So for those of you who may have missed it I wrote this post a while back entitled Pretend Stories: Sage Advice for Writers from a Three-Year Old. In it I referenced the spontaneous stories my greatest writing teacher and my three-year old son, Max, demands from me almost on a daily basis, and how they have become extremely illuminating into the elements from which good stories are made.
Well today came another lesson.
As we were driving home, my son, nursing a cold, said, “Daddy, can you please tell me a pretend story?” Traffic was crap, we were almost home and I have to admit I wasn’t really in the mood, but I of course dove in, mostly because my son said “please” and that is truly one of the most powerfully persuasive words that can possibly come from your three-year old. Anyway, I opened up my brain and started telling the “pretend story”. It was a story about a jelly doughnut who had no jelly in his belly and went searching for the jelly pond. I dunno. My main intention was simply to prolong the story long enough until we got home, yet in an inspired move I started rhyming the lines in a kind of limerick way.
My son, wise to my ways, of course, halted me at once and declared, “That’s a poem not a story!” We’ve had this discussion before you see, but actually feeling pretty good about the opening lines I shot back, “This is a poem that is a story!” This seemed to work and he let me continue.
It was good stuff. I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. And no, I’m not bragging. Had a nice rhyme scheme working, AAB, CCB, DDC, all sorts of obstacles, allies, enemies, I was really cooking and the story was actually propelling along nicely, the doughnut was flying all over the place landing on skyscrapers and airplanes and rocket ships and then something happened…
I have to admit, I don’t even know where it happened, but suddenly Max stopped me with a powerful, “No!”
I stopped and asked what the problem was.
He said, “It’s not a story anymore!”
I asked why.
He said, “It’s not going forward anymore, it’s going backwards!”
I almost crashed into the back of a bus. I asked him to explain.
He just repeated himself, “It’s not a story anymore, daddy, cuz it’s going backwards not forwards.”
He was right. He was right right right. I had gotten lost in the words, in the rhyme, in the music and because of that, the story had plateaued.
And that, my fellow writers, was the lesson.
One of the most important elements of story is that it must always be escalating, propelling, driving us forward. Always. Some say, “Oh, shouldn’t there be a time of rest?” Yeah, in shitty stories. The great ones never rest. They never stop rising. How many times to do we, as playwrights, sometimes stop to perhaps indulge a thought, explore some philosophy, listen to our own beautiful words or meander on an emotion, because it feels right?
Let me answer that for you.
But Max, the Master, he knew, as he always does.
Move forward, playwrights, perpetually, the greatest plays never stop escalating, never stop barreling to their inevitable and somehow unexpected end. Never. Read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Watch it. The action never stops escalating, the stakes never stop rising.
Looking forward to my next lesson.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.