Monday, May 25, 2009

The Medium Is The Message

This is a writing lesson in the effect of SETTING on story, plot and character -- i.e. the place of SETTING in storytelling. And this lesson is from a Hollywood producer.

J. Neil Schulman,
the SF writer and producer of the (incredible!!) movie (starring Nichelle Nichols) LADY MAGDELENE'S, sent me an email advertisement with an itinerary for a Cruise titled PSYCHICS AT SEA.

Yes, this is a real ad from a real company, Carnival Cruise.

Schulman's comment on this ad was: Does this sound like a perfect setting for an episode of Monk, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, or what? (for our non-USA residents, these TV shows are cultural icons here. I wish I could give the equivalent in your own culture).

Thus primed, almost salivating, I scrolled down to read the advertisement (I mean, I KNOW Neil and he's really sharp about this stuff) and as I read, INSTANTLY stories began scrolling behind my eyeballs.

This is the effect Blake Snyder (and other screenwriters) label "High Concept." One sentence and you're seeing whole stories. But no two people necessarily see the same stories! It's all ideosyncratic and internal. Novelists must (these days) hit for the highest possible concept for a novel because it's only the high concept novels that get advertising push from publishers! So this is a lesson for all writers.

If you don't have a complete grasp of High Concept, see
and read the comment on Blake's post by Sarah Beach which she posted on Feb 9th (not the earlier comment).

Keep the concept of High Concept firmly in mind while you read about this SETTING and note what stories scroll behind your eyeballs.

Your stories might not be Romance, per se. Neil suggested a number of detective mystery characters who would explode into a plot set here. Your character could be from international intrigue, or the Dirty Dozen, a politician, a Pathologist. The setting could include Grand Opera or retired Western actors or any other group with a common interest thematically related to your main character.

Before you open your imagination and read on to see what I thought of, jot down what you think of as you read about this setting. This is a writing exercise, and it's not "just for fun." You could find yourself with a real, genuine, sellable HIGH CONCEPT. Relax and read this.

Here's the advertisement sans graphics:


Cruise on the Carnival Triumph to Canada
Sept 3-7 Labor Day weekend
Presented by Susan Duval Seminars and Utopia Travel

Thursday, Sept 3: Departure mid-morning by private bus from the Doylestown area to the port in NYC. Refreshments will be provided, compliments of Utopia Travel. Upon boarding, get settled in your cabin (complimentary chocolates and wine for everyone!) and have fun exploring the ship. A Meet and Greet Reception with the Psychics will be held in the early evening. Our group will be seated together for dinner, and our wonderful Guest Psychics will join different tables each night, so that you can get to know them personally.

Friday, Sept 4: Fun Day at Sea. Get a private reading and attend a seminar given by one of our outstanding psychics, and enjoy the camaraderie of new friends with similar interests from our area. In addition, you'll be able to get luxurious spa services, sit outside on the deck, go to an art auction, visit the duty-free shops, see a first class stage show, try your luck at the casino, sing karaoke at the piano bar, play mini-golf, take a yoga class, work out at the gym, soak in the whirlpool, get pampered at the hair salon, dine on fabulous gourmet meals in beautiful settings, and dance the night away. There are tons of activities for children and teenagers as well. Bring the family!

Saturday, Sept 5: Stay on-board and relax, or choose one or more shore excursions in charming St John, New Brunswick. Some of the options are: lobster cookout, kayaking on the St. John River, harbor cruise, Bay of Fundy coastal photography class, golfing at Rockwood Country Club, discover the picturesque fishing village of St Martins, St John River cruise, visit a rural farm, or explore Hopewell Rocks (a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve). You may register for your excursion when full payment is made or while you're on board. Another psychic seminar or gallery will be offered in the evening.

Sunday, Sept 6: Another Fun Day at Sea to relax, enjoy the amenities of the cruise ship, receive private readings, and get to know your new friends. A seminar or gallery will be held during the day.

Monday, Sept 7: disembark at 9:30am and take the bus back to the Doylestown area. You'll be back in time for your neighborhood Labor Day picnics in the afternoon!! Brag about your cruise!!

Schulman is a FILM PRODUCER (and an SF writer). He saw this advertisement and his mind produced stories in PICTURES.

Jot down what pictures you see.

Here's what came to my mind, just instantly off the top of my head, that I wrote back to Schulman.

Oh, yeahhhh. Among the showman psychics is of course a REAL one.

A showman psychic wants to murder the real one for being too good, but the real one strikes first and throws the showman psychic-murderer overboard into the icy water, or better if it's a Monk ep then the real psychic innoculates the showman psychic with whatever virus is killing people aboard ship, but they're stuck at sea because of a storm that tosses the ship around and makes everyone vomit.

I can just see Jessica Fletcher making friends with a real psychic. Jessica would be very protective, but then find she's protecting the murderer -- but then find it was self-defense.

Monk would catch whatever virus is killing people and solve the crime anyway.

Or better yet, let Monk be onboard under cover posing as a psychic. He's good enough to make the showmen think he's the real thing. But the really REAL psychic catches him and thinks Monk is the murderer because he isn't who he says he is.

Oh, the SETTING can become THE STORY. Nice.


And Schulman wrote back:

Practically writes itself, doesn't it? :-)


And yes, stories that arise from a High Concept do indeed "write themselves."

When you find a story you are writing dies in your hands, it's very possible the real problem lies in the Concept itself.

Or possibly in the Setting.

If you change the setting of your story, you might find everything about the story morphing before your eyes into something that could attract serious advertising money.

You can also refresh a story you're writing by changing the SETTING of only one scene. See Blake Snyder's technique he calls POPE IN THE POOL in SAVE THE CAT! ( )

"Pope in the Pool" is the technique of setting an expository lump in a place fraught with suspense and cognitive dissonance due to the setting is a very old trick. In writing for the stage, they teach you to sit your main character in a chair centerstage, a chair with a BOMB planted under it.

Blake Snyder names the technique after a scene where two people in an office in the Vatican dialogue at each other about the exposition while the viewer sees through the window that the Pope is swimming in his private pool. And you can't take your eyes off the Pope because you're wondering what he's wearing, or not wearing and whether someone else will notice. Meanwhile, you learn all this important stuff about the story. A "Pope In The Pool" technique can be worked into almost any story, including narrative.

The bomb and fuse gimmick is the suspense image and it can work if done literally, but stands for any EVENT the viewer will anticipate while watching a clock (fuse) tick off the seconds until the event HITS the characters who will be surprised and have to react.

Notice both the bomb and the pool are SUSPENSE techniques, but they are VISUAL. Even in narrative, go for the VISUAL. Use the reader's imagination to evoke the image by reference to the SETTING. (Pope = Vatican)

What the bomb is and what the fuse is can be derived from the SETTING, either the setting for this whole story, or the setting for this particular scene.

The artistically appropriate suspense mechanism will leap out at you once you've selected the correct SETTING for your story.

Note how Schulman was thinking (not what he thought, but HOW he arrived at the thought).

Here's a setting, PSYCHIC CRUISE. What interesting character do we know who would have an adventure on a Cruise? And he thought of a couple of well known TV "characters" who have done shows on cruise boats (BUT THIS IS A PSYCHIC CRUISE).

But you should think of the characters who've been floating around in your own mind for a while. Characters you know well. Then think of a theme for the Cruise (or Dude Ranch expedition, safari, whatever) that would be the last place on earth you'd ever be able to drag that character (conflict is the essence of story!) Go for high contrast here.

Neither Monk nor Fletcher would normally choose to go on a psychic cruise. So immediately, I thought of what would bring each of these characters to this cruise and added my usual SF twist (the unthinkable is in fact true - lump it - that's SF's prime mechanism).

You know the "formula" of the Monk Episode, and the Murder She Wrote Episode. If you've seen 5 or so episodes of either show, you KNOW that formula. Some of those episodes may be available online.

So given the SETTING, and a CHARACTER, and given a plot-structure, the whole story unreels before your eyes. That's what Concept does.

Now, take that SETTING of the Psychic Cruise, pick a character you've got bouncing around in your head or about whom you've been writing and choose a plot-structure you've mastered.

Put them all together and write an OUTLINE of a story (or 3 stories).

Can anyone provide the URL of the posts where I've discussed outlining?

Now do the exercise again with another specialized group on a Theme Cruise (there was once a Star Trek Cruise with the stars of the show -- pick a theme of your own.) Note you can also do this in space, cruising across the galaxy with various species in confined quarters.

Some scriptwriting books call this a BOTTLE -- you bottle-up the characters, confining them. That creates CONFLICT that must RESOLVE within the bottle, a conflict that wouldn't exist were it not for the bottle.

Then do it again, trying to inject all the potential for VISUALS that Schulman saw in this advertisement for a Psychic Cruise.

Perhaps you want to start by writing the galactic advertisement.

That's the exercise, but it could produce something that's actually sellable. In that case, don't post it anywhere. Develope it yourself. But if you spin off useless material as I did, show us what you produced on in the comments section.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Post Tips On Writing Exercises Here

My sometime collaborator and co-owner of Sime~Gen Inc. Jean Lorrah has a Twitter account posting Tips on Writing.

You may post any writing exercise attempting to use a tip from this Twitter feed, or from the Writing Workshop at .

There is a new workshop lesson at

Be sure what you post on this blog is only an exercise for public domain not anything for publication.

This blog is for writing students to master techniques, not to get critiques on a story in development for publication.

Follow to get the tips, try the technique on just any old thing you can think of, and post your words as a comment to this blog.

You don't have to post here immediately - nor in the sequence the tips are offered.

Be sure to say which tip you're illustrating and evaluate how well you think you succeeded. Note whether you want feedback from Jacqueline Lichtenberg or Jean Lorrah -- or not! Feel free to post here and only get feedback from your friends or other writers.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg