Some great stories are not conceptually driven. Jonathan Franzen’s current #1 bestseller, Freedom: A Novel, for example, is about a married couple in which the wife has a wandering eye.
Not exactly The DaVinci Code, conceptually-speaking.
More often, though, bestsellers and everything else on the rack has a conceptual energy that drives characterization and theme. The more genre-focused your story, the more this is true.
The best tool in the business to understand, empower, explore and develop a conceptual idea is the application of a specific literary device, and it’s as old as the hills. It is a question: “What if?”
Master that tool and your stories will go to the next level.
Here’s how I first encountered the realm of “what if?”
It was a dark and dreary night. No, it really was. I was seven.
That was a long, long time ago. Let’s just say the picture on the television was black and white and there was a portable antenna sitting on top of it.
I was watching the Alfred Hitchcock hour with my parents. Who apparently hadn’t read the book about exposing young children to Alfred Hitchcock.
Today that’d be like taking your toddler to see Hostel II.
Looking back, I don’t think my parents ever read a book about parenting — or a book about anything, for that matter — but that’s another story.
An hour later, as the credits rolled, I was over-the-edge terrified. Scarred for life.
Also scared witless. Enough that I had to sleep with my parents for the next week and had trouble going to sleep for the next decade. I literally couldn’t lie on my left side on a bed – for reasons that will become clear in a moment – until I left home.
For some reason that cleared up a lot of other problems for me, as well. But I digress.
Some “what if?” concepts are that powerful.
Allow me to share what I saw on that television screen.
The story took place in a prison, one of those low-security work camps with lots of barbed wire and outdoor labor. Remember, this was long before anything more sophisticated than an electric fence, so a certain lack of penal sophistication was to be expected.
The hero was a cocky young guy newly sentenced to 30 years. He had a rough time of it at first, and decided he needed to break out as soon as possible. He was played by Edd Byrnes, the James Dean lookalike who ended up on 77 Sunset Strip, which I’m sure pre-dates most of you out there.
Yeah, I’m that freaking old.
Anyhow, Edd befriended the oldest prisoner in the camp, a harmless and friendly chap who had been there over 50 years, whose job was to bury the prison’s dead in a cemetery that was – get ready for the scriptwriter convenience – outside of the prison property. Old Doc could come and go as he pleased to and from the cemetery, which is what gave Edd his Big Idea.
His own “what if?” moment, as it were.
Edd struck a deal with old Doc that when the next prisoner died, Edd would slip into the wood coffin with the dead guy in the wee hours before the burial. Doc would bury the coffin the next morning, standard procedure, with a small contingent of family and prison officials there, then come back a little later alone and dig him up.
I can’t recall if there was payment involved, or if Doc was simply willing to give someone who looked like James Dean a break… but he agreed.
Sure enough, within a few days a prisoner died. It was on.
Edd took advantage of the moment by faking an injury to his leg, allowing him to spend the night in the prison infirmary instead of his cell. In the middle of the night he snuck off to the make-shift morgue adjacent to the infirmary (more screenwriter convenience), slipped quietly into the coffin in the dim shadows, and waited.
That being the very definition of a long night.
The next sequence of shots intercut between Edd in the coffin and an exterior view. He lit matches to check his watch, revealing the shrouded profile beneath a thin sheet right next to his face, narrating aloud what he believed was happening as he felt himself being moved.
Already creepy, ya think? My parents were too busy lighting cigarettes to notice.
Finally there was a shot of the empty pick up leaving the cemetery grounds. Suddenly things got very quiet for poor Edd.
After a while our hopeful hero began to get nervous.
Checking his watch, exclaiming aloud how Doc ought to be back by now… maybe he’s digging…
… intercut with a shot of the cemetery and the fresh grave…
… Edd, understandably, began to get downright agitated. Soon he was clawing at the wooden lid of his coffin, screaming… then thrashing.
And that’s when it happened.
The money shot. In his thrashing Edd kicked the sheet off the body next to him.
It was Doc.
And I was traumatized for life.
Of course, decades later I realized such a story could not have been written in an organic fashion, that the idea – that money shot, the concept – was the driving force that empowered the entire story.
It was a killer “what if?” moment.
And it totally killed any hope I had for a healthy outlook on dying and the ritual of all things funereal. I never got that story out of my head – ever – as I grew toward one day becoming a writer.
As a footnote, I’m done writing about caskets.
In my last post I promised that the follow-up would be on that topic – here it is – but I’m done.
Because as I said to close that article, caskets still creep me out. Even when they’re in trucks. Passing that 18-wheeler is as close as I want to come to one.
Now you know why.
Coming Monday – great news for all of us who aren’t currently A-list authors from Publishers Weekly. The industry is changing… and we just caught a break!