Expanding the cast, juggling the spotlight, and pictures not words.

I’m actually here, at 8pm on the dot which is amazing. I told myself earlier today that I’d come back to the screen at 8 and about ten minutes ago I thought, “Oh, I’ll just have a hot shower first, get the ideas running.” For some reason running water really does kick-start creativity. Tonight it didn’t help. Oh, it helped a little, I’m primed, ready to begin but I’m kicking around too many story ideas. It’s difficult to settle on one thing to work toward tonight.

Earlier today I wondered how writers channel their emotions when they are writing. In the past I’ve done things like write particularly angst-riddled poetry or shorts full of angry jerks. Sometimes I’d write a diatribe that denounced the sins of the world. For the most part I’ve kept all that under wraps and it’ll stay there because the things written in that turmoil really were garbage. It’s great to offload the emotions like that but terrible to dump them on to unsuspecting readers.

But tonight, I’m trying to offset the turmoil so that I can focus on creating something brilliant. Except I’m running around in circles, uncertain where to start. Part of me wondered if these emotions could be channelled in to a character. I glanced, with fleeting fancy, at FoT. Swiftly moved on because I love that story and it doesn’t feel right to use this energy there.

Instead, I moved on to thinking of channelling that darkness into Funny Signs. I’m back to calling it Funny Signs because I really loved my idea of the generations of humans wandering the universe in search of Habitable Space and so that name is reserved. The Goldilocks Zone is still a maybe but to be honest, Funny Signs is more about here, Earth, than what is out there. The fact that the aliens come from there really isn’t enough to claim a title. So, for the moment it continues to be Funny Signs and undoubtedly a more suitable title will come as I get to know the full picture better. But, just imagine the tension and anger I’ve been feeling today as the driving force of those aliens. Anger, resentment, malice. What could possibly drive them to feel that way about the Earth? I like letting the feeling settle in to them. It makes them darker, more menacing, more of a threat and a real antagonist.

One of the aspects of this story that has concerned me is the conspiracy angle. Obviously, if anyone half-authoritative makes a claim that aliens are coming then all sorts of nut-jobs are going to come out of the woodworks. So, we’d have conspiracy theorists, and alien worshippers. I keep picturing the kind of chaos that happened on the roof tops in Independence Day. The whole idea of meeting extraterrestrials is intriguing and so there would be some kind of quasi-chaos that evolves from that. But I was picturing big open fields of nothingness so trying to reconcile that image with Washington D.C. is challenging. I admit, I know next to nothing about Washington D.C. I’ve never been there. It’s the place where the politicians of America hang out. But I get the impression that it’s very metropolitan, very city, rather than wide open country. I guess I need to do some research for location to get a better idea in my head about what is available there.

Washington D.C. does however, make for very classy spy-version conspiracy. So, perhaps, rather than announcing to the world that aliens are coming, Percy could leak it to a closed circle. Perhaps the government puts a lid on it quickly enough to prevent mass hysteria. Instead of open fields covered in caravans and tents we’d have shadowy warehouses and average-Joe, suit and tie, CIA-types with all the associated secrecy.

See how dark this is getting? But I’m actually liking it which surprises me given the mood I came into this with. And the great thing about the dark CIA-secrecy angle is it is just screaming for a humorous counter in some loud and wild conspiracy theorist. You know the sort, all hawaiian shirt and down with the government. Think Mozzie from White Collar, or Sam Axe from Burn Notice.

It just occurred to me that this is all very masculine. I can’t picture a woman in that role but it could be cool to have a female CIA-agent. I was also thinking of a female research assistant. I didn’t want to risk falling backwards into a love story between the research assistant and the widowed father. It might devalue the whole family values angle to have a still grieving father falling for his assistant. The bond between father and son needs to be mended before either of them would be ready for that. But she could still work. She could even have her own unrequited crush going on. She’d be brainy which makes for a good modern woman; added to the strong CIA lady we have two very powerful, twenty-first century females that could balance out the brawn.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve always faced with my writing is juggling. It feels great to pull together a couple of lead characters but when you add the supporting cast it gets tricky. It’s not easy to give everyone the light each character deserves. Each character has his or her own backstory and their own significance. Finding the balance between supporting role and leading lady can be difficult. After all, in real life, we are the heroes of our own story. If you think about it, there really are no supporting roles. In movies, however, there has to be a spotlight and everyone else is just the filter. It becomes a game to try to juggle the roles so that they come together to build one solid story instead of wandering off into tangents of the lives of many.

I think that is where t.v. shows have more leeway. You still have a main cast but you have more freedom to wander in and out of the lives of the supporting cast. Over time we get to know a larger assembly. In Castle for example, you have Castle and Beckett, clearly in the spotlight. But over the seasons we’ve gotten to know the beautiful Alexis, Castle’s daughter; his mother, Martha; and agents Esposito and Ryan. Even the lovely Lanie has stood out and grown as a character in her own right. In a movie, it is important to limit the spotlight because there is just not enough time to run all the side stories. And still, it is important to avoid cookie cutters or cardboard. These characters need to feel real, tangible. Like I said, it’s a juggling act and I’m still not very good at juggling.

Getting back to Funny Signs, we have a growing cast. The father, (currently Graeme or George); the son, Percy; the aliens (indistinct for the moment); research assistant; CIA agent; conspiracy theorist. It’s not too many. I’ll probably throw in a research partner too. Someone to create a counterpoint for Graeme because the father needs a ground, someone male because the research assistant doesn’t give me that rock vibe. Yes, she’s solid and dependable, a brilliant scientist and firm friend but she’s not his mate (in the Australian sense of a best friend or buddy). If the partner is more light-hearted he could also show the contrast between who Graeme was before his wife died and the stick-in-the-mud he’s become since.

You know, there is some fantastic development going on here. I’m liking most of it. But I still don’t SEE the story unfolding. There are no scenes jumping out at me, begging to be written. I have characters however, which is a great start. I’m trying to think back at my writing in the past. I’ve taken too long a hiatus that it’s all fuzzy memory at the moment. But, I’ve always had this struggle to pull away the veil and really see into the story. I think that’s why I always tend to start with the characters. Because, by having characters, I have some way to communicate from this side of the wall, over the wall and into the story. Not that it is a piece of cake to get the characters talking to me. Half the time I’m arguing with myself, trying to pull the details out. It’s frustrating. Why can’t I see things clearly? Perhaps it’s because I’m always so wrapped up in the words, in the writing. Even now, every time I pause to let my mind wander I think, “I should be writing”, but thinking, daydreaming is a big part of writing.

So, time to close my eyes and ask for scenes. Specific scenes.

* Percy and Graeme – there needs to be some sort of tense confrontation to show that their relationship is strained and that the father is overworked, the boy is neglected and lonely.
* Percy looking out his window through the telescope – shadow in space
* Graeme at work – meet partner / meet assistant – show him as an astrophysicist who works too hard, is too obsessed with finding life out there, show him as brilliant, committed. Perhaps pat the dog.
* Percy creating the story – how is he planning to do that?
* CIA agent snapping down on the story
* Graeme finding out what Percy did – angry

*grimaces* Notice how these aren’t even scenes? They are events, sure, but they’re all character based. No images; no location; no action. Nothing to SEE!

Ok, pictures:

* Alien spaceship with the backdrop of a planet, on their way to Earth; perhaps passing Venus? I wonder which direction Gliese would be from Earth. I suppose the planet the alien spaceship has as a backdrop really doesn’t matter. It could be Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus; all would be equally compelling images. The ship would be advanced, smooth metals, gleaming glass. Perhaps have the ship pass through the asteroid belt with a shield that causes the asteroids to fizzle into smoke and dust. It should look powerful, menacing.

* CIA, big empty warehouse, lots of space, lots of shadows, bad fluorescent lighting. Graeme with a canvas bag over his head. He’s tied to an old wood-backed metal-framed office chair that has creaky, rusted wheels. CIA-lady is smartly dressed, tall, with black pump heels that give her an extra inch or two she doesn’t need. Pant-suit, black, obviously. Hair is a counter, blonde, a soft honey blonde, almost bimbo-blonde but she’s no light-weight. Sharp eyes, quickly assessing, compassionately cold. She has a job to do.

* The lab is top of the range. It would be interesting to see into the actual labs at Carnegie. Newest technologies, high-class, very expensive; computers, telescopes, huge observatory, whiteboards, computer simulations, pages and pages of mathematics calculations. Sara, redhead, 5’4″ dainty, petite. She’d be mousy if she weren’t so brilliant and vivacious, radiant. Obligatory white lab coat but she wears it open and underneath wears a dark blue pencil skirt, soft blue blouse. She wears kitten heels because she needs the height and those heels make her legs look stunning. Pete notices, Graeme doesn’t; Pete knows she only has eyes for Graeme. Bit of a love triangle there, two hearts beating in the wrong direction. It leaves Pete and Sara space for an attraction but I don’t know if I’ll go there, if they will.

* Dinner, something simple, reheated, doesn’t take any effort at all and tastes rather bland. A counter to the fantastic home cooking his wife used to provide and the cooking together father and son could do at the end. Percy is pushing his food around on his plate with his fork, it’s not exactly appetising. His father is buried, nose in notes, ignoring him. The notes are covering the table, only just missing the dinner plates. Complete silence between the two, Percy glances up at his father, sad eyes; father oblivious. “May I, please, have more gravy?” Graeme grunts, an acknowledgement/yes of sorts, but doesn’t take his eyes from the page. Percy kneels on his chair to reach over his plate for the gravy bowl, his elbow hits his glass of juice. Orange juice spills all over the table, glass rolls off the edge and smashes on the floor. Graeme stands up, steps backward. “Dammit, Percy! Go to your room.” Rushing to salvage papers. Percy, wide-eyed, scared. Pause. Then the boy jumps off his chair and takes off to his room. Later, he’s crying on his bed, quiet sobs, he doesn’t want his dad to hear him. Graeme in the kitchen, mopping up the mess with paper towels, he bends to pick up pieces of glass, cuts himself, swears again. There is an anguish and exhaustion in him, a sense of defeat.

Ok, three locations and a scene. That could work. I went back and added the “please” to Percy’s line. This kid is really trying to be good for his dad. I think having him be so careful around his father makes it more meaningful when he does this thing to betray his father’s trust and get his father’s attention. Especially since, he’s torn between getting his father’s attention and not being sure he really wants it. When he gets attention it’s to get yelled at so he’s both timid and yearning. Graeme overreacts, he’s strung too tightly so everything causes drama in his world, he can’t handle even little things, like a broken glass. Add that to the fact that it’s all over those papers. Important papers. Ruined papers. Somehow I need to make those papers significant to the plot. Perhaps, because they were damaged Graeme leaves them somewhere and Percy uses them to make his “aliens are coming” declaration. Somehow. What would a seven year old know of what’s on those pages. I still don’t know how he could possibly make that kind of announcement and be believed. If we made him a child genius we’d loose a vital sense of relate-ability with him. He needs to be this normal scared little boy. So how does a normal, scared little boy, tell people that aliens are coming and be believed?

He’s net gen. Perhaps he knows his way around Photoshop? If he has prints of Gliese from his father’s research he could alter those on his computer. In fact, those papers could be photographs. And initially, Percy could be cleaning them up so he can give his Dad new prints. Not that the originals wouldn’t still be on a computer, easy enough to print again. But you know, he’s seven, maybe he doesn’t realise that. Except if he’s good enough to know how to clean up a photograph with Photoshop then he’d know about digital images. It doesn’t negate the whole, doctoring an image with Photoshop thing but it definitely tempers his whole reason for grabbing those photos to begin with. I’ll think about it some more. Perhaps Graeme dumps the whole lot in the bin and Percy salvages them. I’ll let it percolate.

I’ve had a pretty productive two hours. I’m going to wrap up and make an early night of it. The sleep will do me and my mood wonders. Happy Writing!

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Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Rebecca Laffar-Smith is a publisher, children's writer, and novelist. In 2010 she gave up a successful 12-year freelance career to focus on her three loves; family, community, and fiction. She self-published her debut novel The Flight of Torque in June 2014 and the first three titles in the P.I. Penguin series in from Aulexic in May 2015. At The Craft of Writing Fiction, Rebecca shares her journey of creation and learning with readers. She loves getting to know her fellow readers and writers and can be contacted through Twitter and Facebook, or Email.

5 thoughts on “Expanding the cast, juggling the spotlight, and pictures not words.”

  1. Thank you, Darren. I really appreciate hearing from people who are wanting to read more of my blog. It helps keep me inspired to keep writing it.

    At the moment I’m swamped with study. I took on more than I could comfortably handle this study period and it means I don’t have time for anything but and keeping my kids fed, clothed and schooled, study, and sleep (and even that sometimes gets neglected). lol But I’ve decided to do a half load next study period so I should get back to blogging again in May.

    If you subscribe to my blog’s feed you’ll get updated next time I post something new. Meanwhile, there are years worth of posts about all sorts of writing in the archives so feel free to browse around. Let me know what you like and don’t like and I’ll try to cover those sorts of things in future posts.

    Thanks for reading.


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