I would've gotten away with it, too

Tags: my stories

I have a story in the new Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists anthology! It's called "Meddling Kids", and if youre under the age of fifty, you're already thinking Scooby Doo.

Cats in story may be larger than they appear

Now, I obviously couldn't publish a Scooby Doo story — I don't have the rights to the characters. And even if I did, I wouldn't be interested in writing a new adventure for them. In "Meddling Kids" I wanted to start with what readers knew about a familiar piece of entertainment, and head out in a surprising but logical direction that ends up somewhere very, very different from where an actual Scooby story would go. Not by reeling out tired tenth-hand jokes ("Velma's a lesbian! Daphne and Fred are making out instead of searching for clues! Shaggy is high!"), but by looking more closely about what Scooby Doo was always about.

As a kindergartner I loved Scooby Doo, but by the age of ten or so I was dismissing it as kid stuff that I was far too grown up for. At five I could be puzzled by the mysteries, but still follow the plot and the solution; a few years later, the same stories were too simple to be satisfying.

Looking back, I think there's another element I enjoyed about the show, without being able to name it. The Scooby Gang are teenagers, but they're a little kid's fantasy of what being a teenager is like: you can go to the ice cream parlor without Mom and Dad chaperoning you, but going out on a date doesn't even cross your mind. (I'd say that Bilbo in The Hobbit is a similar fantasy, a child's idea of adulthood: Bilbo can eat whatever he wants for tea, but he doesn't have a job, a wife, or children of his own.)

Perhaps that's why viewers loathed Scrappy-Doo — they wanted to imagine being more grown-up, but what they got was an annoying younger character stealing the spotlight and ruining the fantasy. Or perhaps even little kids realized that the show had included a younger character specifically for them — "you'll like this character because he's you: tiny and annoying." (It couldn't have been a question of quality — well, not for me, anyway; tiny Tracy thought it was hilarious when Cher compared Sonny to a grape popsicle.)

So how do you combine all that into a new story?

When I wrote "Meddling Kids", I didn't want to rely on my childhood memories of Scooby Doo. I might think the show is craftsmanlike entertainment for small kids rather than an enduring classic I can still enjoy as an adult, but I wanted to treat it with respect. What makes a story feel like Scooby Doo? What makes it mysterious, but not confusing?
Scary — but ultimately reassuring?

So I Googled up some lists of the best episodes and watched them with an Excel spreadsheet open in another window, keeping track to the nearest thirty seconds of what plot points occurred and when. And I started seeing patterns.

The stories' structure is partly dictated by the timing of the commercial breaks, but every episode I watched showed the villain in the opening scene.
The mystery plots were linear: something odd would happen, and the characters would find a clue that logically led them to the next scene. When the Scooby Gang found the final clue, though, they didn't explain its significance until after the bad guys were caught and everything was wrapped up.

That structure translates fairly naturally into short fiction, but other elements couldn't be adapted as neatly. Scooby Doo built suspense with fog, cobwebs, and whistling wind — but it scared you with things the characters couldn't see, things happening right behind their backs: paintings with eyes that followed you, hooded figures skulking behind pillars, perhaps a bound and gagged kidnapping victim just out of our heroes' sight. (And many of those scares weren't, in fact, dangerous — often the unseen character turned out to be a good guy who wasn't part of the Scooby Gang, or just someone who needed rescuing.)

In TV and movies, we're used to cameras that show us more than the characters can see. In prose, though, while it's perfectly possible to write "But unbeknownst to her ..." or "She never saw ...", it's out of fashion at the moment. Each scene in a short story is generally told from the point of view of a specific character, describing only what that character can see, relating their thoughts and no one else's. I see more fiction in the second person than in the omniscient third person. (Giving readers that extra information can be terrifically effective, though, especially in small doses; take a look at Stephen King's "The Mangler". "Adelle Frawley was dead; sewed together by a patient undertaker, she lay in her coffin. Yet something of her spirit perhaps remained in the machine, and if it did, it cried out. She would have known, could have warned them ...")

Whenever I talk about story structure, someone will tell me that they're not aware of any of that, and therefore it has no effect on how they respond to the story. I think that's poor reasoning. It's like saying that you're not aware of how your car's engine works, and therefore the engine has no effect on the car's performance.

Once I'd done the work to tease out a Scooby Doo structure, it was easy enough to build the story around it; I just used my spreadsheet to work out roughly how far into a 4,000 word story various events should occur and used it as a guide to assembling the first draft. Even if you don't notice it consciously, I think the familiar rhythms give the story the right feel.

But what about that sense of suspense audiences get from knowing more than the characters do? Rather than giving audience information the characters didn't have, I let the characters find the clues and assume they're just one more hoax - while the audience, who knows better, sees the more sinister implications. (Lovecraft was fond of this technique.)

I hope you'll like "Meddling Kids" whether or not you're a Scooby Doo fan; it's a fun story about plucky teenagers who get in over their heads, with some surprises of its own to add. You can get it from Amazon, or wherever fine books are sold!

Written on October 7, 2015