Burning Down the House

original photo by Melinda Taber

Everything I know about storytelling I learned from TV or from TV writers. That’s not really true, but it sounds good. That’s another lesson: lie your face off if it makes a good story.

Thanks to Happy Days, we have the delightful “jumping the shark” in our lexicon. It’s a fun little phrase to break out when you want to sound cool. It’s also a prescription for what not to do with your story/franchise/reputation. I will note, however, that were I to ever encounter a real shark, I would jump that mofo without hesitation.

Anyway, I don’t like things that tell me what not to do. Being the constant rebel, telling me not to do something means I will compulsively do it. Which is kind of okay. You’re allowed, nay, supposed to break the rules in storytelling.

So I like the more obscure “burning down the house” turn of phrase. Yes, it’s a Talking Heads song. But what I’m talking about actually comes from the ’90s Canadian mounty cop comedy Due South. The way I heard the story go, the writers of Due South were getting kind of bored with what they were doing, so in a moment of frustration, they burned down their main characters house, and then set him on a wild goose chase after the arsonist. Oh yeah, and they set his car on fire, too. Doing this breathed a new life into the series and on they went.

I don’t know if that story is true. I don’t really care. Even if that’s not why Due South burned down Fraser’s house, the myth I heard around it is still important. It’s a true story, even if it’s made up.

Sometimes your story isn’t working. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes you’re bored. But then you burn the house down.

“Set it on fire.” “Blow it up.” “Burn it down.” I’ve heard those phrases a lot in the better workshops where I’ve participated. I think possibly twice I’ve heard something like that uttered in complete sincerity.

If you follow my twitter feed, I’ve been talking about needing to set someone on fire for a few days. This is one of those rare instances where I’m using this idea literally. I actually set one of my characters on fire. It had to happen. My story was lacking 1) pizazz, and 2) logic. By doing something big and over the top, I solved that problem. It gave something for my other characters to react to, and also filled my giant, gaping plot-hole with a fireball of awesome-terribleness.

I’m not here to tell you that you need to set everything in your story on fire. You don’t. And we’d all get bored if that happened in every story. What I mean is that you need to do something big. Something that has consequences. Something that breaks the rest of your story open in such a big way, that you begin cursing yourself for doing it because suddenly everything that comes after no longer works. And it doesn’t work because what you’ve done is so big, no one can go back to their lives before as if nothing happened.

That’s where I am now. I’m thrilled about all the new opportunities setting Rowtag on fire (and thus killing him) gave me, but it’s really annoying that I now have to rewrite everything after. Everyone else just can’t go back to sipping tea and talking about the weather. But that’s good. Because tea is delicious, but also really boring.

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