Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lessons from TV Guide

One of my lightbulb moments in my early days of learning to write fiction was when someone likened a book pitch to a TV Guide description. Pitching stories or figuring out what they were about at their core was new to me. Reading the TV Guide was not.

The Terminator was on TV the other night and reading its description on the channel guide I was reminded of this again, and it got me thinking about the issues I’m still having with my current WIP. Finding that through line. That core thing that the book is about.

It’s hard work to tell a simple story and I’m deep in the midst of that hard work. I’ve got all these difficult emotional obstacles for the character, I've got a complicated world I don’t fully understand yet, and lots of possible subplots, some that could be in this book and some that could be in sequels. And it’s all a jumbled up mess in my head.

Then I read this: A killing machine from the future is sent back in time to destroy the woman who will eventually become the mother of a 21st-century resistance leader.

There’s no mention of the fact that there’s a man also sent back who’s not only the rebel leader’s best friend but also unknowingly becomes his father. There’s no mention of why the war happened that caused the machines to take over. In fact, there’s no mention of machines at all, except for “killing machine” which, well, doesn’t necessarily imply a machine. Because as soon as you say, “It’s a machine,” that opens up tons of questions we don’t need the answers to, in order to get what this story is about.

It’s about a killing machine, sent back through time to kill the mother of a future resistance leader  to make sure he’s never born. It’s about her survival and the importance of her survival. It’s not about man vs. machine (although it is). It’s not about the dangers of technology and artificial intelligence (although it is). It’s not about falling in love in high pressure situations (although it is). It’s not about saving the world…. You get the point.

While all those other twists and details are what made The Terminator such an interesting and well-loved movie that’s become a classic, all those elements are just details. At its core, it’s about the girl surviving so the resistance leader can be born. I think there’s a lesson in there for me right now. Just not sure what it is, yet. LOL.


Kwana said...

Great post Maureen. Thanks!

Sinead M said...

I've been thinking a lot about that through line as well. Right now I believe that the more complex your world, and story, the simpler that through line needs to be.
It's what keeps us grounded amongst plot twists and world details.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Great post. I absolutely think having that basic storyline is so important. But more so in fiction.

In mystery it's always going to be solving the mystery. In romance it's always going to be falling in love.

For those two genres you can decorate them all you want - but at their core that's what they must be. A riddle to solve. Emotional conflict to overcome in order to find love.

I think sometimes that's where I go wrong in romance. I can forget that central story while I get lost in everything else.

But with fiction, YA, SF, anything else I do think you need to find that central core as the starting point from which everything else springs.

P.S. Day 4 of writing/vacation/marathon... procrastination sets in. Like Maureen said yesterday - slap me if I post again before I've reached page 10.

Cecilia Grant said...

I am in awe of the people who write those TV Guide synopses. I would have totally cluttered it up with the robots and the romance. I wish I had that ability to distill a story to its essential thread.

Eileen said...

Simplicity. Clarity. Perspective.

If those were easy to achieve, my entire life would be better.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I've been thinking about this all day. And I think that tag line was probably the very first thing James Cameron thought of and he added all that stuff, but had the throughline in his head the whole way through. And part of me thinks that's impossible - really, the only way we totally know our throughline is at the end of the book. But when you're dealing with high concept world stuff - having that talisman while you're working - probably pretty handy.

People ask me what this single title is about and the only through line I have is the heroine's character arc and now that I've just sort of finished the hero's I have a bit of a grasp on that - so sometimes you get it upfront I suppose and sometimes you have to wrestle it to the end.

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