#TwitterFiction: April Fool’s Jokes

Last night I decided that an “April Fool’s Joke” was actually a creepy little story that might or might not involve someone being tricked. I came up with a few tweets before bed and starting posting them first thing this morning. I’ve collected them all below.

Flash Fiction: After The War

Tennis Ball

(image via Wi Bing Tan on Flickr)

After The War is a short story I wrote for a contest at Mash Stories. The prompt was to write a 500 word story that used the terms “tennis ball”, “bunker” and “animal rights”. I didn’t make the shortlist, but you can read other entries at the Mash Stories site.

Doug. I found the tennis ball. I know you were trying to hide it from me. I don’t know why you would do that. Weren’t we friends? Didn’t we get along? I know things are different after the war, but I thought we had an understanding. We had mutual respect. That sort of thing. I mean… that was my favorite tennis ball!

They send me in as part of the clean-up crews. I’m good at it. Good at finding all the hiding places. I go in first because I’m the best. Most of the time we don’t find anything interesting. Dead bodies are old news. We’ve all seen plenty. They stink up the place and we pull them out. Pile them up and burn them. What we’re really looking for are the secrets. The things the other side kept from us all these years.

Well, today they sent me into your house. Of all places! It felt like I hadn’t been there in years, even though the war was over in no time at all. I didn’t think I’d find much in the way of secrets, but I search every house just the same.

I did think I might find you, but you weren’t there. No dead bodies, either. Just my favorite tennis ball. I only found it because a bomb blew out half a wall. It knocked down the shelf where you hid the ball. I recognized it immediately. Very sneaky of you.

Listen, Doug, I’m a patriot like everyone else here in bunker number nine. I know that if I saw you again today we couldn’t be friends. It’s just not in the cards for us. That doesn’t mean I don’t have good memories of us together. We were fond of each other, weren’t we?

I believe in the cause, I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know your side of the story. It just hurts to know you hid something like this from me. It validates everything our glorious leader, Seamus, says about relationships with humans. “You can’t trust humans!” he says, and I didn’t want to believe him because you seemed okay enough.

When the uprising began, did you join in the call for our heads? Did you run and scream and hide, or did you stand and fight? You seemed like a brave enough human, like that time you scared away those raccoons, but it’s hard to compare. I learned about humans through what I saw and what the others told me, but I don’t know everything. I only really had one-on-one time with you.

If I see you again, I will want answers. I am going to keep looking, keep searching in houses. I will dig and sniff everywhere. If I find you and I don’t like what you say, I will tear out your throat. After all, I will let nothing stand in the way of my comrades and our god-given campaign for universal animal rights.

Micro-Fiction: Physical Double

Twins playing chess

I wrote “Physical Double” for a contest at Prime Number Magazine. The prompt asked for a 53-word story in the form of a want ad.

WANTED: Exact physical double. Long lost twin or unlikely genetic experiment preferred. Must be willing to shave all sinister facial hair and recreate common mannerisms. Fool all friends, family, lovers and co-workers to receive generous bonus payment upon completion. No pet allergies or hidden agendas. Call 555-2566 for more information and to apply.

Girls, Nudity and Critical Foot-In-Mouth Disease

Lena Dunham in Girls

I’ve only barely watched Girls, but it’s clear from what I’ve seen of it that realistic, awkward sexuality is an important part of the show’s DNA. Accordingly, when Tim Malloy from The Wrap discussed Lena Dunham’s nudity at a recent Television Critics Association panel for the show, he set off a miniature firestorm when he said he didn’t “get the purpose” of all that clothes-free acting.

Although I definitely don’t want to add to the dog-pile that inevitably occurs when someone makes a faux pas that goes viral, I would like to discuss some aspects of Malloy’s “question” that may help explain why this incident rubbed so many people the wrong way.

To provide context, here is Malloy’s quote, transcribed as part of the post above:

I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.

This immediately inspired rage-filled reactions from the combined panel of Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham, and I think it’s easy to see why.

There are at least three things about this “question” that make it frustrating: In a forum designed for questions and answers, Malloy stood up and spoke his opinion instead of asking an actual question, leaving the panelists to respond to the first interpretation that came to mind. He talked about Dunham’s nudity – a well-worn topic for as long as the show has been airing – in a way that implied he didn’t find it titillating because she in particular was naked instead of someone else. Finally, he wrapped up by saying that sexual content was included in the show at “random times for no reason,” which implies the writers are careless and arbitrary about including nudity in the show.

When Malloy discussed this further with Apatow, he was told that “there’s a way to word a question about the reason for nudity on the show and it was not done elegantly,” which got me thinking. How could Malloy approach this topic to both clearly communicate his intent and avoid offense? For the sake of this post, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and operate under the assumption that he didn’t actually mean to personally insult Lena Dunham by implying that she shouldn’t be naked so much.

It’s clear that Malloy feels that Girls has crossed the line into including nudity just for the sake of it. I think it’s a fair criticism that HBO oftentimes seems to include nudity in all their shows just because they can, and it’s definitely possible that the freedom of paid cable would inspire show creators to include more nudity than is strictly necessary. If Dunham’s nudity was surprising or funny the first few times it appeared in the show, does it still serve the same purpose after the newness has worn off?

However, even if excessive nudity might be a fair criticism when leveled at HBO in general, in context it reads like Malloy’s personal reaction to Girls and Lena Dunham in particular. Accordingly, rather than flatly stating what he thought, he should have phrased his question in a way that it might cause the panelists to consider that possibility and address it.

Here’s how I might have phrased this question more effectively:

Nudity and sex have been a big part of Girls from the beginning, oftentimes presented in an unglamorous, realistic way. Do you think that those moments will always be a big part of the show, and if so, how do you avoid including them just for the sake of it?

Two important things here: this is actually a question, and my opinion never comes into it. I’m not telling the panelists what I think, but I am leading them to a possible conclusion. I’d bet you anything that if Malloy had done those two things, his question would have sailed right on through without further comment.

Watch Your Fucking Mouth

Al Swearengen

I’ve been reading a lot of unproduced screenplays recently, and a few things have been jumping out at me. First off: a lot of writers fumble on structure. A lot of what I’ve read has shown clear signs of competence but wandered around plotless for upwards of fifty pages. Some writers can pull off plotless, but most of them are novelists.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers are really bad at swearing. I’ll read a script full of characters saying fuck every other sentence and it just rings untrue. I always feel a bit silly when I ding a script for “too much swearing”, so I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about it. I’m no prude, and some of my favorite scenes and movies are full of swearing, so what’s different about these scripts?

I think the key difference is that these writers are swearing by default. They probably swear a decent amount in their own lives, they’ve watched plenty of movies full of swearing, so they throw in swearing because that’s how people sound, right? The problem is that they forget to make their choice of words about the characters saying them. The swearing is about the writer, not the characters.

People who accuse writers of laziness when they use vulgarity are missing the point. Swearwords aren’t automatically lazy; it all comes down to how you use them. Some of the greatest scenes in film and TV revolve around characters who swear up a blue streak, but they work because those moments reveal something about those characters and deepen our understanding of their feelings and motivations.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

1) Steve Martin blows up at a rental car agent in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Up until this point the character has been mild-mannered and relatively patient, but he’s been through such an ordeal that he finally snaps and lets loose in the way only a man on the edge would do. The way he swears also tells us something about him as a character; it’s like a dam bursting, this sudden barrage of profanity pours forth from him and he’s punctuating every fucking word of every fucking sentence with another fucking swear word.

2) Peter Capaldi (the next Doctor Who!) in pretty much every scene of In The Loop.

Malcolm Tucker swears constantly and with evident relish. He terrorizes everyone around him and uses words like knives. He isn’t content with throwing out a “fuck” here and there, he rants and raves and spins absurd metaphors and embellishes every sentence with an acidity that jumps out of the screen at you.

3) Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

David Mamet wrote this scene for Alec Baldwin. It isn’t in the stage play, but it’s by far the most famous moment in the movie. Baldwin is in the zone here, he’s all rhythm and rancor and cool energy. He swears for emphasis, to make a point, to hammer home his message and it flows like poetry. Say what you will about Mamet the man, but when he could write, he could write.

4) Bunk and McNulty in The Wire.

Two characters communicate entirely through the word fuck and it’s hilarious. They give every variation of the word its own meaning. A large part of this relies on the talent of the actors and their delivery, but the humor is there in the writing. The great part about this scene is that it shows us that the characters know each other so well that they can communicate with only one word.

These are all excellent examples of writers using profanity to tell us something about their characters. Swearwords are words like any others; they have a certain bite and relish to them, but if they are used poorly, they clang and fall flat just like any other.

So, what’s the takeaway? Should writers avoid profanity in their scripts? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they really just need to hear their words read aloud. I feel like a lot of the problems with dialogue become glaringly obvious when the words are read aloud. Mainly, though, it’s a matter of deciding why a character swears and how they swear.

The Complete “Ideas For Detectives”

The Complete “Ideas For Robots”