Option A, A Stunning Lack of Creativity


I saw the movie "Clash of the Titans" this weekend.  It was okay, but it's one of the previews I saw before the movie that inspired this blog post.  I saw a preview for a movie where a pair of scientists try to create a human clone.  That's a story with a lot of possibilities.  Unfortunately, all it does is turn into the back story for a huge monster movie.  Really Hollywood?  Somebody tells you they have the ability to clone humans and unlock the secrets of life and genetic disease and all you can think to make is another generic horror-monster movie?  Really?  That's ALL you could think to do with that kind of premise?  It's what I call an "Option A" story.

In Improv, a group takes a suggestion(emotion, location, occupation, etc...) from the audience and immediately turns it into a scene.  One of my favorite Improv instructors once told me that there are 3 types of options for every suggestion.  Option 'A' is the obvious one - something so obvious that anybody could come up with.  Then there's option 'B' that provides enough of a twist that everyone will think you're clever.  Then, there's option 'C', something that's so creative that nobody but yourself could come up with it.  A good example would be, let's say someone shouts out "Gay Bar".  Option 'A' would be a scene in a gay bar where some dude is trying to pick up another dude.  You might get some laughs from the audience, but any idiot could come up with that scene.  Option 'B' might be something with a little bit of a twist.  Somebody who is just realizing they are gay goes to a gay bar for the first time.  Note that Option 'B' is just like option 'A', but has enough of a twist to be good.  Finally, option 'C' could be several barely related things.  For instance, what about a scene where a gay bar has just been burned down by a homophobic arsonist, and worse still, the police have little intention of investigating the crime?  As you can imagine, the instructor told us to "never choose option 'A', always try to come up with an option 'C', and only fall back on option 'B' if you have to".

I always remembered that because I thought that the same principal could be applied to fiction.  Movies and books that are trite are option 'A' stories.  A story that's been done so many times that an audience or reader can already guess the ending.  A good story has an option 'B' story.  It's enough of a hook that it can surprise, and yet satisfy the reader.  Then of course, a great movie or book would follow and option 'C' story.

I think all great movies and books are option 'C' type stories.  An example would be, let's say you want to make a movie about so called "Pro" Wrestling.  A couple ideas that I might call Option 'A' would be a movie following a new wrestler\actor that goes from new guy to "champ", but the new fame causes chaos in his personal life, and the older wrestlers resent the new guys popularity.  This is an old story that's been done to death, just change the job\sport\club.  An option 'B' might be story that starts with someone training to become a wrestler because it's their dream, but when they arrive they end up having to always play "the villain" and it's about his struggle to be rewritten as a "good guy".  Finally, an option 'C' story about a Wrestler might be... well... it's been done, and it was fantastic.  For those who never saw The Wrestler, it was a powerful movie about a wrestler well past his prime that must now face all the mistakes he made in his life.

Let's look at another example.  You have 2 scientists experimenting with the ability to create and manipulate life.  Option 'A' is to just do what Hollywood did and make it a typical horror-monster movie.  Option 'B' might be a small twist.  Something like they create a lab creature they become emotional attached to, but then they have to put it down because they screwed up the cloning and it's dying painfully.  Option 'C' might be well... Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  They create a 'Monster' that's even more human than they are.  There's a reason Frankenstein is such a classic that's still read today.  It's an Option 'C' story that no one will ever be able to replicate.

So, if you're going to write a book, movie, or blog fiction, don't be like Hollywood.  Try to be like Mary Shelly and choose Option 'C', .  It could mean the difference between writing a forgettable story and a classic that's still read hundreds of years after you're gone.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder Dustin. It's so easy to fall into option A. Sometimes, I think I'm so very brilliant because an idea came to me quickly; then I realize the reason the idea came to me so easily, was because it was simple-minded.

What about tips for getting to that option C version? For writing, I can think of one, and that's free writing. Pick a subject and write, non stop, without editing, or fretting about grammar, for 5-10 minutes. The first section of the free write will be Option A stuff. Toward the end, if you're lucky, you'll have reached Option C quality.

Tahjir said...

Well said! There's far too many books/films coming out with cliche or formulaic stories nowadays.

Ashley said...

That was actually one of the most helpful articles I've read in a while; I was about to pass it over when I read the beginning about Clash of the Titans, but I'm quite glad I stuck around (perhaps if you trimmed the first few sentences this great article would have more comments?)

The idea of Options A, B, C very clearly illustrates what the difference between okay, decent and great literature is.

Patent Agent said...

Why does generic always win? Why? Why is the safe option that won't upset anyone or challenge their opinions about film the one that is always accepted?

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