3 for Thursday: Writing Tips from Bill & Ted

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My teenage sister and her friends trooped in to my parent's living room one evening, decked out in over-sized army jackets, cropped baggy trousers, shaggy hair and Docs - (shavings, piercings, optional) - and clutching a videotape of a film destined to become a cult classic: 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure'. If you just heard a groan, it was my dodgy hip and galloping lumbago because Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is 25 years old this week - yes, it is a quarter of a century since this seminal celluloid masterpiece (Citizen Who?) was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

For those who don't know the film (What? How? Why?), the story goes something like this.

Our heroes, Bill & Ted - not the brightest sparks, bless 'em - have a history paper to write but are much more interested in their rock band, Wyld Stallions. Little do they know it, but the future of mankind rests on this moment - if they fail the paper, Ted will be sent away to military school, the band will split and a future harmonious civilisation, who worship Wyld Stallions as gods, will crumble.

An emissary from the future, Rufus, arrives in a time machine, a telephone box (naturally...), to warn them of potential doom. He takes them back into the past and they meet Napoleon, who accidentally hitches a lift back to present day California.

Daunted by their writing task, and fearing the demise of the band, Bill & Ted have an idea. They travel through time collecting historical figures - Ghengis Khan, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln - bring them to 1989, set them loose on their home town to observe their behaviour and use it for their history paper.

Much space time continuum hilarity ensues.

In so doing they give me a reason to watch the movie and call it work teach us 3 valuable lessons about tackling a writing project:

  • Write what you know

Good writing - poetry or prose - is specific. It's easier to be specific about familiar things, people and places. Bill and Ted bring the historical characters to places they know - the waterpark, the bowling alley, the mall. The everyday, familiar setting also acts as a kind of shorthand for readers / viewers - things they understand and can relate to.

  • Do your research

Find out more; even the most commonplace and familiar things have the ability to surprise. Bill & Ted use the time machine to meet the historical characters and write about them first-hand.  Discover the real stories behind people, places or objects to make your writing richer in detail and more believable.

  • Kidnap and time machines are essential writing tools.

A brain and a library are the only time machines you need; imagination, an alternative to kidnap that doesn't involve doing hard time. Granted, Oscar Wilde, Dostoevsky, Cervantes and e. e. cummings all produced great literature while banged up, so it's your call.*

  • Tension and conflict lead to resolution

I've talked before about conflict as literary motivation - Bill & Ted take action when something they care about is on the line; time travel threatens both future and past; fish out of water historical characters are challenged by the realities of the modern world. Putting characters or objects in an unfamiliar context forces a response; as writer, you look at them in a new way. Creating a threat to their comfort zone or safety lets you explore their strengths, weaknesses and what really matters to them.

For further essential tips, including Twister as means of cheating Death, refer to the iconic sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK9oJzQwpY4]

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* Disclaimer: This writer does not endorse the committing of criminal acts as a means of gaining undisturbed writing time or literary notoriety.