The Substance Hoped For – “Why?” and Tight Stories

Inspiration can come from the mundane that you instill with excitement, danger, or anything else that is NOT mundane. What if I were to ask you to come up with a story about a Frisbee? You could start asking yourself “Who plays with Frisbees?” What do they do in life? Where do they play it?

How about a public phone thriller? Phone Booth in 2002, starring Colin Ferrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, and Katie Holmes, directed by Joel Schumacher.

Phone Booth has teams for visual effects and special effects. They even had a complement of stunt people! Almost the entire movie was at the phone booth or within a block of it. It was a real nail-biter! All because writer Larry Cohen asked himself what sort of a major motion picture he could make out of a phone booth.

Tom Stoppard found a very unique inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are two very minor characters who are introduced and killed off in very short order. Nothing more than a couple schleps to move the plot along. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Their names are virtually longer than their parts!

Stoppard apparently asked the question, “What would it look like if they were the stars and Hamlet was the extra?” The result was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which he staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966 and turned into a hit 2002 movie starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss.

When I left you after talking about the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album being the inspiration for The Substance Hoped For, the first idea was something that sounded too much like a National Geographic special. That didn’t sound very sellable as a feature length movie (remember I was thinking screenplay at the time).

By the way, Dolly Parton’s Sandollar Productions read the finished script. They declined. That and $5 will get you a decent latte’, but believe me – getting read is a big deal!

I just knew I wanted a story that was set against Christmas and had something to do with time travel; Christmas celebrations over time, or something like that. The big question that I kept asking myself was “Why?” Why would anyone care about the story I wrote? Why would anyone care about the protagonist? While I might have fun writing it, I might not be able to get anyone else to give a good pile o’ poop.

I worked at keeping the basic idea of one guy, time, and Christmas as the most basic ingredients for a good story. If I don’t want a National Geographic survey of Christmas over the centuries, how do I create interest in that basic premise? In other words, why would anyone care?

Well, instead of travelling to multiple Christmas celebrations over time, how about going back to the original Christmas instead? As in historical research, primary sources are the best. That struck me as having a little juice to it. But, other than witnessing the Christmas story first-hand, who cares if this guy goes back in time? What’s the mechanism and why?

One big technique I learned for creating tension or breaking a log-jam in acting a scene was the idea of Opposites. Going against expectation is a great way to get attention. For example, which is more intimidating, someone throwing a fit or someone standing before you, completely unperturbed and just growling quietly, “Go ahead. Make my day”?

So I started thinking, let’s not have this guy just go back because he wins some cosmic lottery. It’s no big deal if someone who believes gets to see this. But if we make him the OPPOSITE of that, there’s some tension. Let’s make him someone who doesn’t give a rip about Christmas and even hates the holiday. He gets sent back to experience something he detests.

Getting there, but I still don’t know why I should care.

Let’s up the stakes. Let’s make his life depend on it. NO, let’s make his eternal life depend on it! OK! Now we’re cooking. In addition, let’s make him a really nice, cool guy who doesn’t seem to need religion.

So why does he go back to the first Christmas? God calls him to it, just like He called the evil, murderous Saul to become the apostle Paul. No real reason, just an “executive decision.”

So our hero gets plopped back in Bethlehem on the first Christmas night. But since he doesn’t believe in God, how does he know WHY he’s there? Ah, his guardian angel meets him there to deliver God’s message: “You get this one chance to see for yourself and believe. Blow, it, you die and go to hell. Believe, and you get to go back home and use this experience to change your life.”

In a way, he becomes both protagonist and antagonist. He has to fight with himself over whether or not he’s going to buy into this whole thing or toss it off as a delusion.

I suddenly realized I cast him as a one man Greek chorus. The job of the Greek chorus was to tell the ancient Greek audience what they were to think and how they should react to what they were watching (amongst other functions like exposition). The Greek chorus was the doorway through which the audience effectively entered the play and became a part of it.

The main character, Tom, would see the whole of the Christmas story, and we would see it through his eyes. Real people, real problems, real emotions, real doubts, real struggles and real danger. I wanted to leave the primary color cartoons of my Sunday School days behind and make a Holy Family that was approachable. I wanted Tom to be that door we could walk through. Hear his doubts as our own. Struggle with faith, the substance hoped for from Hebrews 11:1, as he does. WE are Tom.

Hopefully, if you ask “Why” enough, your readers will be absorbed, and there are no loose ends at the end, and your story is tight. It won’t have a “What the Heck Just Happened?” ending, like The Abyss. None will scratch their head at the end and feel like they missed something.

NEXT: Framing the story. Where do I start the story in the entire timeline of the Christmas story? What is the Christmas story? What are the parameters that I will write within? The envelope, if you will. And how did Tom Clancy’s work affect my approach?

Next: Framing the Story

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover: . Look for the orange cover.

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