You can learn some valuable lessons in the course of a day’s activities. Recently, I participated in a video conference of Red Cross employees and volunteers. Toward the end of the meeting, the host decided that we should play a game. [Ugh.] He’ll start to tell a story, then each person will take a turn adding to it, until everyone has had a turn.
The host begins by describing an idyllic day on a Scottish moor. A woman rides through a field of heather on a gallant horse. There’s a castle in the distance. She dismounts from her horse and sits down under a tree. Our host throws it to the next person.
I’m eighth down from the top of the attendee list, and seriously thinking about discretely leaving the meeting. But I don’t leave. If I just focus on the trajectory of the story, no matter how lame it is, I know I can come up with two or three skillful lines of prose that will turn this impending trainwreck around. And so I wait.
It takes way less than seven tosses to wreck that train. Before the second participant is finished, the woman and the horse are in a Red Cross shelter, greeting the mayor of the castle. Why this shelter appears out of nowhere is anyone’s guess. It was, after all, an idyllic day, not a category 4 storm. And a mayor of a castle? I’m going to have to look that one up.
Then I hear “Joe, your turn!”. Oh, joy. I turn on my camera and microphone, and thank the host sarcastically. After a moment of thought, I say, “The shelter sits in the shadow of the castle. As the woman speaks with the mayor, a clamor arises from beyond the castle walls, voices yelling, arguing, the clanging of metal, horses snorting and galloping. A loud thud! And the castle gates slowly open. A lone figure steps out of the castle.”
I throw it to the next person, turn off my camera and microphone, and give myself a pat on the back.
Twelve participants later, the woman, her long-lost brother (the lone figure who stepped out) and the mayor are inside the castle, at a Jimmy Buffet concert, drinking margaritas and smoking weed (which is now mostly legal, so it’s allowed at video conference storytime). She and Jimmy climb onto her horse and ride off into the sunset. And they live happily ever after. The end. Mind you, there were four people left when the end came. So we proceed to have four epilogues, all ending with “and they lived happily ever after”.
Apparently, the host and I were the only ones brave enough to crawl out from under the protective blanket of the Red Cross. For everyone else, it seems that the only world they could imagine was the world that they already lived in. Or the one that Jimmy Buffet lives in.
- Not everybody is a natural-born storyteller. If you’re not one of the chosen few, then compensate for your shortcomings by practicing. Take an existing idea and turn it on its ear. Then do it again. Brainstorm as many possibilities as you can come up with. Then do it again with a different idea.
- Writing what you know just doesn’t cut it. Most things in this world are oh so boring. We may not realize it because we’re so focused on the scant few things that excite us. So writing what you know will only get you so far, unless you’re Ian Fleming or Carl Sagan. It may be best to be informed by what you know so that your fantastic creation is instilled with a sense of realism. If you fix clocks, don’t write about fixing clocks. Write about a gnome who is a master clockmaker!
- You can still elevate the ordinary. Imagine that the participants of that meeting were the staff of The Office. No mystical manifestations. Just an office full of quirky paper salesmen trying desperately to one-up each other with gross, ridiculous, amateurish plot twists. Not the fodder for a feature film, but it might make a hilarious short or a TV show episode. (Notice how we turned the storytellers themselves into the story.)
So strive to be the outlier in a world of ordinary thinkers. If you take away one useful tip, let it be this: If you have an opportunity to stop a trainwreck, don’t sneak out of the meeting.
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.