It’s been three decades since director Adrian Lyne brought us the film Flashdance. In case you missed it (or were just a playful glint in some hot postman’s eye when it premiered), you can relive the same story structure in Coyote Ugly from 2000, directed by David McNally and featuring a gutsy blonde wannabe singer instead of a gutsy dark-haired wannabe dancer.
In celebration of Flashdance, my favorite-ist film ever, until Jan de Bont gave the world Speed in 1994—here you may be excused if you are now bored out of your skull, but the film Speed beautifully illustrates three-act structure, and you can learn a lot by watching it 50 or 60 times. Plus, whichever way you swing, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are easy on the eyes—anyway, I put on my well-used Flashdance CD and started dancing around my bedroom in the shirt I’ve been wearing for 48 hours and my long underwear, doing my best Jennifer Beals imitation—or for any of you purists out there, my best Marine Jahan imitation.
My dog gaped at me from her cushy cot with a look on her face that suggested I’d turned into a particularly unattractive giant Gila monster and literally fled out her doggie door and has not been seen since. She has a foxhole underneath the back porch, so I’m hoping she’s there and not halfway to Pecoima (borrowed line from Speed if you were reading Neruda instead). I’d go look for her except I pulled a muscle doing head spin turns.
The point here being, you may decide to write about a character who is stuck in a past decade, let’s say, the ‘80s. I do. Rather, it’s not that I sat down at my pc and thought, I know, I’ll make up this guy who eats Freezer Queens and watches Home Box Office. It’s rather that I dwell there myself, so writing a setting later than 1989 would be like a futuristic sci-fi piece.
Well, presumably about 1983, and the consolation is that I’m not alone in my stuckness. You know who you are, fellow past owners of an embarrassing number of leg warmers and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts. Pop quiz, hotshot, what film dancing doll who didn’t need a body double to high kick under a water bucket dancted (that’s a word I just made up that means danced and acted, mostly danced) her way through Flashdance, Staying Alive, and Dirty Dancing and not long after hung up her leotard to be a stay-home mom of three?
If you know the answer without Googling, you are my soul sis or bro and we should hang out and do head spin turns together (just as soon as my shoulder muscles unclench).
So about that character you’re writing. What era does s/he live in, and what era does s/he live in? For example, if you based that character on my big brother, he would live in the decade after this one, whatever decade that was. One of those guys who is so technically astute he lives a decade ahead of the rest of us (or four decades ahead of his younger sister. He sends me messages from the future though).
And, my friend, what about you? Is your story set in the decade that captures your inner essence (and probably outer essence, which is great because a good mullet never goes out of style), or have you defied that paradigm and skipped merrily across decades and centuries because you’re a better rounded human than some of us? Even so, I bet there’s a stray sweatband in your rendition of Middle Earth if we look hard enough.
After I stopped hyperventiliating from my impromptu dance routine, I went looking through my closet for artifacts from the ‘80s.
Here’s what I found:
- Bathrobe possibly predating the ‘80s.
- Groovy knitted wrist-warmers I bought in Colorado last year, but they’re the same variegated pattern as a pair of leg warmers I used to have, so I’m counting them.
- Well-played CD from the soundtrack to the original Footloose film, another classic achievement of the ‘80s, and yes, I know all the songs. In fact, a friend and I once lip-synced Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” in a bar. I of course wore turquoise leg warmers.
We might agree that time can be a fun challenge to manage in a story. Is your story positioned in the distant or near past, present moment, or some imagined future? And are there flashbacks or flash forwards? What unit of time measure does your story span? A few moments as the basis for a story or stories within the story, a day, a week, a lifetime? What time does your character literally live in and what time is your character mentally stuck in?
Imagine a character who experienced a traumatic and defining event and everything that character experiences subsequently is, in her sensibility, defined by that event and further, her brain gets stuck in a freeze frame and she can rarely if ever imagine a future or rarely if ever be fully present in her own present, because she’s damned herself to live in her own past? In real life, we tend to both praise and criticize people who live in the moment and characters who do so can be very interesting.
If you’re stuck trying to end a story, why not just let it get dark? Let the day end and see where your character winds up at nightfall. Things might tend to look better in the morning, which isn’t always great for a story, but then I’m a fan of troubled endings. For example, the ending of The Grapes of Wrath might be the ending against which all other endings should be measured.
Some of my students would have trouble with pacing, the speed at which things seem to unfold vs. the actual time that passes as the story unfolds. Writing short, choppy sentences and omitting too many details doesn’t necessarily equate with picking up the pace of the story. It can however equate with two-dimensional characters who are faceless, feckless and forgettable. I think of pacing like a direction—if the story is firmly committed to a direction, doesn’t get sidetracked by side plots, and yet includes interesting obstacles put in the way of the character, the pacing will be affected.
Flash forward to this morning, where I woke up with horrible pain in my shoulder from last night’s groovy booty shaking. The pacing of my day seems extremely slow, because I’m moving slowing and favoring my shoulder. Try putting your character in pain—for some just listening to tunes of the ‘80s might be painful enough, but I’m sure you can come up with something. See what that does for your pacing.
Meanwhile, I’m gonna amble into a hot shower and try to get over the fact that my muscles don’t work quite like they used to since it’s no longer 1983. Except in my head.
XO Laurel Leigh
Photo credits: Not sure how to credit these photos, since they are all over the Internet. Like Jennifer Beals, they will live on forever.