So Groundhog Day is long past and spring is (kind of) here now, BUT... as anyone who has a cat probably knows, sometimes the little rats keep you up for an hour in the middle of the night. The one upside is that occasionally while lying awake and wondering how you'll ever get back to sleep, you get a random idea for a blog post.
Or is that just me?
So the other night after turning on all the lights to clean up the little terror's mess (and really, why does she think she can inhale her food and then tear around the house without getting sick?) I suddenly recalled—for no apparent reason—the movie Groundhog Day. And, in what seemed like an obvious sequence of thoughts at the time, I began to realize the ways in which the plot is a little like writing.
If there aren't any consequences, you're free to experiment
In the movie, Bill Murray's character Phil lives the same day over and over and over. Once Phil gets over being completely unnerved by this development, he realizes that he can do whatever he wants. Some of the most entertaining moments of the movie are while he's doing completely outrageous things because there are no permanent consequences.
The same thing is true for us when writing first drafts. Now I've heard that in the time of type-writers, this wasn't so much the case. But I'm firmly part of the computer generation, and there's nothing to stop me from typing as many words that will never be used as I please. A new blank page is only a click away.
So don't be afraid to try something new! Experiment with a new voice, a risky plot line or a troublesome character. At best you'll add something exciting to your work; at worst you'll have practiced something different.
A string of facts do not make a character
Eventually Phil comes to realize that what he really wants is Andie MacDowell's character Rita. So he sets about memorizing every single fact about her that he possibly can. Then with each repeated day he comes closer and closer to winning her over by pretending to be everything she's looking for. But the plan never works. Why? Because Rita isn't just a long string of memorized facts. Really knowing her doesn't mean knowing a list of things about her.
We can run into the same problem with our characters. Sometimes we might have the temptation to jot down a bunch of character traits and “favorites” (favorite color, favorite food, favorite flower) and think they fully describe a character. But in order to understand our characters more fully we need to dive deep into their needs, their desires and the mindsets that inform the ways they see the world.
Revise, revise, revise
Finally Phil discovers that his greatest personal need is to make Groundhog Day the very best day that he is capable of making it. But he doesn't succeed right away! Perfecting that one day is a loooooong process. Even once he has the outline of the day right, he still has to refine the details.
And writing is the same way for us. First drafts aren't perfect. We can only achieve our best work with focused editing.
But if Phil could do it, so can we! And maybe that's the biggest lesson from the movie: if a stuck-in-a-rut weatherman can have one perfect day, what might we accomplish?