Wednesday, May 19, 2010
THE SMELL OF THE RAIN ON THE ROAD AT DAWN
I’m borrowing this idea and term from the wonderful series of three books on screenwriting by Blake Snider, the Save the Cat series. All credit for these ideas goes to him!
I’m convinced this is at the heart of many unfinished novels and short stories.
What does the term mean? It’s that germ of an idea for a story triggered by any number of stimuli. It can be a glimpse of something—the “smell of the rain on the road at dawn” for instance. Driving home from a night of partying, hung over, you turn onto a country blacktop and see a man hitchhiking in Army fatigues in the fine mist that’s falling. Aha! There’s a story about this guy, you think. You begin to imagine a character who’s passing through town—and you kind of visualize a story about him. If you’re David Morrell, you end up with a story titled, First Blood.
Or, you hear a story about a man whose mother has just died and the police came to inform him and they’re put off by his seeming lack of emotion about the tragedy and become suspicious. If you’re Albert Camus, perhaps you write a story based on that anecdote you’ll title, The Stranger.
All of us as writers get ideas triggered like this and any number of other ways. Thinking about the scene or idea makes us feel that there’s a story there. Usually, when we see or conceive of a story idea that way, it elicits a powerful emotion from us. The guy in our vision, standing on the road at dawn in a drizzle, wearing fatigues, triggers a feeling of sadness, say. We have an urge to write this guy’s story so that the reader will feel this same intense feeling of sadness as we do.
And so, we break out the Bic, turn on the ‘puter, put a piece of white paper in the Underwood and begin to write. And it fizzles out.
Why? As Blake Snyder says, we’ve simply fallen in love with an inspiration. That’s all it is. There’s no story there yet mostly because we haven’t yet come up with a story. All we’ve got is a guy standing in the rain on a blacktop and a feeling that this is a story. It’s gossamer. It’s not a story because we haven’t taken the time to think beyond this image very much.
I’ve got a student in a class I’m teaching at present who I think is at this stage. He’s an extremely gifted writer, but the story he’s worked on for a long time now isn’t working. I suspect it’s because he hasn’t yet thought out a story. He has an idea for a story, but ideas aren’t stories. There are infinite numbers of story ideas floating around and most of them will never become stories because they never progress beyond that stage. That image of that road.
I don’t think this man will mind if I use his story as an example. I’m not going to name him and only the other students will know who he is should they read this, and he’s a very confident writer—as he should be—totally without ego and with a ton of talent, approaching brilliance, so I don’t think he’ll mind at all.
His image of THE SMELL OF THE RAIN ON THE ROAD AT DAWN is of a young man, who upon the occasion of his twenty-first birthday discovers he’s been adopted. I don’t know if this is an image he’s gained from a real-life event or just one he’s imagined, but it doesn’t matter.
A powerful image. One that lends itself to all kinds of dramatic possibilities. However, I don’t believe our writer hasn’t thought much beyond how that will translate into a story. Is there a story there? Well, sure. I just don’t think he’s thought what that story will be. He’s been inspired by a glimpse at a dramatic moment in a life and senses there’s a story there. The problem is, he needs to find 400 pages of material to tell this story in, and I don’t think he has more than ten pages at most at this point. He hasn’t thought much beyond the guy finding out about the lie his adoptive parents have told him all of his life and his first reaction—getting drunk and/or getting into a fight. I suspect he hasn’t gone much beyond that in his mind, other than some vague idea of going through some kind of murky struggle to resolve his problem. In fact, when he began this story in class, he admitted this was the case, when he told me it “was a work in progress and changes on a daily basis” and that he’d “only started this a few weeks ago” and “was still trying to write his way into it, if that makes sense.” As I told him; no, it doesn’t make sense. He’s posing himself an almost impossible task to try to fill the 350-400 pages a novel requires with no more than this.
This is a story doomed to failure, I’m afraid. And, I think it’s a very apt illustration of what happens to most of us when we begin a story with only “The smell of the rain…” image in our minds. The story peters out. We think up one, maybe two things that our protagonist will go through, and then our imaginations dry up. What usually happens is that at this point, another story idea presents itself and in much the same way as this one did, and we’re off in pursuit of that one, planning someday to return to the original one.
Before we know it, we have a dozen unfinished novels sitting in our file cabinet.
The problem is, the image we begin with is so powerful to us that we think that building a story around it will be easy. It is… for about three or four pages into a short story and perhaps ten-twelve pages into a novel. Sometimes, we can even get as far as 70-80 pages of a novel completed before we run out of steam. What’s happened is as Snyder says, “That flash of scent, sight, and sound makes us think we’re onto something.” We may be… but not yet. What we need to do is to take that image into a work that makes sense to others.
That means… hard work.
I suspect many of us who write are looking for easy answers. Secrets. Here’s a writing secret: There are no secrets. It’s hard work. If it was easy to write well, subsidy and vanity presses wouldn’t have any business. That’s the only easy way there is to achieve print. All it takes is a checkbook… and no pride. Or a misguided sense of what constitutes quality writing.
First, that image you have is basically just the logline. You’re kind of putting the cart before the horse to begin a novel with just that. A short story can be tackled without nearly as much forethought as a novel, although I’d still recommend giving it some thought before putting pen to paper. But, a novel, in my opinion, requires a lot of planning and thought before sitting down in front of the computer to be successful.
In my own case, I have to mull over a novel for about two years before I begin writing it. That may or may not work for others—we each have what works for us and it’s not the same for everyone. Don’t take that as a literal timeline. I don’t think about a novel for two years, then sit down and write it, send it out, and then start thinking about the next one for two years, then… I’ve always got multiple novel ideas running around in my mind—at any given time at least four or five—so whenever I finish one, I’ve got several more I’m ready to plunge into. And, many times, I’m working on several novels at the same time. In fact, at this moment in time, I’m rewriting three novels and working on two new ones. But, I would never begin a novel a week after coming up with an idea. That would be the way to failure, at least in my case. I know from experience that a story of that length needs time to mature and for me to work out the logic of it and see if it’s indeed, a story that will occupy my interest for the length of time it takes to write it. Make no mistake—it’s hard work to write a novel and I wouldn’t enter into that fray unless I was as prepared as I could be.
And that’s what I suggest for those who get that “Smell of the rain…” kind of image and inspiration for a novel. Sit on it for awhile. Think about it. Kick the tires. See if it has legs. See if you can see any depth in it. If something else comes up and diverts your attention away from it, that probably means the idea really wasn’t novel-worthy to begin with. But… the idea that won’t go away, that begs to be told, that begins to unfold in your imagination over a period of time of at least a month or two and hopefully even longer—that’s probably an idea that has legs and one you can run that marathon with. Keep in mind that ideas are cheap. They’re everywhere. There are at least as many ideas as there are politicians who will promise you something and promise you it won’t cost anything. Legions of ideas…
If you do that one thing—let that “Smell of the rain…” image percolate for at least a month at minimum—and at the end of the month it still burns that white-hot heat it had when it first came to you, then you might just have an idea you can spend the time and energy on that it will take you to fill up nearly a ream of paper. If it “disappears” from your thoughts for long stretches of time, what you probably had was just a gossamer. Go with the idea that won’t let you go.
And then, when it becomes a bestseller and you’re on the Letterman show, you can do what Snyder advises. Use it as a story to tell on the show about how you came up with the idea.
Just keep in mind always that whenever you get one of those “Smell of the rain on the road at dawn” moments, that it’s just the start of an idea and that’s all. As we say in poker, “Don’t bet the rent money on it.” Not until it won’t let you go and you have no choice but to write it or seek therapy.
And get Snyder’s books. They’re amazing! I’d buy them in the order they were written as each builds on the last. You can order them here:
2. Save the Cat! Strikes BackSave the Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into... and Out Of