Here’s the truth: it takes everything I have in me not to ban the use of guns in my students’ short stories. I want to ban guns so bad. I fantasize about writing, “Do not use guns in your story. If you use guns you will get a zero,” on the directions. I want there to be no right to bear arms in my class.
Remember this scene from The Office when Michael is in an improv class and gets chastised by the instructor for beginning every scene with a gun and killing all of the other actors? I want to be the guy who tells him, “No guns!”
While I’m at it, I want to ban mafias, gangs, racist stereotypes, vampires, explosions, zombies, accidental pregnancy, drunks, abusive parent characters, and high school football stars who get injured during the last big game of the season and have to struggle to beat the odds. Man, just thinking about banning all of those things sets my heart a-flutter. But I won’t do it. I won’t ban them.
As great as the urge is to force my students not to rely on cliches and easy-outs (like creating tension by introducing a character with a gun), I’m more curious to see how many people will:
A. Prove that a good story doesn’t need any of the things I just mentioned, OR
B. Write a story with one or more of the elements I just mentioned, but make it memorable instead of forgettable.
That’s the big problem with a lot of these stories. There are so many of them they become forgettable. I also tend to feel like they make the writer lazy. Letting a gun create tension for you instead of doing it yourself with well-developed characters, dialogue, and action, is just plain lazy. That’s not to say that guns (or any of the other elements I mentioned) have no place in writing or fiction. That’s obviously a ludicrous notion and it’s not true. There are loads of great stories, movies, and TV shows that utilize these things and I have no problem with it when it’s done well. One of my current favorite shows, for example, is AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s filled to the max with things I want to ban my students from. Zombies, guns, accidental pregnancy, abusive parents (remember Sophia’s father? Ohh, poor Sophia), and explosions. There are a few reasons The Walking Dead accomplishes a storyline that is memorable:
First, they have the time to develop these things. Yeah, there were zombies and guns in the first episode of the show (and the first issue of the comic book series), but then again the situation kind of calls for guns, doesn’t it? It makes sense to have guns in a zombie apocalypse (or does it? Those guns sure are loud.) They’ve also had the time to develop their own version of the zombie apocalypse instead of copying whatever the popular thing is at the moment. 28 Days Later accomplished this too–those zombies were totally different from The Walking Dead zombies, but the outcome of what they can do was the same, and in that, the film was unique. I’m no zombie expert, but I can see notable differences between each of the worlds presented in some of the most famous zombie movies—not differences so great that the general idea of the monster is compromised, but differences great enough to make each individual telling of the story unique in its own way. Nothing that is important to zombie lore gets thrown out for the convenience of the particular story, (ahem, Stephenie Meyer–vampires don’t avoid the sun because they sparkle in it, they avoid the sun because it will kill them. Duh.) but just enough is explained to understand what kind of a situation the protagonists are dealing with. They have time to develop the characters (even though many fans complain that there’s too much talking, not enough brain-eating) in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish in a short story.
This is not to say that The Walking Dead does everything perfectly, but it’s an example of something that has taken a fairly “done” idea and turned it into its own. This is something students usually fail to do–make an idea their own. I’d really love to see an amazing short story about zombies that really left me feeling something, but the truth is that most of the time the space and depth just isn’t there to make a lasting impression.
The key word in short story, I always remind my students, is “short.” Every month I repeat myself: you’re not going to write a feature length film or an entire season of a TV show in 3,000 words. You’re just not. And that’s okay. You don’t have to go for the shocking or the grandiose or the explosive in a short story. One of the joys of the short story medium is how much can be said with so little. I’m big on less is more in storytelling, especially for beginners. I think new writers and students of writing put way too much stress on themselves to produce bestsellers. I’m not discouraging anyone for whom that is a possibility, but I am telling everyone else to relax. This is practice. You can write a really interesting story about two people who have an interaction that changes one or both of them profoundly, and that serves as a commentary on human nature. Human stories don’t get enough credit.
So, while I’d love to ban all of the above just to force my students to write about something else, I don’t want to have to force them. It’s my job to teach them that there are other stories out there that are exciting, moving, fun, and daring. It would be lazy of me to just wipe my hands of the whole problem and call it a day.
Whether you’re writing scripts, screenplays, novels, or short stories, just keep these words from Laura Ziskin, a film producer, in the back of your head when you sit down to write: “No kid goes to bed and says ‘Mommy, tell me about a special effect.’ They say, ‘Mommy, tell me a story.'”