Scribbler’s Saga #111 – Dumbass, They’re the Same Idea!

Posted: December 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Joe Michael Straczynski once commented on a DVD track for his highly influential show Babylon 5 – “I had two ideas for space station shows. One was all the wars and great alliances. The other was a smaller concept about how people might live on space stations. Both stalled until I realized they were both the same show.”

Writers, except when really angry or exceptionally lazy, get ideas all the time. No, I won’t show my appalling list jotted down as fragments on up to a couple sentences. Some are full ideas with plots and characters ready to jump. The rest are just pieces. I suspect my list evenly splits between the two. One of many reasons to keep the list in the first place is to make sure that we can cross-reference the new idea that seems so brilliant, except for that one part that…with all of our older ideas that might actually fix the missing piece.

As you might guess, I don’t put pen to paper without my own example to echo and enhance what Mr. Straczynski has to say about combining ideas. More on that later. Back to Babylon 5

The great alliances and wars part of the show involves a created community led by human military officers on a space station in neutral space who discover a great secret concerning some of the older spacefaring races that forces a titanic shift in the affairs of the galaxy. Over the course of millennia, two ancient races have locked into recurring cycles of a grand conflict that involve the newer races as allies choosing sides. And then the various allies discover the two sides have the same goal, assisting the newer peoples of the galaxy to advance, but have chosen two diametrically opposed methodologies. Order and Chaos.

The Vorlons do Order always asking – “who are you?” – and act like galactic Boy Scout Troop leaders organizing alliances, campouts and all kinds of opportunities to learn from teamwork. The Shadows do Chaos asking – “what do you want?” – and have made a career of encouraging the greedy and power hungry to piss off their neighbors and kick over anthills on the assumption the hive will be stronger when rebuilt. The rest of the galaxy eventually learns this and asks both to leave the galaxy. A nice five-year plot.

You’ll notice one glaring lack in the two preceding paragraphs…character. Oh, sure there are a couple great scenes to be had from this plot that can hint at certain characters like when the Shadows finally get to explain their side. Still kinda thin.

The second space station idea for Mr. Straczynski came loaded with character. It answered many questions about what these people do between their big moments. They wash socks as part of personal ritual. Or ask pointed questions like – “how far they go on the first date?” – trying to gauge a new species’ ability to fit in with the station community. And then they have to go to the doctor for advice about a “food plan.”

One character gets picked to be the union-mandated alcoholic and in some episodes has that used against him. People worry about getting fat. Or how they might bond over picking fights in the casino. They play pranks on each other just to see the target get angry.

This second space station idea came loaded with people that by themselves didn’t have anything important to do. Enter the first idea with wars, great alliances and many things for which we shake our hands and say – “ooooh!” Symbiosis in the best possible way, because – “Dumbass, they’re the same idea!”

And now, my similar epiphany that blends at least three separate brain farts maddeningly teased out of the ether in pieces and parts about like how fast food chains put together chicken nuggets…

Item One. In the vein of Dream Big and Steal from Literary Classics, we have how I typically interact with The 1,001 Nights, the four-volume unabridged translated by Burton version. Just because it’s a monster book about Scheherazade telling stories to avoid getting beheaded by her pissed off husband doesn’t mean I’m not going to steal the idea of a narrator with huge personal stakes telling and hearing stories. This is even with the fact that my edition has the well-known stories (Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin) buried deeper in the text than I’ve gone.

What with the heavy reliance on Djinn, other supernatural creatures and even a couple appearances of Count Iblis (Lucifer) in the original text, there’s clearly no way my grand homage/emulation/naked rip off won’t have many supernatural characters. I do have to admit that I only got as far as angel in this part of the idea for my narrator.

Your presumed commentary at this point is sure to run to – “Okay, Mr. Jacobs, an angel is your narrator, but to which angel do you refer, they’re still characters…or should be.” And as you might guess, not having an answer is what left this idea on my list. Despite, the fact that we really only seem to have two, three if you count Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) from Highway to Heaven, angel character archetypes from which to draw. 

Michael fights and kills things. Gabriel does the music and announcing. Mister Smith acts almost like Kwai Chang Caine going on permanent walkabout trying to help people. The rest are as anonymous to the story as FedEx drivers or perhaps the ninjas that dress like stagehands in Japanese theater and kill characters, but I digress. If your angel isn’t Mike or Gabe, you still have to invent a character. The lack thereof will stall any project.

I have one other thing to casually mention…the ambition. At this point in development, I know I’m circling closer to an angel filling in for Scheherazade. I don’t know which angel or why at this point. And like everybody with an early idea to copy the Classics, I’m just going to go bigger – “Yeah, Baby! The 2,001 Nights!” Like Spinal Tap, my amp “goes up to eleven!”

Item Two. One of my recent (less than a year) otherwise fruitless jags back into screenwriting landed me on – “I know, I’ll do Twilight Zone with a twist so I can have fun with some short but weird storytelling!” My twist ends up being the proposed title of the show, a creepy house in the mist overlooking a lonely road…House in the Mist. People who don’t know they need something roll up to stay for the night and…

Depending on the nature of the breakfast burritos I had the morning I sit down to write, the possible episodes can go anywhere. I haven’t been in very many grand old houses, but I’ve learned (metaphorically at least) to always check the closet. The real question is what’s on the other side. Edible and tasty burritos might lead to the wish fulfilment of, say, Fantasy Island. Crud probably gets us to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe probably without Lucy Pevensie having very much time for tea with Mr. Tumnus.

My thought process for the house part of this pastiche leads to no episodes, but a wraparound framing device for four. A little girl visiting the house with her parents gets up late at night searching for water. At the end of the hall, she sees a light on and enters to see four men sitting around having coffee talking about the doings of their clients. Men with recognizable names…

I’ll take a moment to make some linkages between Twilight Zone and The 1,001 Nights. How similar are the two properties? Anthology. Weird. Wonderous. And do we get to make a connection between Scheherazade and the version Rod Serling played of himself as the narrator? An essay for another day.

At this point, I still need a character with…motivation. Another way, I suppose to ask the nature of my main character/narrator. I know I’m going to feature an angel, likely due to one of my run-home-to-mama story tropes having to do with angels managing the hostile takeover and/or leveraged buyout of other pantheons. 

How did the angels give the Olympians the sumo shove when people stopped believing in them? Did they make accommodation for the deities they deemed not to bad? Offers of lateral job transitions to, say, Athena? Or kill them all? I do too many of these stories mixed in with all my other wonders. Leading to…

Item Three. My previous franchise character becomes successful enough to live in a big house with her husband and three daughters. Suddenly a fourth little girl, a foster daughter, just shows up one day and tries very hard to fit in, but she’s an outsider. With the tendencies highlighted in previous paragraphs of course this young lady is a Fallen Angel struggling to come home and performing penance as a human child.

And now I have a character. Someone really sorry for tempting humans and playing to our weaknesses and vanities who must listen to and tell the stories affected by her past actions. Three elements pulled from the ether over a period of upwards of six years. Keep all ideas and don’t be afraid of the fragements… 

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