Beyond Lemonade – Great Story Advice

fremantlemediaLast week I had a fascinating conversation with one of the chief creative minds behind the success of FremantleMedia.  I am very blessed to be able to call on the talent, savvy and incredible depth of knowledge that has made Fremantle a creative and commercial powerhouse around the world.  Here are the three key takeaways from my recent conversation about Beyond Lemonade:

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The Importance of a Central Image

My creative mentor asked me what central image encapsulated the entire Beyond Lemonade project.  As we talked, the image of an ordinary woman (my Central Chacracter – Lydia), who has largely remained in the background and who now finally steps into the center of the room.  The central image is moving from the sidelines to center stage.

The death of her larger-than-life husband forces our protagonist, Lydia, to decide:  What comes next?  Her financial and personal circumstances are greatly reduced.  Will she will use the resources she has left to live modestly, conserving her dwindling capital, and retire cautiously to the sidelines?  Or will she stride to the center of the room, bet everything on herself and finally claim the spotlight.  Will she have the courage to re-imagine herself and relaunch her dreams?   You bet she will!

Recently, a Fremantle dramatic heroine has done just that.  After the death of her parents, Susan Boyle could have simply faded into the background in her small village.  Instead, she takes a huge risk.  She steps on stage to initial ridicule and the snide dismissal of those who only see her as a frumpy, quite ordinary middle-aged woman.  What could she possibly contribute?  Then Susan opens her mouth and sings with all the pent-up talent, energy and passion inside of her.  She claims the spotlight and goes on to break every Billboard sales record on the books.  And who drove those sales?  Women just like Susan!

Beyond Lemonade will be the story of another woman who emerges from a personal loss with greater strength and the determination to finally take a chance on herself, risk it all and claim her place at the center of the stage.

The Danger of Too Much Plot

When I asked for advice based on the company’s experience with other online dramas my creative mentor warned me about the trap of too much plot.  There is a temptation, he said, especially in writing short-form episodes to keep the plot moving at too brisk a pace.  The worry being that without enough action the audience will be bored.  He cautioned that plot should not hurry the story along at the expense of character.

Specifically, he recommended the audience have an opportunity to see the character in moments alone. That is a missed opportunity evident in many television and film dramas.  It can be incredibly revealing to see how someone acts when they believe no one else is looking.  When a character is alone the character is often at his or her most vulnerable.  He warned me that those scenes often wind up on the cutting room floor and that I need to defend their importance.

Too much plot also doesn’t give the drama time to breathe or unwind naturally.   My mentor specifically referenced Chekov.  Find big drama in small moments:

“After all, in real life, people don’t spend every moment in shooting one another, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They do not spend all their time saying clever things. They are more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and saying stupidities. These are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, depart have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is and people as they are… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple, as in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.” – Anton Chekhov

The Trap of Too Much Set-Up and Wrap-Up

The final point was another lesson from Chekov.  My mentor told me that Chekov often deleted the first scene of his play and the final scene of his play in finishing the draft.  The audience feels as if it has stumble upon a life already in progress, jumping immediately into the story and the character’s predicament.  And, at the end, the audience believes the lives of the characters continue and nothing is conclusively concluded with a final story-ending cherry on the cake.

Virginia Woolf mused on the unique quality of the endings of a Chekhov story in her book, The Common Reader :

“But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Chekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”

Chekov seems to me to be a wonderful icon for the new digital short-form story.  He wrote small dramas (suitable for a small screen) filled with big emotions.  His work has the sense of being fluid and alive, a momentary flash of life, with no ponderous explanations or conclusive endings.  Instead, a sense of life continuous lived and glimpsed only in part.  Lessons I will take to heart!

After all, in real life, people don’t spend every moment in shooting one another, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They do not spend all their time saying clever things. They are more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and saying stupidities. These are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, depart have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is and people as they are…Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple, as in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.
– Anton Chekhov

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