Microcosm vs Macrocosm. Small pond vs the sea.
Before we begin our stories we imagine the message we want to convey. All too often we become wrapped up in a plot that is beyond our level of expertise. It doesn’t matter what your main character’s daily life consist of. If the experience is not authentic to your own, you will have readers and viewers that immediately dismiss the reality you’ve tried to reproduce. You can do all the research you want but authenticity cannot be duplicated. I want you to think about an experience/job/cultural perspective that is unique to yourself. I’m sure there are many secrets about that experience that those on the outside will not be able to find in any book no matter how hard they look. You can reproduce the jargon, but even that has its own intricacies.
I don’t mean to suggest you should abandon research on the story you would like to tell. For some this may be the primary motive of the project in the first place – to learn more about a subject that highly interests you. I am sure this was a major factor in Dan Brown’s novels. Then again, his wife was a well-educated art historian.
The significance of the title here is that thinking on smaller terms can enable you to convey the message you would like to get across while working within the resources available to you. Television and movie productions that deal with real life stories have a tremendous budget behind them. When Stanly Kubrick aimed to write a film about Napolean, he had an entire team assemble so much research that he could figure out what Napolean was doing during any given day of his life.
Let’s pretend you’re currently preoccupied with the covid-19 pandemic and its response. The message you would like to express is that illness strikes those who approach it with blatant dismissiveness.
On a macro level, this project would require you to consider the roles of politicians, celebrities, foreign governments, and statistics regarding the most adversely effected populations. You can find a lot of information online, but along your journey you realize you need one of your main characters to be a politician, another one is a reporter in a foreign nation, and another is a dementia patient/family member confined to a nursing home. You sit in front of your laptop and cannot even write a sentence because you are not sure how the regular life of a high-profile politician would even begin.
But let’s take these same power dynamics and apply it on a smaller scale. Your main character is a middle-aged female who lives in the suburbs (something relatable for you, the writer). They begin with the assumption that the covid-19 illness is not as bad as its made out to be. The main character’s husband, however, is deathly afraid and paranoid about getting the virus. He is a clean freak.
So we have our relatable characters who are easy to write and flesh out. You know who else could fit a character that has a lot of power and influence on this small scale? The media. That’s right – the newspaper, the online forums, the cable news network. You don’t need to dive inside their personal lives to be affected by their influence. So we make the regular news headlines and their arc a significant portion of the story.
Who else holds power? Maybe someone the main character looks up to. It could be a secret crush on a local small business owner who refuses to comply with the government shutdown. Maybe we watch his character change as he sees his customers become affected by the virus. Or maybe he doesn’t change, but the main character’s opinion of him and his reckless abandonment does.
So now we have 2 power influences that add to our story and reinforce/reflect its overall message. Perhaps the 3rd major character is based on our hero’s private ambition and subplot. The job they loved that they are prevented from returning to, or the fetus she carries inside her that is approaching delivery.
As a low budget filmmaker, I cannot emphasize enough about the importance of knowing your resources. I firmly believe the time you have each day for writing should be 90-95% devoted to crafting a compelling story. That is hard enough. The irony of doing all the research necessary to craft a story on a large scale is that it can only be as compelling as the story itself. Nobody who reads fiction is looking to read a manual. As a filmmaker it would be lovely to write scenes that include limousines, press conferences, and a large gallery of extras. The reality is I do not have the funding to make those scenes appear realistic. Rather than crafting a story that looks ridiculous when a green screen inevitably comes into play, I’d much rather write to the resources I have at my disposal.
Hope this helps in some way or another. Enjoy your morning and may you find your peace.