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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

unconventional writing tip numero dos: look for the absurdity in life

Yup, that's my next tip. Find the absurdity in the little things.

I've blogged before about how I think writers should go big when they're drafting. This is somewhat related.

Sometimes your story is just chugging along.  Plot Point A led to Twist B led to Revelation C just like you had planned. But even the most tightly plotted story can feel boring if there isn't a little bit of WTF thrown in for good measure.

Take Gone Girl for example. (Spoilers to follow)

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What if Gone Girl had just been a story about a wronged woman who set out to frame her husband for her own murder? What if every scheme had been perfectly executed, and then deliciously foiled, with Amy and Nick cleverly outmaneuvering and remaneuvering (not a word and I'm keeping it) each other at every turn?

Would it still be as compelling?

Maybe ...

The thing is, when you ask people what they remember from Gone Girl, I bet they mention a couple of key elements.

1. The Cool Girl Speech

2. Amy's reference to women "cleaning and bleeding" in commercials, and how she thought about that when she was mopping up her own blood

3. The Amazing Amy books and Amy's deluded, enabling parents

4. The oddball relationship between twins Nick and Margo (her licking the rim of his dirty stein in their bar and saying, "Here you are, my prince" will be forever stuck in my brain)

5. The bonkers ending

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(End of spoilers)

The twists and turns of Gone Girl are what kept people up at night, turning page after page, but it was the weirdness that made it stick.

Personal story time: A few weeks ago, I went to Aspen for a lawyer conference. As part of this conference, there was an optional service project. This is pretty par for the course with these types of conferences -- after all, who doesn't love to give back? Most of us signed up.

We were going to be cleaning a school and on Saturday morning we loaded up into a few vans and took off. A friend of mine, who had been on the committee organizing the conference, confided that when folks had begun researching potential service projects in Aspen, they quickly discovered that Aspen was pretty well set on that front. (Who knew? When you're a crazy expensive resort town, you tend to not have too many needy residents.)

So we drove to a slightly-less-wealthy town and pulled up to this preschool. And it took about five minutes to realize that, no, this was not a school for lower income kids. This was just ... a nice, private preschool. For middle class and wealthy children.

As the parent organizer handed out rakes and brooms, she explained that the parents really appreciated the help as most of them had two jobs and just didn't have the time to volunteer themselves.

So 20-30 young lawyers and their conference guests dug holes (for what reason?), moved rocks (again, why?), washed windows, and raked a Japanese Zen garden into the sandbox while a few kids zipped around on their trikes and their parents genially supervised our work.

And we grumbled about the fact that these parents probably should have just organized a weekend cleaning party themselves. Or hired one maintenance guy and patted themselves on the back for being "job creators."

And we grumbled about the fact that we'd taken vacation time from our jobs helping wealthy people to ... help different wealthy people, but for free.

As Diego and his boyfriend swept the road from the gate up to the playground (they were asked to sweep the road. really.), a woman came by with a water bottle in her hand and said, "Oh thank you! You have no idea what it's like to walk up this dusty road every day."

Even the woman realized what a ridiculous statement that was because after a beat of awkward silence, she turned around and walked away.

And when we were done, we packed our dusty, slightly sweaty selves back into the van and went back to our hotel to listen to an hour-long panel discussion about motion practice in court.

You know what makes this mildly amusing anecdote worth telling, in my opinion?

Its sheer ridiculousness.

It would be kind of funny if a group of teenagers had to rake leaves at a wealthy kids school for a punishment. It's REALLY FUNNY when lawyers do it because they were under the impression that it was a service project.

It would be a little funny to ask someone to sweep dust off a road--it's REALLY FUNNY when a woman in Hoity Toity, Colorado (pop 13,000 and not a real place) thinks walking on a dusty road is a hardship.

It's kind of funny if a service project was so unnecessary that organizers asked volunteers to dig random holes and move random rocks, but it's REALLY FUNNY when the volunteers have enough time to rake a Japanese Zen garden in a sandbox.

Those moments in life when things have gotten so ridiculous, you just want to laugh?

Remember those moments, and then look for places to put them into your story. It's the weirdness that will make it feel real.



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