David Erik Nelson’s terrifying story “In the Sharing Place” is in our September/October issue on sale now. Join him below as he demonstrates how a genre-switch can save a mediocre piece of writing.
Craftspeople, as a class, spend a lot of time annoyed.
Why? Imagine that you love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing. But creating that thing is hard; it takes skills you don’t have and time you don’t have, pays very little, and opens you up to criticism and abuse from a lot of armchair generals. But you love the thing a lot (and are a great fool), so you invest a lot of energy in honing the skills need to create more of that thing you love. Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. Noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law, it is inevitable that as your skills improve and tastes grow refined—and you keep devouring ever more of the thing—you’re going to hit an ever-increasing number of examples of imperfect executions of that Thing You Love.
Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence.
You can do two things with that annoyance:
- You can kvetch about it (probably on social media, and almost certainly preaching to your choir)—or
- You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!™)
PRO-TIP: Every working artist I’ve asked about this sits squarely in Group #2. The Phantom Menace alone has spawned at least seven published novels penned by hella annoyed sf/f fans.
Consider this SNL skit—which comes so very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written that it just about makes you want to weep with frustration. Take five minutes to watch it now:
This piece could be great—it starts out so solidly!—but ultimately falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?
What Went Wrong with the Greatest Twilight Zone Episode Never Written
In any piece the Setup (i.e., the first 45% of the story) creates a series of “open loops.” These need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny within the first 10 seconds, and gongingly amplified by his goofy dream of singing “I wish” songs with his non-existent friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style—especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration. This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man. Crucially, the audience gets hit over the head with the sexual frustration open loop around the 2min10sec mark (when sexually frustrated He-Man punches through a wall out of—wait for it—sexual frustration). Having this happen at 2min10sec puts this bit of stage business at ~45% of the way through the piece. The 45% mark is where a story naturally transitions from the Setup (the section of the story during which all of the necessary elements are introduced and put into place) to the Tangle (i.e., the place where the situation outlined in the Setup is complicated in a way that cannot be ignored or undone—again, if you need more on the Formula, check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here).
Given both the placement in the narrative arc and the inherent drama of having a character punch through a wall, you’re bound to leave the audience feeling like this issue is really, really important.
And then they introduce She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia signifier—being played by Ariana Grande(!!!).
So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:
- Social Isolation (explicitly tied to a desire to express oneself communally in song)
- Twilight Zone-iness
- Sexual Frustration
And we’ve just brought Ariana Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice. The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations about the basic outline of how these loops should be resolved.
Most importantly, given how short the piece is, and how all three open loops orbit Danny (the protagonist), their Resolution needs to cinch those loops tight around him.
Does this skit do that?
Let’s look at the Resolution as written: Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the protagonist—just for side-characters Mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). Meanwhile, the social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic loops go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final bit where Danny exists alone (it’s around 4:15): It almost seems more like the actor (Kyle Mooney) is expressing his frustration with the skit, rather than fictional Danny expressing his frustration with his life.
As an audience member, I’m kinda let down. As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed, because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!
How to Turn a Mediocre SNL Skit into the Greatest Twilight Zone Episode Never Written
First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so). It’s a fine Setup, really. Next, in the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), keep almost everything the same. But—and this is important—strike the Danny/She-ra birthday hug gag (near 3:26—don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)
Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (Twilight Zone look-n-feel, Danny’s social isolation, living giant toys, etc.). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three ambulatory RealDolls start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub.
Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!”
Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song or fury. Danny, thrilled to finally have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.
The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling (everything else is still in color—I’d tap Bill Hader for this, unless they have Jon Hamm as their host). Cue Twilight Zone bongos. Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:
“A lonely young boy. A savage warrior princess. An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen . . . in mom’s hot tub”
—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join Mom’s hot tub orgy.
That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about: Twilight Zone, Lion-o’s frosting codpiece, He-Man’s sexual urges, and a boy who just wants to sing his special songs.
—David Erik Nelson