Put Snakes on a Plane

2 Apr

Stacey Swann’s story “Pull” was published in Freight Stories.

No movie ever had a better premise than Snakes on a Plane. If good fiction traps incompatible characters in a room, then what could better than a crowd trapped 20,000 feet above ground with humanity’s oldest enemy. The problem, however, was that the trapped characters had shallow motivations and desires—bite, not get bitten. As a result, the movie had no way to advance or explore the premise. Why do the snakes want to bite the people? Who cares? They’re snakes. It’s what they do. What is the passenger’s ulterior motives? I’ll let Samuel L. Jackson fill you in

So what does great fiction have to do with a B movie? Like Snakes on a Plane, fiction seeks to trap together incompatible characters. The difference is that the incompatibility itself is complex. A clear example can be found in Stacey Swann’s story, “Pull,” which was published here at Freight Stories.

How the Story Works

Unlike the snakes and the passengers, who hate and despise each other equally, the characters in Stacey Swann’s story, “Pull,” suffer from a far more complex incompatibility: unrequited love. As the story makes clear in the final, devastating line, the two characters are incompatible, but only one of them knows it—and even that knowledge cannot save them.

So how does Swann do it?

First, she carefully sets the stage: Jo and Lou are in love.

Then, she defines each character: Lou is a depressive who drops out of Texas A&M and only feels better when Jo returns home while on break from Stanford. Jo, on the other hand, realizes that “she was sad every time she saw him.”

At this point, a lot of writers might wonder what comes next. If Jo is at Stanford, how do you get her back to small town in Texas that she doesn’t like? How do you trap them together? Swann does it by making Jo a casualty of the economy. Her newspaper job has vanished, and Jo, like so many young people, has no choice but to temporarily move home—where her old boyfriend awaits. Perhaps, Jo thinks, the old romantic fire still smolders. Maybe they’ll catch on together. But, of course, that’s not what happens. The events that occur must occur, and, as a result, we read this brilliant final line: “There will always be things we can’t keep ourselves from doing, no matter who it hurts.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow Stacey Swann’s model:

  1. Create a premise: X and Y are in love. X and Y are in prison. X and Y are sailing across the ocean (Life of Pi), X and Y are college friends.
  2. Define each character, stressing the incompatability: X loves Y, but Y is way too old (Harold and Maude); Y is X’s only friend, but Y is an invisible 6-foot-tall rabbit (Harvey); X is neat and uptight, and his roommate Y is an easygoing slob (The Odd Couple); X loves Y, but Y is impotent and can never be with X (The Sun Also Rises).
  3. Trap the characters in a confined place: a lifeboat, a car, an apartment, a small group of friends in a strange city.
  4. Explore the situation. Don’t worry about story or plot. Write a few scenes and see what happens. For instance, what happens if impotent Jake is at a bar and sees the love of his life Brett with another man?

An effective entrapment will make the situation seem inevitable. Of course Jake Barnes is impotent; he was in the war, and the war was terrible, and many soldiers came home injured, and everything that came afterward was bad. Of course Jo returns to her small Texas hometown; where else would she go after losing her job? She couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco without money.

Spend some time thinking about the entrapment. If you find the right approach, and if your characters are compellingly mismatched, you may find that it sparks your imagination and the story begins to write itself.

Good luck.

One Response to “Put Snakes on a Plane”


  1. Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation | Read to Write - April 23, 2013

    […] Aside: I’ve mentioned this idea several times on the blog, and it bears repeating. It’s important to give readers a sense of where the story is going. There are many ways to do this. For more examples, check out these exercise based on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story “Pull.” […]

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