There’s a book by Christopher Booker (appropriately titled The Seven Basic Plots) that says there are only seven basic plots in all forms of literature that are used over and over, ad nauseum.Â Sure, they look and feel different, they’re told from different perspectives, etc…but it all boils down to seven basic plot umbrellas under which everything else falls.Â Makes creating a significant piece of original work seem rather futile, right?
But maybe futility is exactly the motivation we need.Â As writers, we spend too much time striving to find the “brilliant idea” and use that constant mental quest to put off actually committing anything to the page.Â “Brilliant” isn’t a starting point.Â It’s an ending, a post script if anything.Â Call me a Darwinist, but I believe in the idea of Narrative Evolution: start off with the worst possible idea you have and you have the potential to evolve it into something truly unique.
It’s important to clarify my use of the word “worst” here.Â It’s a subjective term, defined by individual styles and tastes.Â For me, “worst” is synonymous with “stupid.”Â I like a big, stupid idea, the kind of thing that makes somebody roll their eyes when you try and describe it.Â Because oftentimes, “stupid” isn’t stupid at all…it’s unique.Â It’s bold.
In improvisation, there’s a teaching exercise called the Saboteur that really exemplifies this point.Â One improviser is secretly assigned as (you guessed it) the Saboteur.Â Their mission, over the course of the improvisation, is to do anything they can to try and ruin the piece.Â Whether that means making divergent character choices, entering a dramatic scene clucking like a chicken, breaking the fourth wall and storming out of the theatre…it’s all fair game.
Since improv is all about unwavering support, what you see happen is that if one person enters a dramatic scene clucking like a chicken, all of a sudden four or five others are clucking on in right behind them.Â If it’s going well, there’s no telling who the Saboteur actually is, because it forces everyone to make big, bold moves to back up their devious teammate.Â And then a fairly standard dramatic scene in a restaurant becomes a tale of a town overrun by intelligent chickens.Â The “stupid” choices steer the scenes and characters in directions that they never would have achieved otherwise.
With your writing, try playing Saboteur to yourself, your choices and your characters and see where it takes you.Â In part one of Produce Yourself (which you can conveniently find right here), I asked you to write down 30 ideas in 30 minutes and I encouraged you to think as little as possible while doing so.Â If you haven’t done it yet, take a half an hour and try it.
Got it?Â Everything down on paper?Â Nothing preplanned?Â Good.Â Now scan the list quickly and find your worst idea, however you define it.Â Maybe your “worst” is something boring and generic (ie. “a husband and wife talk about their marriage”).Â Maybe your “worst” is something that seems impossible to stage (i.e. 2012: The Stage Show).Â Maybe your worst is like mine, and it’s something that would be outwardly deemed as “stupid.”
With your idea in hand, I want you to do a Sabotage Brainstorm.Â On a sheet of paper, write your core concept in the middle (we’ll use the “husband and wife talk about their marriage” example again) and go crazy stemming out from it with lay-ons and details that could, in theory, derail the entire thing.Â Here are some of mine:
“Husband and wife talk about their marriage”
- They’re on a space station hurtling towards the sun
- The husband is a dog
- The conversation is one minute long and repeats itself with slight variations 60 times
- There’s a wall between them and they don’t know who they’re talking to
- They’re both cannibals and they’re slowly devouring each other over the course of the talk
And so on and so forth.Â Go nuts.Â You’ll hopefully have more than that, but don’t be afraid to stem out further from those base ideas too.Â Follow your inspiration and keep the pen on the page as long as you can before you run out of steam on a particular track.Â All you’re doing is developing a ton of different possible approaches to the material that you can pull from and use as inspiration when you finally settle on The One.
We’ll play with these approaches more next time and start evolving them to find some substance amongst all the stupidity.Â For now, happy sabotaging.
Produce Yourself! is an ongoing series by Chicago playwright, producer and actor Shawn Bowers that goes step-by-step through the trials and tribulations of writing and producing your own theatrical work.