and present) that converge midway through the story.  It was driving me bonkers trying to remember what happened ” before” something else in the narrative.

Scenes and Timeline

Scenes and Timeline

I went to Lowe’s and bought a section of white board paneling, that is basically a section from a dry ease board.  I mounted it on my wall and divided it up by Acts.  In the picture, you can see Act I on the top. Act II covers the end of the top section, the middle, and part of the bottom.  Act III picks up the end of the third row.  The space on the bottom I left for notes and scratch work.

I then picked up a bunch of colored post-its and began noting down my major scenes.  The blue are the Past timeline, and the Pink are the current timeline. Orange indicates a major plot point that has to be revealed at some point along the way. The lone white post-it in the upper left is a plot issue I have to come back and work out.  I’m now able to see my pacing, juggle scenes easily, and use the colors to really highlight any problems. (Yes, that’s still a work in progress)

In a more traditional narrative, I use one color for Theme scenes, another for Character scenes, and a third for Plot scenes.  Under the idea that every scene should advance at least one of those three aspects of the story, I can see if I am spending too much time “talking”, or maybe not enough time since something really dynamic was happening on screen.

It’s a variation on using index cards to juggle scenes, but I prefer this for the color and the ability to see the whole picture at once.  This is in my writing area, so I can look up at any time from my writing and see what’s next, or get up and move things around.  I’m still refining the technique, but so far it is working out really well.

If you have any ideas what I could use to improve it, or if you use a technique similar to this for your own plot planning, I’d love to hear it!