10 March 2019
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Now here’s this week’s 500 Words. As always, thanks for reading.
I’m almost done with a final edit on a book. I’m taking out the Seinfeld references. I’m taking out the boob jokes. I’m cutting anything to do with current politics.
I’m writing a podcast drama that uses material from the latest cybersecurity cases. The data breaches are happening faster than I can get them into the script.
The tasks seem completely different and yet they are the same.
When your story line includes a reference to an old TV show or movie your focus suddenly becomes more narrow. You’ve excluded people who don’t get it. Say you’re directing a movie and include the line, “Shrinkage! Shrinkage!” assuming that it will make people laugh. Most people won’t know what you’re talking about. (George said it in episode 85 of Seinfeld, The Hamptons, which aired on May 12, 1994. Does that information help? No. It does not.)
In the book I’m rewriting I had a scene referring to the scent of my father’s shirts after they came back from the Chinese laundry. I wrote the shirts made me recall the “busy foreign hands” that operated the pressing machine. My editor told me to cut the scene. It is about the Other. It marginalizes the workers in the laundry. He’s right. I cut it.
Beta readers are going through the scripts I’m writing for my cybersecurity podcast drama. The pilot goes into production next month. In one script I have a scene with a male character who impulsively asks if he can kiss a woman. He has a crush on her. I figured that I had wrapped the scene in enough #MeToo context to make it work. A beta reader, a woman, disagreed. She said I should cut the exchange. It makes the characters seem clueless. She’s right. I cut the exchange.
#MeToo means we must re-examine how men and woman are portrayed together and what jokes about sex could work, if any. Twenty years from now, even #MeToo will become a topical reference that audiences will need to look up. You won’t want your audience breaking out of your story to Google something. You must tell that story for the future now.
Clint Eastwood was the epitome of cool to me until I discovered how he felt about President Obama. It’s impossible to watch Woody Allen movies with the same attitude I once had, given the sexual abuse allegations his adopted daughter has leveled against him. My view of Woody has changed. It has changed about Quentin Tarantino. I saw a video of him pressuring Uma Thurman to drive an unsafe car on a dangerous road. She was hurt doing the stunt — that did it for me. It didn’t matter how many careers Tarantino launched with his skills or his cool factor. He endangered an actor. He also is a friend and colleague of Harvey Weinstein.
I can’t start a sentence with “as Louis C.K. said in his act” without remembering that he masturbated in front of women against their will. These topical references are bombs waiting to go off in my stories. They must be removed before they explode.
Even when staging a period piece you take your chances. You could have a character get coffee beans at Porto Rico Importing on Bleecker Street, which will cause some readers to sigh with nostalgia about New York and others to wonder if you spelled Porto Rico correctly. (You have.)
Some stories are perishable, like news, blogs, and hot takes. Anything fresh out of the oven goes stale, eventually. But for the stories that you intend to stick around for a while, your unexamined references are landmines just waiting to do some damage.
(c) Lee Schneider 2021. Take care of each other. Subscribe.