Thursday, October 20, 2011

Red Alert

"So, I had an idea."

"That's an improvement.  Let's hear it."

"OK, here it goes.  So we start in the middle of the action, to make it dynamic."

"Right, right.  This automatically makes it dynamic."

"It damn sure does, now listen."

"I'm listening!"

"Right, in the middle of the action, and the guy is on a space ship."

"A spaceship?  Really?"

"Yes, really.  You don't like it?"

"Well I don't know.  Is it a cliche?  I don't know if spaceships are cliche or not."

"Well they might be.  They might very well be.  But there's no law against cliches."

"There kind of is.  That's kind of why they call them cliches.  They are things to be avoided."

"Maybe so, but I'm not going to avoid writing about outer space just because Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and whoever wrote about outer space fifty years ago.  Space is fertile ground."

"It's a fertile space."

"It sure is.  Now, he's on a spaceship."

"Or a space station?"

"It could be a space station, too.  I can make it a space station if you'd like.  If that's less of a cliche."

"I'm not sure it is, but I think I like it better."

"Well if you like it better, it just might be better.  I'll change it, just for you."

"Well, it might not be better, but let's run with it.  See where it goes."

"Where it goes, right.  In the middle of the action."

"Just what is the action, exactly?"

"I'm getting to the action!"

"OK, OK!  The action's very important you see."

"I do see.  Anyway, there's an emergency."

"Go on."

"It's a really bad emergency.  The spaceship is melting, and there's hundreds of people trapped inside."

"The space station is melting?"

"It sure is."

"Wow, that is bad.  Really, really bad."

"Not something you want to stick around for, right?"

"I think I'd try to get far away from that."

"Well here's the thing.  This guy can't."


"Can't get away, you see."

"I do see.  Why can't he get away?"

"Here's the deal: he's running through the corridors of the spaceship."

"Running, running, I see it."

"And everyone else is running, trying to get away."

"To the escape pods?"

"Exactly, there's escape pods all along the rim of the ship, all the other guys are running to them, it's super chaotic."

"Very exciting.  So, he doesn't make it to an escape pod?"

"No, no, hang on a sec.  So you see, while he's running, things are just starting to melt, the air conditioning or whatever's knocked out."

"I don't think they have air conditioners in space."

"They do, it can get very hot.  Anyway, there's lights flashing and alarms blaring and shit's melting, everywhere."

"Very tense, very tense."

"It's super tense."

"Do we want to start out that tense?"

"We absolutely do, because it's just one long, slow, release of tension after that."

"Is that a good idea?"

"It is a great idea, which you will quickly see if you let me tell you the story."

"I am listening.  You know I'm listening."

"I guess so.  So it's really tense, and the alarm is blaring something over and over, like 'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"


"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Yeah, I see how that could get very tense."

"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Ok, stop now.  Please, stop."

"Well that's the point, man.  It's a verbal refrain throughout the story, and it starts out really frequent, and it becomes less frequent and more distorted as the story progresses and the ship is melting and everything's breaking down."

"I get that.  But I think you could explain that without saying it over and over to me."

"Maybe, but I'm trying new things here."

"Do you really want to just write 'Red Alert, Red Alert,' over and over in the middle of the action?"

"Yes, I do.  You know, used correctly, repetition can be a very powerful literary tool."

"Is this what you're going for, a leitmotif?"

"Yeah, I guess so.  It's very arty."

"Very.  So, he's running, and everything's going all 'Red Alert' at him, and he can't make it to an escape pod."

"No, no, man, he gets to the escape pod.  You're not listening."

"He does?  Why can't he get away?"

"Because the escape pod gets stuck in the tube and can't launch."

"...OK, so he's trapped in the tube, and he's got to frantically find a way out?"

"No, it's pretty much stuck, there's nothing he can do.  He's stuck in the escape pod and the escape pod's stuck in the tube, and everything's melting and just blaring 'Red Alert, Red Alert!" constantly in his face."

"How long is he stuck in there?"

"Pretty much right until the end.  It's a really small pod, and it's shaped kind of like a bathysphere, with lots of cool rivets and stuff and a little window on the door, so he can still see the interior of the space ship as it's melting."

"You know, I don't know about this."

"Why not?"

"It sounds like you've killed the story halfway through.  You start off in the middle of the action, and all of a sudden there's no action whatsoever.  The tension's dead."
"No no no, the action hasn't stopped.  Let me finish."

"I'm trying."

"So, like I said, the window's there on the door.  There's still action going on outside the window.  There's pipes bursting and shooting out steam, and there's some stragglers trying to get to the last pods, and the alarms are still going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' and all kinds of things like that."

"They're still doing that?"

"Yeah, but less frequently after a while, because everything's all melty and malfunctioning.  Maybe some of it gets distorted like, 'Red Aleeeerrrrt...'  and sparks start coming out  of things.  Things that shouldn't have sparks coming out of them."

"But the main character's just watching all of this, safe behind a magically heat-proof glass window?"

"Well he's not just watching it.  You see, simultaneously, there's a lot of psychological drama going on in his head."

"That's some tricky territory."

"It is, but I've got an idea on how to do it really well."

"Let's hear it."

"So at first, when there's lots of panic and things are breaking and sparking and the alarms are just constantly going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' the narration is really hectic and clipped and there's all kinds of emotion, reflecting the main character's inner state.  It's really fearful and desperate, and he's desperately pressing buttons, but nothing works, so he just gets more frustrated and afraid."

"Alright, alright."

"Then, as things progress, everything outside starts melting into a more uniform state, I guess.  Everything's just melting together, glowing red, and the alarms are dying, and everything's flowing together.  And when that happens, the narration starts getting a little more relaxed, just like the main character."

"Wait, is the main character the narrator?  Is this first person?"

"Well, no."

"So why is the narration reflecting his psychological state?"

"Huh, well...actually, that's an interesting idea."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's like he is the narrator, but he 's not narrating it as though it happened to him.  He's describing someone else, but it actually happened to him."

"Or maybe some other, more confused and opaque circumstances?"

"Maybe.  These are some good ideas, though."

"So what's the point of all that, anyway?"

"Like I said, it's a gradual release of tension.  The narrator relaxes, the main character relaxes, even the space ship relaxes as it goes from a solid into a molten state."

"And then, the escape pod is able to get free of the molten tube?"

"Hmmm...I guess it could work that way.  Actually, I was having trouble deciding how it would end."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had two ideas.  On the one hand, like that, the ship eventually melts away, and the pod is free, and he goes off to tell his story to the survivors or whoever."


"But on the other hand, the pod could start melting too, right?  And right when he thinks he's safe, all of a sudden it's getting hot, and he's starting to panic again, and he still can't get it to move and his own alarm is going 'Red Alert...'"

"Really, this again?"

"Yeah, so?"

"It seems a little... B movie, you know?"

"It's a great twist!"

"Is it?  It seems more like you're cheapening what you're going for.  Like on the one hand, there's this gradual relaxation and looseness, and then bam, you've got a gremlin on the wing."

"Is that bad?"

"It can be, if you don't do it just right."

"And what makes you so sure I won't do it right?"

"Because doing it right is hard.  You seem a lot more committed to this ending than you let on."

"Well, I think it's more interesting.  If anything, the 'safe' ending is just an escape hatch if the other one turns out to be too hard to write."

"Well, I can promise you that it will be very hard to write it well.  But if you ask me, the 'safe' ending is actually more interesting, from the right perspective."

"From what perspective, exactly, is 'the lone survivor goes off to tell his tale' an interesting ending?"

"Well, not the telling of the tale, that's for sure.  But the survival aspect is more interesting on its face than a cheap cliffhanger."

"I don't see suffocating in a melting escape pod as a cliffhanger.  Once that pod starts melting, he's as good as dead.  Everyone knows he's not getting rescued."

"Alright, fair enough.  But does that contrast too much with your theme?"

"My theme?"

"That gradual release of tension you're so excited about.  The reason you start in the middle of the action, and then halfway through switch to trapping your protagonist in a box so he can watch everything through a window."

"Well, death is the ultimate release of tension."

"Really?  You're going with that?"

"And why not?"

"Look, I don't know if that's a cliche, but it should be.  It is cut from the very same cloth."

"I don't think you understand how cliches work.  Every cliche was original once, and most of them started off as good ideas."

"Well, going on one long slide from tense to relaxed, then tensing up at the very end with only an implied relaxation afterward, is not a good idea."

"It's a better idea than just letting the protagonist live after all that.  What's his struggle? What's he done to safeguard his life?  There's no danger!"

"Well, there's no more danger in certain death than in probable survival."

"I guess my story's screwed either way, then?  Who'd have guessed I could write a story about a man nearly melting to death in the vacuum of space, and fail to put him in the slightest bit of danger?"

"Look, forget the danger.  That's not my point."

"Really?  It isn't?"

"No, and it shouldn't be yours either."

"Then what is my point, sir?"

"Look, your story's kind of weird in its structure, but that's probably the best thing it has going for it.  You have to commit to that structure and end with a complete relaxation.  No last minute change ups, no gimmicks."

"Well, it could be possible to still kill the guy without necessarily tensing the story up again.  He could be resigned to death."

"You could do it that way, but if you ask me the story works a lot better as a metaphor for birth than death."


"Well, you don't have to spell out what corresponds to what.  But the journey out of the space station into the vacuum of space is like the journey from the womb into the wider world."

"Suddenly we have shades of 2001 in here.  Are you sure this is original?"

"This is nothing like 20012001 was an epic on an epochal time scale.  This is all a brief moment in time."

"Alright, I guess I can see it like that."

"But in order for the birth metaphor to really stick, the protagonist has to live.  Do you see what I'm talking about?"

"Huh.  Well, I suppose the story could be about that."

"It seems a lot stronger to me."

"But on the other hand, not every birth is successful."


"Things can go wrong, and the baby won't survive."

"You want to throw a stillbirth angle into this?"

"I want the story to be interesting, man.  There are lots of stories about birth and new life and all that jazz.  Who's ever told a story about an unsuccessful pregnancy, told from the perspective of the baby?"

"I thought it was about a man trying to get off of a melting space station."

"It's about whatever the metaphor is."

"Well at a certain point it becomes about bad taste."

"Have it your way, then.  He floats off in his pod, with the melting wreckage receding into the distance, safe and sound."

"Who's safe and sound?"

"The man in the escape pod, obviously."

"That's what I thought."

"That opens up an interesting visual possibility, too.  I imagine the space ship would sort of congeal into a gleaming silver ball.  Maybe it hardens back into a solid sphere as he leaves?"

"I'm not sure I see how that fits with the metaphor, though."

"People can interpret it however they like.  I just think that a giant ball of molten steel would look terrific.  It could glisten like a great big jewel, or a pearl or something.  It's got to symbolize something."

"I guess I can't argue with that."

"It'll be pretty difficult to do the image justice, though."

"By the way, why is everything melting?"

"You know, I haven't the slightest idea."

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