Saturday, 30 April 2016

6 Clues to Spotting Your 'Screw You' Piece

The creative impulse often starts early.

Have you ever seen - whether on purpose or by some cruel accident - the Tommy Wiseau film The Room?

It's been a staple on many a list of Worst Films since - well, pretty much as soon as it first unleashed itself on an unsuspecting public, I would imagine. I'll admit I haven't see the entire film, just a collection of clips of some of the best/worst bits - but believe me that's more than enough to convince me its place on a Worst Films list is richly deserved. Here is a link to one such collection of clips, if you're brave enough to watch it (heads up, it's Not Safe For Work. Heck, it's probably Not Safe For Life.)

Were you brave - did you watch it? It just about walks on that narrow tightrope of 'so bad it's brilliant,' doesn't it?

Normally a stinker of this magnitude would prompt the question "How in the Hollywood Hells did a film like this ever get made?" However, in the case of The Room that's answered in the opening credits because, as you may have noticed, as well as starring Tommy Wiseau it was also produced and directed by... Tommy Wiseau. Oh, and the writer of the terrible script? Tommy Wiseau again. I wonder if he did the catering too..?

But this supreme example of multitasking also offers us an insight into why this film was made - and I don't just mean so Tommy Wiseau could try out four different career paths at once, in the hope of striking lucky with at least one of them. Because the more I thought about what happened in the story, the more I understood what else was going on behind it.

The Room is Tommy Wiseau's 'Screw You' Piece.

Every writer worth their salt writes a Screw You Piece at least once in their lives - it's pretty much a rite of passage. I wrote my first one when I was fifteen, as I've mentioned in this blog previously (and yes, it has since 'mysteriously' vanished from existing in anywhere but the Cringe Corner of my brain. Best place for it, believe me.) But what exactly is a Screw You Piece?

Filled with the fire and passion of a writer high on a bucketload of long-suppressed emotions, it's a piece of fiction where you pit a thinly-disguised Mary Sue of yourself against LEGO-people representations of all the shysters in your real life who ever Done You Wrong - and you take them down, baby. You destroy their lives and everything they hold dear... in fiction! Except it's really bad fiction that no sane person would ever want to read!

I'm willing to bet Tommy Wiseau got his heart stomped on by some girl he was totally in love with back in his teens. I'm thinking the most likely scenario is that he developed a huge crush on this girl - probably a super-popular, cheerleader-type - which may or may not have been unrequited. No matter either way, because at some point she chose to go out with his best friend instead - a high school jock-type, probably - and broke poor old teenage Tommy's heart in the process.

In the grand scheme of tragic stories that doesn't score high on the So-What-ometer; every angst-ridden teen has gone through something like that at some point. Most have a mini-meltdown in their bedroom for a few weeks and then get on with life again. But for the fledgling wannabe writer there's another way. You can sit on those all-consuming emotions for a few years, letting them bubble and stew, until the moment you're ready to let them burst forth like a Krakatoa of Vitriol. Because then they will have morphed beyond their original pain and lack of fairness into a terrifying monster of global injustice! With laser-beam eyes and everything!

How many of you writers are out there now thinking "Well I've never written anything like that. I don't think..."? How can you know? Well, here are some handy ways to spot if your story is a Screw You Piece...

1 - The Hero is a kind and wonderful human of infinite idealness...
He's a friend to everyone - even the stupid and smelly people. You can tell this, because everyone he meets constantly reminds him he is (unless of course they're horrible evil people, but even they only hate him because, dammit, they wish they could be more like him.) And how can everyone help themselves, because the hero is constantly proving just what an all-round awesome human he is, whether it's buying perfect presents for people, dispensing smart, insightful and compassionate advice and support to everyone (no wonder he's the guy everyone in the story goes to for that sort of thing!) or just regularly being kind to random animals and small children. Oh, and he also gets all the best lines. It's almost like... ooh, I dunno, the reader needs to be really really sure that this guy right here is the one we should all be rooting for...

2 - ...Even when he isn't.
Especially in those moments where he does things that, if some other dude did them, would be the act of a total douchebag, but because it's him it's totally justified because otherwise the plot won't work right and anyway he's the goddamn good guy, remember? He can't do anything wrong, it's against the Laws of Screw You Stories. Look, he's patting that dog's head 'cos he's an all-round cool person and he's gonna get screwed over by the evil people soon so you have to love him pay no attention to the dick behind the curtain...

3 - ...Or alternatively, even when everyone else isn't.
Everyone around her stabs her in the back, says mean and completely unfair things to her, uses and abuses her and just generally fails to treat her with the respect and compassion she so richly deserves. Even the supposed good guys who are supposed to be her friends mess up, goddammit - although, to be fair, they only do it by accident because they're slightly less awesome people than she is. But does she retaliate? Does she stoop to their level and give them a taste of their own medicine? Nooooo! She endures it all with a patient smile and the wisdom of Yoda himself, because she knows that by being so painfully morally superior to everyone else in every way she will be The Better Person, and readers will marvel at her saintliness and know that she is The Chosen One of this story!

4 - The Evil Evil Antagonists are Evil with a Capital EVIL!!!
The antagonists of a Screw You Piece aren't your run-of-the-mill bad guys. Forget about three-dimensional outcasts or damaged individuals who just happened to take the wrong path in life - a Screw You Antagonist has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, because their role in the tale is to be pantomime villain naaaassssttty, bwah ha haaaaaaa! They don't just punch fluffy kittens in the face; they tell the fluffy kittens they're ugly and their mother never loved them, then they sleep with the fluffy kitten's boyfriend and then they kill him afterwards and then they tell the fluffy kitten they just slept with their boyfriend and killed them... and they do it all while laughing gleefully because they just love every second of being so evilly evil..! Ha ha ha ha HAAAAA! *cough, splutter.*

5 - The Hero wins big - and the Villains lose bigger...
But it's all going to be okay in the end for our poor, put-upon protag - and I mean really, super-duper okay. Whatever the Grand Prize at the end of the game show was, they've got it, and in spades. Meanwhile, the villains lives have shattered into so many tiny pieces of despair they're practically a dust cloud - but you're not allowed to feel even the teeniest bit sorry for them because they totally deserved it, remember? How far is reasonable, d'you think, in making sure readers really get the message that Evil Villain has been well and truly crapped on? Well, it seems there's an actual formula for a Screw You Piece. For every disproportionately wonderful thing that happens to Awesome Heroine, an equally disproportionately terrible thing must happen to the Nasty Villains - oh, and bonus points if things of great value to the villains are taken from them and given to the Heroine instead, like a sort of karmic swap shop. So Saint Heroine of Awesome doesn't just get the guy, she gets the villain's guy, and while she becomes rich and famous and somehow even more beautiful and popular, Evil Villain becomes destitute and loses her looks and all her friends, then succumbs to some horrible disease that kills her, and when she dies no-one comes to her funeral and stray dogs come and pee on her gravestone, and then two years later it's concreted over to make way for a multi-storey car park... well okay then, maybe not that last one. A touch too harsh, perhaps.

6 - ...Or alternatively, the Tragic Hero's Tragic End is so tragic even the villains are gutted.
But you could of course be going for full-on melodrama instead. In this scenario it's the beloved hero who loses everything - usually resulting in heart-rendingly poignant death. This can either be in the form of suicide that they are driven to thanks to the evil villain's evilness, or as a result of a selfless sacrifice, made to save an unsuspecting bystander from an evil scheme the villain had planned for the hero. Either way, the demise must be a direct result of the hero being a super-awesome person who was just too awesome for this harsh, cruel world and the villain being a heartless douchebag who deserves to burn in Hell for eternity in the next life. Oh, but not before they've done some suffering before then as well - in the form of tortuous guilt. That's right - the Emperor of Nasty who once got borderline orgasmic pleasure from torturing the innocent hero is now  transformed, their eyes finally opened to their own horribleness. "Nooooooo!!! He's deeeaaaaad, and it's all my fault! I never meant for it to end this way - aaaarrrrgggghhh, WHAT HAVE I DOOOONNNNE?" The takeaway message the evil villain must be visibly seen to take away is "See - look what you did, you bar-steward! Look what you bloody well did!" In real life, of course, such a villain wouldn't give a flying monkeys - in fact he'd most likely view it as 'mission accomplished' and buy himself a celebratory beer. But in the world of Screw You Fiction his character arc must now do a sharp u-turn - and bite him in his own arse.


Whilst all of the above are exaggerated examples, they still form a blueprint for the typical Screw You Piece. And it's clear now what the purpose of such a piece is - a blunt weapon of revenge for the wounded author, hitting back at enemies from the past. If you weren't able to kick them in their actual balls at the time, why not belt them in their fictional ones a few years down the line - and capture that moment forever while you're at it? It doesn't even matter how vindictive you get, because after all, it's not like you're actually walking up to these people and hurting them in real life, is it?

And as a writer, you should write these pieces. You should pour them out of your injured soul and spread their blood and guts all over the page, in order to heal from them and move on from the scars they left on your heart. Not for nothing do they say writing is a form of therapy.

But the one thing you almost certainly shouldn't do is publish them. Because good fiction - the kind of fiction readers want to read - has rationality at its core. Sure, it may be chock-full of emotional events, but the sequence and motivations for those events come from a sound structure of logical cause and effect. And the vengeful heart is not rational or logical - it just wants to lance the blister of pain and let all the nasty gunk out. It feels damn good when you've done it - but it's best done in private. Do you really want the whole world watching the process? And then - even worse - turning away in disgust and saying "Ewww, that's gross?" Because that's what you do when you present a Screw You Piece to the world. Isn't it bad enough that you went through all that pain the first time around, without having everyone laugh and make snarky comments about it years later, and possibly for the rest of your life?

Poor old Tommy Wiseau.

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