It’s been a while since I’ve posted – oh, how I’ve missed it! – and even longer since I’ve written anything specifically related to the writing process. Lately, it’s been all cats and bad drivers.
Not tonight, though. I’m writing about writing tonight, y’all (though it’s disguised, in parts, as a television re-cap…trust me on this!).
Tonight is an effort to redeem the twenty-four-ish minutes I spent watching the new NBC comedy Community, which I hoped would be on par with The Office and 30 Rock. Sadly, if the rest of the season follows suit after episode one, that hope is unlikely. Thus far, I measure its worth not in how many times it made me laugh, but unfortunately, how many times it made me groan.
The thing about Community is this: though it made me roll my eyes and sit there not laughing, it did inspire me to think. Yes, I rolled my eyes, but why? With such snappy dialogue (sometimes), why did it just not measure up to the tried-and-true treasures of the NBC wonderworld?
As a fledgling author, I’ve done my fair share of thinking about the whole what-makes-a-story-work question. You’re familiar, I’m sure – depth of character, suspense, tension, conflict, realistic motivations, show-don’t-tell – all that good stuff.
I hate to say it (but I’m going to, anyway) – Community broke all of those rules in its pilot episode.
First, we are introduced to a bunch of half-developed characters who have their own sorta-cliché little roles (the Pretty Girl, the International Dweeb, the Old Guy). Then, we move from one uninteresting location to the next, and not only is there very little action, we basically just watch as two or more characters engage in conversation while they stand/sit in one place. I’m pretty sure this is the definition of boring, and sadly, a bunch of quippy one-liners fell on deaf ears for lack of ability to call attention to themselves. They drowned in a sea of static blahdom, crammed and glossed over. Many words were written and read, but good writing consists of more than just words, it seems.
The main thing that inspired this post, however, was the lack of sufficient motivation present in their characters. I noticed this particularly in a scene toward the episode’s end.
The scene: Main Guy has crush on Pretty Girl. Pretty Girl likes honesty, Main Guy is a liar. Main Guy offers to tutor her in Spanish, but he doesn’t know Spanish. She agrees. To Main Guy’s annoyance, International Dweeb invited several people to attend the tutoring session. All are strangers at this point. Cliché Strangers don’t get along and awkward bickering ensues. Pretty Girl pulls Main Guy aside, tells him to fix it. Main Guy goes back in the room and gives witty speech to Cliché Strangers, who listen and cease the awkward bickering.
Okay. Now that you have the run-down, what bothers me so much about this scene is why don’t they all just leave? It’s not like they’re forced to be in this room at the library, at a study group together, with a man who isn’t really in charge of anything. The door is open, they could just walk right out. But they don’t. They sit around a table and bicker, they sit there while Pretty Girl talks with Main Guy, they sit there as if they’re chained to the chairs. Are they really such losers that they’d rather sit in a room at the library all afternoon with a bunch of strangers, mad at each other? Are they really that desperate for something to do? Same with Pretty Girl – if she doesn’t trust or like Main Guy, why not just leave? She only met him two-and-a-half seconds ago.
This, obviously, got me thinking about conflict and proper motivations while writing characters in our novels. Characters need to be believable, and not flat paper-dolls puppeted by our contrived little agendas. We have to lock them into rooms with their adversaries if we want them to stay, because logically, why would a person stay around someone who is berating, abusing, torturing them, or just plain wasting their time? And, these rooms aren’t merely physical – we have to lock them to the conflict by developing what’s at stake emotionally. Only then do motivations become plausible, and staying face-to-face with the enemy becomes not only reasonable, but inevitable.
And…that’s the end of that. To make up for my (slightly negative, though good-natured) criticism of Community, expect a more positive post in the near future about Glee, a show that is inspiring me in much more fun and sparkly ways!
Anyone else have an example of how pop culture has influenced your writing process, whether for good or for bad?