Friday, April 12, 2013

West Side Storycide

"The whole time? I was
wearing this rug
the whole time? I did
not see that coming."
Judging from the cards and letters we’ve received this week (Box 3-5-0, Boston Mass, 0hh-2-1-3-foour), you guys want more details on how to end your own nonfiction stories. Life doesn’t tie up loose ends Ellery Queen-style. No, that’s your job. But we’re going to help you mugs with a new series we call “assisted storycide.”

When inspiration shakes us by the lapels, we’ll post a case story featuring a specific type of ending—happy, sad, surprise, Phillips head, whatever—and then offer advice based on that story. Today’s lesson: “Leave them laughing.”

There’s nothing funny about people jumping in front of trains to end their tormented lives … usually. So when you play suicide for laughs, you should employ a somber tone. We opted for film noir for this story …

Strangeness on a Train

Megan and I were on the 7 a.m. Acela bound for New York when the engineer stomped on the brakes like they owed him money. We were miles from the next station … and just inches away from caboose-ing the 6:30 a.m. Northeast Regional.

From my window, I could see dozens of young commuters stepping off the train, sporting hand-tailored Zegnas and thousand-mile stares. I had to chuckle as these apprentices of the universe shuffled toward us, squinting like mole people in the bright sunlight. It looked like career day at Zombie U.

Minutes later, the dazed passengers from that train—there were over 100 of them—crammed into ours. We were packed tighter than a Japanese subway car, but our new guests stayed mum. Then this short gal with a blond pageboy starts sobbing hysterically about some mooch who mistimed his suicide leap. He got the job done but left a grisly vista for those seated on the left.

With the seal busted, some know-it-all started gabbing about the “protocol for such situations,” which included yellow-vested conductors barking through bull horns, a neatly choreographed “disembarkation” routine, and oddly enough, the distribution of free snack packs. The things you learn on the way to the Big City.

On the Acela back to DC that evening, we met a surprising number of people who had started their day on the Kevorkian Express. A productive day in the city and a few cold ones had knocked the zombie out of them and loosened the screws at the back of their tongues. They were dishing the gruesome details of the morning’s entertainment, and we were lapping it up with ladles.

But just as they were getting to the good part, there was crash that would have startled Buddy Rich and the train made an unscheduled jump on the tracks. Rather than die down, the crash got louder as it rumbled from the cow-catcher to the middle of the car behind us. I was hoping that the crackling thunder below us was a mangled Pathmark shopping cart, but the veterans among us knew better—another Choo Choo Charlie had taken the A train to the Promised Land.

As the train came to a stop, everyone froze. It was as quiet as a speakeasy just before the doors get kicked in. Then, before the conductor could grab his bull horn, two of the Ghost Train frequent flyers looked at each other and shouted, “Free Snack Packs!!”

And they were right.

The lessons:

“Begin with the end in mind.” Any good story goes through unexpected permutations as it’s being developed, which is a natural and good thing. But one thing should remain constant – the ending. As Yogi Berra wisely said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

Foreshadowing – It’s important to offer smalls references in the body of the story to the element(s) that are crucial to the end—the “free snack packs,” in this case.

Careful foreshadowing – It’s also risky. The foreshadowing has to be done in a way that does not blow the joke. In this case, we said “free snack packs” twice. But if we had gotten just a twinkle more than a wistful smile from our audience, the ending would have been shot.

Brevity is the soul of wit – The two most important elements of any story are the beginning and the end. The closer together you put these two critical elements, the better your story will be. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Start as close to the end as possible.”

When you’re done, you’re done. Denouements are for novelists and overachievers. When you made your point, stop talking.

Stay stoic, my friend. If the story you’re telling gets the laughs you expect (or any that you’re not expecting), do not laugh. Or, as Mark Twain advised, “The teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

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