My latest obsession for avoiding deadlines and plodding through a rather heavily marked up second draft of the current novel I'm working on is to occupy my time picking “My Top 5” things for a whole host of absurd categories online. This habit started off innocently enough. I chose items in mundane subjects like Favorite Movies and Favorite Books or Cartoons I Loved as a Kid. All typical internet fare that solicits a few interesting answers that reveal slight hints about your personality to the rest of the world, and by the rest of the world, I mean the handful of people bored enough to sift through other people’s narcissistic postings.
As my work piled up and beckoned me to get down to business, I naturally looked for ever more stimulating distractions that might motivate me to ignore it. So I dug deeper into the categories of top fives, seeking out the more absurd subjects. Once I plowed through those, the “Create Your Own” tab loomed large and I took the plunge. When it got to the point where I successfully wasting an entire morning, I realized that I was officially hooked.
I quickly discovered there was a storytelling appeal to carefully thinking about how five random things, when linked to a theme, could create a bigger picture. It’s like laying out all the ingredients on the counter, but leaving no recipe. In that sense, it’s like a story that's never told. It’s just the spark of one whose possibilities are endless. I found that I couldn't resist the temptation to throw these sparks out there.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about is the category Items, if bought together, Would Make the Cashier Wonder About You. When I stumbled upon this one, I marveled at its brilliance. Here it was...the perfect set up to create an offbeat character, a collection of odd props, and the hint of some horrifying story.
Of course, the majority of people answering this chose fairly obvious items like duct tape, chainsaws, and freezer bags. Granted, these are all fine answers, but come on, we all know the story right away. In my opinion, they were missing a golden opportunity to create the greatest story never told. So, I took the challenge to heart as if the Internet were testing my imagination.
(I would like to pause here and have it noted that I already confessed to this being an obsession.)
After a lot of consideration, backtracking and second-guessing, I finally made my choices. My list of items, that if bought together, would make the cashier wonder about the buyer, is as follows:
* A James Patterson book (because why would anyone buy such a thing)
* Superhuman Speed (the simple fact that it could be purchased intrigues me)
* Teddy Ruxpin (the talking teddy bear and forbearer of the Cyborg apocalypse)
* Raw Hot Dogs
* Toddler Feet (just the feet, I suppose the rest must be sold separately)
I dare say there’s an epic in the making here. You can’t help but wonder about this character. Where’s he going with that stuff? What can he do with? What can’t he do with it? And what insane world does he inhabit where this surrealist big box store sells outdated children’s toys alongside super powers?
This is what I mean when I refer to these as stories that are never told. There’s a narrative in the pieces, but it's one given to the reader to let them go wild with. I’ve always loved stories like that. Ones that don’t try to answer every question and lay it out for the reader on a platter like serving up a refined chunk of imagination and saying, “Here, choke on that for bit.”
There’s a lot to be said for leaving an air of mystery to a story, but it seems to be an unpopular belief in the current force-fed state of entertainment. People want everything nice and neat. Easily digestible soundbites. Action followed by airtight conclusions. And that's all fine and good to an extent. I’m not saying things shouldn't make sense. But I think entertainment should be more than just a diversion. If I'm going to invest time into something, I’d at least like it to stimulate some thought.
I suppose this is why I’ve always been able to forgive things that weren't necessarily executed with perfection as long as the ideas behind it were fascinating. It’s the reason I’m able to read Philip K. Dick books even though I don’t find him to be a particularly good writer (no hate mail please). It’s the same reason anyone is able to watch a Sci-Fi original movie. It’s the ideas within the stories that pull us in. Sometimes what isn’t said is the very thing that makes a story complete. And every once in awhile, I prefer just to get the idea and let them leave the bad storytelling out.
If you’re skeptical, try making your own list for Things Most Likely to Drop out of Nowhere and Hit Me in the Head. If, like me, you choose Object thrown by a time assassin from the future to murder me before I can unintentionally destroy the world sometime in the future then I’m confident you’ll be clamoring to create more of your own greatest stories never told.
Brian James is the author of several notable books including Pure Sunshine and Dirty Liar. He lives in a small town in upstate New York that may or may not be overrun with zombies. His new book, Zombie Blondes, is now available from Square Fish.