Friday, May 4, 2012

The Nine-Step Checklist

We start today with a story from my youth.

I was about ten or maybe eleven and my family was heading down to our shore house for the month of July, which meant that my dad got use "The Checklist". As if he was prepping an Apollo moon launch, he made sure all the bags (I have a feeling we always overpacked, a trait I've inherited from him) were first staged in the living room the night before, and then loaded into the car just after breakfast while my mom packed the huge Igloo cooler with food  (I don't remember if we yet realized there was a grocery store ten minutes from the house, or maybe it wasn't built yet or something). The cooler would go in last, and we'd be all set to go. And then we'd be in the car, all buckled in, me with my books, dad behind the wheel, mom in the backseat with my brother and some cross-stitch. But we wouldn't leave.

My dad began the next stage of his checklist. He'd check his wallet, to make sure he had money. He'd check the front door (3 stiff pulls, practically slams) to make sure it was locked. He'd look in every first-floor window to make sure the lights were out. And then he'd start the questions, aimed mostly at my mother.

"Is the oven off?" (It wouldn't matter that this was late June/early July, and my mom hadn't likely baked anything since mid-May.)
"Did you lock the back door?" (No matter how she answered, he'd go check, meaning he'd open the front door, check the back door and then re-check the front on his way out.)
"Is the TV unplugged?" (This later became my responsibility when I was twelve. I remember getting this job because my wrists were narrow enough to slide behind the monster set and pull the plug out.)
"Is the freezer closed?" (In filling the cooler, my mom emptied the giant basement freezer, and would go so far as to defrost it if she got up early enough. Years later she started stacking things in front of the empty freezer in case it 'just popped open', but I think it was more to fuck with the old man.)

The answer to all these questions was, "Yes John." (A sentence to this day that makes my skin crawl.) And I was impatient - the beach was waiting! While this checking took maybe five minutes, it felt like it took hours, and I remember being incredibly frustrated with every slam-slam-slam of the front door and the sound of my father riffing through the stack of bills in his wallet. I don't know what he was expecting to find or not find, but I just wanted him to get the car moving.

I asked my dad once, "What's with all the checking?" And his answer was, "It's just what you have to do, to make sure you get everything together before you move forward." Now, the chances are great that I rolled my eyes while he answered my question, in fact I'm sure I even threw in a sigh for emphasis.

The sigh was my sign that I'd never be like that, that I'd be able to leave the house without the almost superstitious dance of pocket and door checks.

That sigh was way wrong. I might not check the door three times, but I've definitely caught myself a little freaked that maybe I didn't put my wallet in my pocket, or maybe I didn't put my credit card back in my wallet after dinner, or maybe I didn't shut the freezer door all the way six hours ago when I put that bag of ice in there. There's a little wrestling match in my head about whether or not I did or didn't do something, and usually it's resolved either by me going and checking or by whoever I'm with at the time reminding me I did.

Checklists are good tools, and you don't have to take them into Super-OCD land for them to be effective. Here now is my not-so-OCD checklist for your story or script or game, so that you can make sure everything's together before you move forward.

Act 1
Have you set the table? "Setting the table" means have you rolled out the three P's (Protagonist(s), Place(s), Plot), so that your readers (or players, if we're talking games) know who's doing what where and why.

What's the palette like? By the time we're well invested into the first Act of your creation, we should have a pretty firm grasp on the tone, feel, vibe and scale of the story. If you're writing about a save-the-universe sort of sci fi adventure, then I'd sort of expect the story to be a certain size and scope. Your word choice will tell me the "color" of the story: if your protagonists are fighting an uphill battle, if the world is "gritty", if the badguys are more intense, etc.

Is it clear what the next action will be? If you can't get an idea of what's next based on what just happened, (it doesn't have to be a directly linear idea, it can be somewhat inferred or logical) then what just happened wasn't enough. Or it's not done cooking. Or you need to spice it up a little. Insert your favorite food metaphor here.

Act 2
Are we seeing skills (gamers: the opportunity for skills)? By this point in the story, we should be seeing the protagonist doing what they do (and hopefully that means doing things different or better than how we do them) and how the results (successes AND failures) drive the plot forward (don't confuse "forward" for "success", failure IS an option that can transform and evolve characters).

Do the options you've created have purpose? "Options" is a broad term meaning the off-shoots of the main plot. This could be the suspects in a crime story, the different avenues or routes to take in a travelogue, the number of topics in your book of essays or anything that demonstrates that you just don't have a really simple plot that can be wrapped up in like six pages and you're just filling space and killing time.

How high is your climax? While you're still in the bulk of the book, and while you're still laying out the dominoes so they can topple later, it's a good time to start seeing how high this stack builds up so you know how far (and how fast) it will come tumbling down. The climax is the highest point in a story. The greatest moment of tension, the most intense scene(s), the most knockdown fight. If your story ratchets up the tension, emotion, action or stakes AFTER that, then that new scene is the climax. Map out your scenes, climb that ladder (I guess in a future post I'll have to talk about the climax ladder) and adjust accordingly.

Act 3
How are your loose ends? I know, a lot of writers want to be "edgy" or "creative" or "smart" and they lay out these intricate plots where you have to super-focus on some detail because it's the lynch pin of the whole book. And there's nothing worse than realizing that the detail that clinches the story is something you (or gamers, your players) overlooked because it didn't seem important at the time. Likewise, those characters you drop into a scene, just for the sake of the scene, they're only momentarily memorable. You're not breaking new ground in having that three-line-delivering guy from Chapter Six show back up in the end and play a bigger role. You don't need to tie EVERYTHING up in a nice (read: convenient) bow anymore than than you need to trim the number of loose ends down to the barest essentials. Just keep track of them. If you've got a few that don't go anywhere and sort of disappear, maybe they don't need to be there in the first place.

What's the resolution look like? So the climax happened. And now the story's emotional and action roller-coaster coasts back down to a normal range of possibilities. Here we can start to see things end both internally (the plot) and externally (the book is running out of pages), so what happens AFTER climax? You don't need to spend an equivalent amount of time bringing us back down to earth as you spent getting us into the heavens, but you do have to spend a little time so that we can catch our breath and start to organize ourselves to end the story. Again, mapping it out is CRUCIAL.

Is the door open or closed? The "door" here is whether or not you've explicitly or not created the possibility to revisit this world and these characters again. NOTE - I am not saying that all stories need to be serialized, I'm just asking you if this particular one is built for it. If the door is open, then we as readers are free to continue these adventures in our imagination, essentially taking the storytelling reins from you. If the door is closed, then we better be satisfied by how things wrapped up, else we'll just take the reins from you and pretend it didn't go down like that (I'm looking at you Sopranos, third Hunger Games book, Lost and the Mary Russell series).

That checklist will help you take your stories wherever they are, in whatever shape they're in, and help them go forward, so that you can too can go to your vacations (metaphoric and literal) fully confident that everything is awesome.

Happy writing. Enjoy your Cinco de Mayo.

See you Monday (now if there's no blog post on Monday, it's not because I partied too hard this weekend, it's because I know Monday is PACKED with work, some of which I can't yet talk about it.)