by Michael Allen Dymmoch
I spend a shameful amount of time watching commercials. My favorites are the “priceless” Master Card ads, especially the one with the elephant, and the Verizon wireless network come-ons with the “Can-you-hear-me-now?” guy leading his minions. Capital One had a good thing going with the pillagers, and the Frog Prince take-offs were cute the first dozen repeats, but their family-on-a-hobo-vacation campaign was pretty lame. Volkswagen’s circa 1070 campaign—“Ever wonder what the guy who drives the snow plow drives...?”—is still in my head. And their more recent “Round for a reason” series was entertaining.
What ads have to do with writing fiction—beyond the fact that most are entirely fictitious—is that the best commercials are short stories, thirty or sixty second movies aimed at holding your attention—or at least keeping you from hitting the remote--and at getting you to buy something. (And I did, recently, purchase a VW.) Writing good short stories is hard. (Not that great writers don’t make them read as if they’ve fallen from the lips of God.)
In his educational and extremely entertaining book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet deconstructed Jack in the Beanstalk with a five step outline for screenwriters that could as easily be used as a guide for writing short stories, even novels:
“ONCE UPON A TIME....
AND THEN ONE DAY...
AND JUST WHEN EVERYTHING WAS GOING SO WELL...
WHEN JUST AT THE LAST MINUTE...
AND THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”
Filling in between the headers is the trick. In a short story, every detail is crucial. Even in novels the trick is deciding which details to include. To quote Edmund White: “Because a novel—these words—is shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living.... Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added.” (The Beautiful Room is Empty)
I was asked to write catalog copy for my next novel (currently without a title as my editor dislikes MIA). What is catalog copy but advertising—a story told in service of seduction? Being better able to appreciate ads than write them, I’ve used Mamet’s outline as my guide. See what you think.
“ONCE UPON A TIME” there was a happy family, the Faheys—Mickey, his wife Rhiann, and stepson, Jimmy.
“AND THEN ONE DAY” Mickey died. Rhiann was nearly paralyzed by grief. Jimmy started cutting school and drinking.
“AND JUST WHEN EVERYTHING WAS GOING SO WELL” Deputy Sinter, an old friend of Mickey’s, showed up and tried to hit on Rhiann. John, a mysterious stranger, moved in next door, offering Rhiann beer and sympathy, giving Jimmy help with his car and an after school job.
Jimmy decided to dig around the roots of his family tree. While visiting estranged relatives, he ran into Steve, a high school friend of Jimmy’s mother and birth father. Jimmy also met a cute girl and got in over his head with her.
Jimmy’s involvement with his relatives led Rhiann to revisit relationships from long ago and wonder what became of old friends and lovers.
Jimmy crashed his car and ended up in intensive care.
John donated blood. He gave Rhiann rides, help around the house, comfort.
Creepy deputy Sinter tried to discredit John, then tried to beat him to death. Rhiann came to John’s rescue with her dead husband’s gun. She discovered John was not what he’d seemed.
Which led her to investigate him. And see him in a different light altogether.
Which led Sinter to try to kill them both, ending up in jail.
Jimmy came home from the hospital. He tried to elope with his girlfriend, was nearly beaten to death by her father, then rescued by Rhiann and John. Their lives all seemed to be changing for the better.
“WHEN JUST AT THE LAST MINUTE,” creepy deputy Sinter, out on bail, went after Rhiann again...
This is a novel, not a fairy tale. I’ll leave it to you to read the book (spring 2008, Title TBA) and decide whether I followed the outline to an end where “THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”
So what do you think? Would you buy this book? Or should I give up advertising and stick to novels?