The Thing has been on my mind lately. I read the screenplay for The Thing before I watched the movie. You may remember the film: crazy in-camera horrifying animation, eighties special effects at their best before CGI took over. I read the script because I was doing research on thriller/horror stories that take place predominantly in one locale. I later wrote a feature script that used this device. It came out decently enough for a first draft, but it’s on the back burner until I feel up to a revision. I’m not sure when that will be.
I was impressed at how much I enjoyed reading the screenplay. It was well-paced, scary, with dialogue that moved the story along quite well. That’s why I went to my hometown video store to try to rent the movie over one of my college breaks. I remember the guy behind the counter looking at me with an odd expression on his face. I had found a copy of the Thing somewhere in the back of the store. It was a VHS, but they had it. “You want to rent that?” He said to me and I told him that I did, to which he replied, “You can buy it.” I asked him for how much and he looked at the tape for a moment before saying, “One dollar?”
I find that story amusing. Anyway, I watched it with my brother and my dad, and they were a little grossed out, which is saying a lot because nothing grosses my brother out, except, I learned, “that kind of eighties animation.” The point of this anecdote is to say that the execution of the film may not be for everybody, but the script itself is a great example of building tension without going anywhere. The Thing takes place in the Antarctic at an expedition base and the story revolves around a team of scientists who are confronted by an alien that takes the form of the people that it kills.
I’m a big fan of stories that can be told (well) while staying in one location, but that mostly applies to films and screenplays. It can save on a budget, but still showcase a filmmaker’s talents, which is something a writer of a novel does not need to think about in the same way. I did, however, use this knowledge while planning out my current novel project. Even if you aren’t planning to film your story, the concept of location is a big one and you can run into it on a small scale-basically in every chapter. Questions like, should I make my characters meet at location B or should I have them just stay in location A? come up every day.
When I was planning out my current story I had some trouble deciding on location. I had my story beginning in a small town in New Jersey and then moving elsewhere. I had trouble deciding how my main character would get there and what would force her to go there. I also realized that my setting was going to be a huge aspect of my story. After that, I realized that the town she begins in is the one she needs to stay in. But let me clarify here, while I contracted the geographical scope of my story, I still move my character from one place (metaphorically and physically) to another by the end of what I’m calling my first act. I just realized that I didn’t need her to travel hundreds of miles to get there.
If you’re writing a story where there is travel involved, just get there in a timely fashion because the overall point here is actually the issue of time, not wasting time. Once I started paying attention to how much time or how many pages it takes for characters in the beginning of a story to get somewhere new I was a little surprised at how consistently fast it actually happens, definitely within the “first act” and sometimes much faster than that.
On the other side of things is taking characters to places where they don’t need to go right now, i.e. not having a justifiable reason for taking them somewhere new. In an earlier draft of chapter 7 I had my main character travel to a part of town that she wasn’t supposed to be in, but this was confusing and unnecessary since I have the entire book to open up that world to her. Instead, I now have a character come to her, which is equally as mysterious, but keeps the story feeling tighter and better paced. As I write I try to ask myself before I commit to a chapter, “What is happening here that is special and different from this character’s everyday life before this story began? What am I showing in this chapter that will help move the story along?” And finally, “If I am setting up characters or their world, do I really need this chapter to show that dynamic?” If I can’t answer those questions with some confidence, then something may be amiss.
So this relates to today because I was working on my new draft of chapter 7. I realized that part of what bothered me yesterday was that I had copied and pasted part of the earlier chapter draft into the new draft instead of re-writing the whole thing, which is what needed to happen. So today I cut out three pages and pasted them into a document that I named “Chapter 7 Excerpt 3-23-10” and I wrote one full, fresh page. It feels so much better and so much more “right.” Also, I didn’t have to delete anything forever, and that chapter excerpt can stay in a safe place in case I ever want to look at it again.
I wrote less, but it was a much better writing day.