October 15, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? – Life Expectancy

I was driving home from L.A. after a conference with producers and network executives. As usual after such a meeting, I was in a mood: proud of myself for not having beaten anyone with a blunt object, for not having thrown anyone through a window, for not having applied the corkscrew in my Swiss Army knife to anyone’s throat, but at the same time berating myself for not having done all of those things. Studio/network pitch and story meetings often test the patience of a saint, which I am not.

For some reason I no longer recall, I was in my wife’s Ford Explorer, and on the CD deck were albums by Paul Simon and by Simon & Garfunkle. The song “Patterns” came on, which I’d heard often, but now a line intrigued me as never before: My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled. Maybe I was stewing about the fact that the film-TV part of my career was at all times in the hands of people whom I couldn’t control and who didn’t get it. Anyway, I was struck by the thought that a story about someone whose life was governed by a pattern he couldn’t control might be compelling and suspenseful——and something with which every reader could identify, since we all at times feel that we have lost control of our lives.

But what pattern? It had to be something the character was aware of and could not deny. A pattern that, at each repetition, put his life in danger. It had to be entirely beyond his control, something that he had to endure and survive, but that he could not resolve by his own actions; otherwise, it would not pose a mortal threat and would not require him to seek and find within himself the courage and philosophical wisdom to press forward.

As I drove south on the 405, I decided that on the night of the lead character’s birth (eventually he would be named Jimmy Tock), someone would predict five unspecified crises in his life, five “terrible days,” beginning when he was twenty. But who should do the predicting? Not a psychic or anything as predictable as that. So. . .what if Jimmy’s grandfather is in the hospital where Jimmy’s mom is giving birth, dying from a stroke as his grandson is born. Grandpa has been unable to speak for days——but suddenly he sets up in bed, terrified, and predicts the five terrible days. Could be very dramatic. Jimmy’s dad is dashing back and forth between the expectant father’s lounge, where he will soon hear the news that he is a father, and the ICU in which his own father is dying. Great drama for an opening situation.

Okay, now I’m ten miles closer to home, but there’s another problem with the set-up. Why should anyone believe Grandpa’s predictions, as he’s never shown psychic ability before? An obvious answer occurred to me perhaps half a mile later: Grandpa would make other predictions that establish his bona fides. On his deathbed, he also predicts the newborn baby’s sex, precise weight, length, and the fact that he would be born with syndactyly, a congenital condition in which fingers or toes are fused to one another (in Jimmy’s case, a few toes) and must be separated surgically. All of these predictions come true that very night, so the prediction of five terrible days, the first when Jimmy is twenty, have to be taken seriously.

As always, in trying to explain where a story idea came from, we now hit a moment that defies explanation. I had traveled no more than thirty miles during the time the story kernel came to me and the supporting details were worked out, when for reasons that can never be deduced, four lines from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” floated into my mind: Here is a sigh to those who love me, And a smile to those who hate; And, whatever sky’s above me, Here’s a heart for every fate. That was the attitude that the lead character would have through all his travails; he would be a good-natured guy, frightened but game, and that would mean the story, while suspenseful, would almost certainly be a comic novel as well.

And theme? What truth about the human condition lies at the heart of the novel? That came to me a moment later, and again as lines from a poem, this time by Anne Bronte: But he that dares not grasp the thorn / Should never crave the rose. In other words, everything good in life requires the acceptance of risk. Later, other themes would be raveled with the first, but I was ready to go.

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