Child’s play isn’t child’s play

Colloquially, when someone—an adult—states that some activity was child’s play, they are trying to convey that the action was simple or easy, that it took no effort. And yet, their use of the expression couldn’t be more wrong.

I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon yesterday with a few friends and their kids at the local beach. The kids ranged in age from infant to teen, although the majority were in the 3-5 range, I think—at my age, anyone under 30 looks 12.

Regardless, when lunch was over, the younger set and a few doughy adults headed to the water, where things got serious. Not for the adults, you understand, whose toughest job was to retrieve a tossed flip-flop from the frigid waters of Lake Ontario. No, it was at this moment that the child’s play began in deadly earnest, for four of the middling sprites decided to build a canal system that would have made the Panama and Suez engineers blanch.

Miran, the eldest of the group, became overseer, designing a series of causeways that challenged the imagination. Mounds of sand became islands in the stream. Canal walls were carefully constructed, through trial and error, to ensure sturdiness in the face of aquatic onslaught.

Cole, the lone boy in the group, became a human bulldozer, carving access channels to the lake itself that would help fill the channels with each invading wave. Samantha and Hana, meanwhile, worked bucket brigade, supplementing Cole’s efforts with frequent trips between lake and canal system.

This was not child’s play, despite it being play by children.

With each set back—a minor sand slide, a misplaced deluge, pee break—there would be a momentary expression of frustration followed quickly by brief meeting to discuss options and then an action plan to right the wrong. A lot of adult companies could stand to learn from this lesson.

This is not to say the process was flawless. At one point, Miran decided that she wasn’t crazy about the canals under construction and instead wanted a massive lake, which would have necessitated the removal of a large island. A new corporate executive is born.

She was quickly talked out of this by her subordinates who felt challenged enough to complete the canal system, let alone initiate island removal.

The children worked tirelessly for an hour or so and made substantial headway, but like all good infrastructure projects, senior management (parents) eventually got bored (and not just a little sun-stroked) and wanted to head back to the house.

Reluctantly, the children packed up shop and abandoned the construction site. Unbeknownst to them, however, as quickly as they left the site, another altitudinally-challenged crew appeared to continue the job.

This is how I want to live my life; playing with fervent intensity. I accept there will be momentary setbacks—as I approach 50 years, pee breaks are a necessary evil—but I will not let those setbacks deter me in my goals or disturb the pleasure I get in pursuing them.

I am embracing child’s play 2.0.

Story before structure

Over the last couple decades, I have taken classes at a variety of post-secondary centres teaching everything from magazine writing to sketch writing to screenwriting, and one thing has always amazed and frustrated me about the majority of my classmates: They all think they are going to finish the class with a template for success.

For some reason, they believe that there is an inherent structure for a successful story that they can just drape story elements over. If I can just map out the three-act structure, I will win that Academy Award.

When in your lives have you ever walked out of a class with a structure for success? Ever! Ever!

Even the alphabet was merely a building block to communication. Please let me know who has gotten a job and achieved a pinnacle of success through the strict application of the alphabet as taught in pre-K or kindergarten. The alphabet is useless unless you rearrange and duplicate some of the letters, and even then there is more to it.

Don’t ask the instructor on what page the Act I turning point should come because not all screenplays are 110 pages and not all stories have their Act I turning point at the 25% point of the screenplay. (If you want your head to explode, try figuring out the Act I turning point of the movie Memento.)

Write the story that demands to be written, regardless of the canonical film, novel or sketch structure. Let the story and its characters tell you when things should happen. Luckily, because few of us still spit charcoal onto our hands against rock walls, we can easily move the elements of our story around later.

You can have the strongest architecture in the world, but if your story sucks, your screenplay sucks. If your characters aren’t truthful to themselves and your story, no one will believe them. Much as a roadmap doesn’t a vacation make, neither does a story structure a story make.

We learn these elements, the points in our writing, as guiding principles for our own thoughts, not as immovable stone markers for what must be.

When used correctly, this information can enhance a beautiful story, but when used as a crutch, it destroys creativity; we focus too much on the next point and not enough on the journey.

Write your play. Write your novel. Write your screenplay. Write your poem. Write your story.

Once you’ve done that, then check the beams and girders of your construction to make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be for the sake of that story.