I uncovered this poem I wrote about the Humphrey Bogart classic 1941 noir The Maltese Falcon and thought it had an intriguingly dark mystique to it (spoilers for The Maltese Falcon follow).
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Sam Spade had to turn her in
Not just because she killed his partner
Because she played him for a sap
Him and every man she’d ever been with
The Falcon was a red herring
You could argue that his heart was too
As the elevator doors eclipsed her eyes
And took her down to hell
“When a man’s partner is killed
He’s supposed to do something about it”
He slides Exhibit A to the detective
The thousand-dollar bill
She tried to buy his loyalty with
If only she had thought to buy it with something else
There’s a smile on one side of his face
The truth rests on the other
He’s just made a sacrifice
“All we’ve got is that maybe you love me
And maybe I love you.”
There’s a cigarette where her lips could be
A fedora where her hands could have rested
A collar she could’ve wrapped her arms around
A lead bundle where his heart could’ve been
He tells his secretary to have Archer’s name taken off the door
His killer’s been sent up the river for twenty to life
It was duck soap when he figured it out
But it won’t make his bed any warmer tonight
“I hope they don’t hang you, precious,
By that sweet neck”
A thought cloud forms overhead. Lightning flashes and you’re struck with the perfect premise, an eerie locale, and a clever twist. The idea is electric. You want to write it down before this thought cloud rescinds, but you’re convinced you need to write some quick character bios before you commit to draft.
Something tells you that your hero needs one of those jobs you’ve see on TV like a detective, or a lawyer, or doctor. Not because your premise demands it, but because it will feel familiar to readers. The only problem is writing about those careers requires knowledge you don’t possess.
You have no clue how to survey a crime scene. You have doubts about what the law considers a reasonable doubt, and you couldn’t do CPR to save your own life. Now before you move away from your inspiring thought cloud into a tunnel of endless research considering making your hero a writer.
Now I know, writers writing about writers is a cliché as old as writing itself, but there are a lot of benefits to centering your adventure on an author.
It’s What You Know
Writers write what they know, but all too often the subject we know most about is writing. This is why Stephen King has written so many stories about writers (I was going to count them all, but there are only so many hours in a day).
Writing is a subject you can talk about with authority. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published, if you’ve had meetings in New York, or pitched in Hollywood. You know what it’s like to wrack your brain over a single sentence that keeps giving you a hard time. You know what’s it like to draw inspiration from life events, from friends, and your surroundings. You know how writing makes you look at the world differently. You see stories in every anonymous interaction, scan your environment for hidden meanings, and see evidence of fate after the fact.
Writers are Sympathetic Characters
Writers are insufferable, grammar checking our friends. We’re longwinded, even though we know that brevity is the heart of wit, and we dominate conversation by turning them into impromptu pitch sessions. Writers may be jackasses, but we are sympathetic jackasses.
Most aspiring writers will fail. And… They… Know… It. Yup. Failure makes characters endearing. Even successful writers have a tall stack of rejection slips in their closet. Audiences find driven characters endearing, and driven failures are sympathetic.
It’s also must be said the being a writer is a lonesome vocation. Everybody gets lonely, but a writer has to be. Chuck Palahniuk may, as he claims, write at parties, but the rest of us have to go into anti-social mode to get our two thousand words daily in. Even in public we have to tune out the noise in order transcribe our internal monologues.
How many Disney movies star solitary dreamers aspiring for something more? (I was going to count, but there are only so many hours in a day). Writers, even middle-aged ones struggling to get out from an unsatisfying career, are endearing, because they cling to the hope that somehow someday someone will read what they’re working on.
Writers Know A Little About A Lot
Well-read writers have a wealth of knowledge (surface level knowledge, but enough to be useful on trivia night). If your hero is a writer, and you’re writing in the first person, your hero can educate your audience directly. They can discuss story-telling mechanics as a foreshadowing technique, and explain plot devices moments before they happen.
If you ever have to explain how your hero knows something outside the field of their expertise, you can always say they picked it up researching a story.
“I picked up knife throwing skills when I wrote about an underground circus with life and death stakes.
“I learned how to count cards when I wrote about a back alley casino where players bet souls.”
“My lock picking skill came from that story I wrote about the stalker.”
Writers Have a Mixed Relationship With the rest of Humanity
Writers are fascinated with people. That fascination isn’t always full of childlike wonderment. We’re interested in people but we don’t necessarily love them. In fact we find them perplexing. They often act outside of their interest. They undercut their best efforts, and casually hurt one another with no consideration. Their capacity for empathy blinks off then roars back on. We want to understand people because we struggle to understand ourselves and that’s endearing.
As long as your curmudgeonly wordsmith is curious about the human condition readers will find them compelling.
Everyone Wants to be One
Everyone wants to be a writer or thinks they have one good novel in them if only they had the time to write it down. They may have even kicked at the tires of drafting something. That said they might have a pretty good idea what the writing process is like or yearn to read about the extremes another author’s methods require.
Just remember: the more extravagant your hero’s writing process is the more driven they’ll seem.
Writing about a Writer Opens the Door to Meta Storytelling If your hero is a writer they can explain what it means to be an unreliable narrator and then turn around and be one. They can backhandedly refer to scenes that they decided to cut. They can point to a plot hole and promise to fill it or suffer the wrath of the reader’s intellect. They can call out their own clichés before putting a fresh spin on them.
When your hero is a writer you get to play with storytelling mechanics, break the forth wall, and put the reader on the spot. A first person story staring a writer is a dangerous thing. At any moment the hero can go rogue and tell the reader that their theories about the twist are wrong.
Making your hero a writer might feel like a cop out, but it will make your story feel authentic because you know what the job is like.
…and frankly don’t we have a enough stories about doctor, lawyers, and detectives already?
It’s said that there are many hells. Each specifically tailored to fit the damnation of the souls in question. Then it stands to reason there’s a subterranean superstore where rude people are put to work. Welcome to Retail Hell, a short story now available on Amazon.
Oppressive Situations Limit Character Development
When we meet Barbara she’s berating both a clerk behind a checkout counter and a call center representative. She’s a familiar Ebenezer Scrooge type character. She’s put through an ordeal. She has an aneurism and wakes up for her first shift in the literal Retail Hell. Just like Scrooge she’s taught empathy through supernatural means, but her journey doesn’t necessarily end with her gifting turkeys on Christmas morning.
My hell is so oppressive it leaves Barbara’s character with few places to go, other than with the flow.
I believe every story should have a change of some kind. Usually that change involves a character learning a lesson, being humbled then empowered, and rising to a challenge as a better person. BUT… Sometimes it’s the audience’s expectations of the hero that need to change. We go in thinking a toxic braggadocios brute is going to have a sense of modesty impressed upon them, and he does, but it doesn’t take. In those situations it’s the audience that goes through the change. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell→