The other day I was tasked with taking part in a writing challenge. The brain children behind this exercise are Joseph Craven and Ricky Anderson. The following is the text of an email I received from young master Craven describing the challenge:
“Oh hello there.
Earlier today, Ricky Anderson and I were chatting and he told me of an idea he had to try to get a handful of people involved in a fun little game. We would come up with a general topic and then have to write a short story about it. Nothing huge, so we don’t have to worry about making it super fancy or fully fleshed out or anything like that. Just sort of a spur of the moment thing.
Since it’s a little similar to the concept in the 48 Hour Film project, we thought, “Hey why not just basically do it the way they do?” So we will give you a general topic and three things that MUST be included. The rest is entirely up to you.
So here are the details. You only have until Friday, August 23 at noon Ricky time (mountain time) to finish the story. Exciting!
The Category: A Caper. Now, this isn’t limited to a bank heist or something (though that’s definitely an idea!), but it’s definitely not an action-hero shoot ’em up. Use your imagination with it, because it can be serious or humorous or anything you want it to be, as long as it sticks with the general concept of a character in a tight spot having to figure a way out.
Required Elements: These can be used as little or as much as you like, but must be included.
1. A rooftop
2. A custodian named Glenn
3. The line “Well, that’s not how I would have planned it.”
What follows is my attempt to craft a story which technically adheres to the rules, but which also subverts them. What is on display is my philosophy of writing, my rules for good writing:
1) Know the rules. Know when/how/why to break them. (i.e, show, don’t tell–but know when to tell)
2) Less is more. The most evocative writing leaves readers wanting more.
3) Characters must have believable motivations. If they do, oftentimes other story flaws will likely be overlooked. Otherwise, if the motivations are murky, or unbelievable, you lose your readers faster than the Roadrunner making a beeline away from Wile E. Coyote.
I’m no expert, but I think those things elements worked out very well for me in the following:
“How did I get myself here,” Glenn Bateman mused to himself. Of all the pickles he’d been in in his life, this took the cake. What a joke! From the pinnacle of the financial world on Wall Street, to this: custodian for an elementary school. Only he wasn’t “Glenn Bateman” anymore; no, he was now “Overstreet,” Dal Overstreet. Bateman had a record. Overstreet was a clean start. Or was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a simple grab: take the money, and run. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. No…
Which was why Overstreet was here, wounded, on the rooftop of an abandoned warehouse, awaiting his fate.
“I’ve got no fight left,” he said to himself. The overhead sun baked into his brown custodial uniform. “Why…” he coughed, wiping blood on the back of his hand. It was only a matter of time now… He staggered to his feet, walked to the edged of the rooftop. A trail of blood followed him.
“Well, that’s not how I would have planned it,” he said, shading his eyes from the fiery sun, looking down to the pavement below. He was a man truly alone–without a hope, or help, in the world.
“Well, that’s not how I would have planned it,” he repeated. He could hear the sirens of the approaching police cars… The cops were coming. His boss, Mr. Cortwright, was coming.
There was only one way out of this, and Bateman took it:
Launching himself from the roof as best he could, he said, again, “Well, that’s not…”
As I said above, I technically adhered to the rules, but in my case the caper happens offstage. I did this because that–the caper–wasn’t the most compelling element of the story to me; rather, it was Glenn’s state of mind. In order to get you into the action, I employed the time-honored literary technique known as “In Media Res,” meaning that I gave you the end before the beginning, or middle. (If I wanted to continue this story, I could go back in time, show Glenn’s fall from grace, etc). I had to deliver believable motivations for both perpetrating a crime, and according to the rules of the challenge, give him a (believable) way out. I’d like think that I also followed my own writing rules, told you an effective story, and yet left you wanting more. It was a fun exercise, and I’m glad I took part. I almost didn’t. Tell me what you think in the comments.