Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sink or Swim -- a ramble

Writing Assignment
Arabella Hicks - The Fiction Class

This is an exercise in learning how to write a climactic scene.

A boat sinks during a storm, and only ten of its passengers make it onto a lifeboat.  One by one the survivors are knocked off until, after a month at sea, only two survivors are left.  There is not enough food for both of them, and one of them is going to have to get rid of the other.  One of them is a teenage girl who is very strong for her age, but she is blind.  The other is a musician from a successful boys' band.  He is twenty-six years old and smaller than the girl.  Who will survive?  Write the final scene.

(The Fiction Class by Sara Breen page 73)


Initial reaction: Seriously?  A life boat with enough food for a month?  Not to mention water.  A blind girl and a boy band singer?  Who freakin' cares?  After a month starving at sea and offing eight other people, they are both insane.  They struggle and both fall overboard to drown.  I see no other way out unless they figure out how to work together.  If they have not been found yet, they aren't going to be in this modern age.  The shipwreck would be known.  The area would be searched.  I'm all for imagination, but this is just insane.  No thank you.  I just can't get past the month in a lifeboat idea.

... Or maybe I can.  But they still both die.  they don't fight for one to win over the other.  They fight because one wants to give up, and the other wants to survive.  One tries to stop the other from capsizing the boat, and they both go over.  Or they make a murder suicide pact, and the suicide can't go through with it.  Or the murderer commits suicide instead, leaving the other to starve.  Except that a murderer needs a weapon.  Unless we're back to just a battle of sheer strength, and one drowns.

Shipwrecks are hard to come by these days.  What kind of boat were they on to begin with?  Something big enough to have a lifeboat, rather than just life preservers.  And big enough to have enough food for ten people for a month, if one person dies every few days.  I'm back to thinking that a boat that big can't go down without someone knowing about it because there would be radio contact of some sort.  Until the storm or the ice berg or whatever hit, and all of the electronics drowned.

Did all of the electronics really drown?  If there was time to gather food and this is a modern story (based on the successful boy band singer -- not that there weren't successful boy bands before the age of gps and cell phones and whatnot because back in the day, when they were all young, the Beatles and the Stones and the E Street Band were all bands made up of boys), are you telling me that no one figured out a way to bring a cell phone of some sort?  Of course, it may not work, and the battery will eventually die.  But wouldn't it be worth trying to get some sort of signal and some sort of bearing on land and then work together to try to move the boat and that direction, gauging according to the path of the sun once the battery/signal gives out?

And over the course of the month, if they are truly out on open water, everyone hasn't died of exposure?  Or in another storm?  And throwing a body, or eight, overboard hasn't attracted some sort of carnivorous sea creature?

I mean, how does this work?

"Okay, we're on a boat.  There are ten of us.  We've got a bunch of food, but clearly not enough for the long term, so we're going to have to start pushing people over.  Or you can always fall in on your own.  Who wants to go first?"

And it would seem to me that whoever pushes the first person over would be the obvious second victim.  Then the seeds of suspicion are sown.  Who is the next pusher?  The next pushee?  Madness won't be too far behind suspicion.

Why are the two kids left?  How did they outlast the grownups?

Okay.  Let's see.  Where were we?  Oh yes.  Billy and Jane are the last ones in the lifeboat.  They sit on opposite ends staring at each other.  Well, Jane is blind, so her stare is kind of directionless, but Billy stares at her intently, watching every move as intently as she listens for him to make even the smallest sound of movement.

Each one knows that there is no way out.  They have been on this lifeboat for a month with no sign of rescue. The food and water are almost gone, along with hope.  But hope survives on belief rather than food and water, so it is more tenacious.  As long as they keep hoping, there is a chance, right?  You read about miraculous, impossible stories all the time.  People survive car crashes, being lost in the woods or on a mountain, animal attacks and storms.  It happens.  If it can happen to those people, why can't it happen to me?

Billy and Jane have the same thought at the same time.  "I can survive this.  I'm going to be the one who makes it."

"I have been blind since birth.  Look at everything I have had to overcome.  I have had to deal with a major handicap every single day.  That makes me strong and resourceful."

"I was just a poor kid from a town no one had ever heard of.  I left home at sixteen and headed to Hollywood.  I worked all sorts of horrible, demeaning jobs and sang and danced every chance I got because that is what I was meant to do.  I started with nothing, and now I am part of one of the most popular bands ever!  That makes me strong and resourceful."

Then they have another thought at the same time: "But am I strong enough and resourceful enough to kill another person?  And what if I succeed and get the last of the food?  Then what?"

Jane: "I'll be all alone in a boat on open water in the middle of nowhere.  If I win, I'll live a little longer, but how much longer?"

Billy: "If I can beat her in a fight, then I will be really alone.  Will someone really find me?  What's the use of being the last man standing if I still end up as fish food?"


Nope.  It's not sparking anything for me.  If there is no reason to think that either one will survive, what is the point of having one outlast the other?

Any ideas out there?


  1. Testing the comment process.

  2. For Billy and Jane, I like having a reciprocal altruism approach. Probably that is just because I've been having a lecture a day from Sapolsky on neurobiology. Even so, it seems that both die, unless, with a twist of magical realism ... (Like you, I have difficulty with the undetected lifeboat with a month's supply for a bunch of people.)

    Maybe it is time to revisit Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) for ideas.

  3. When I began reading your blog, I thought of *The Open Boat* by Stephen Crane and then *The Life of Pi* by Yann Martel. Then there is the story by Asimov, but I cannot remember its title.

    I wondered, "what is the longest period of time someone has been stranded at sea?" A quick search yields this information: Steven Callahan adrift for 76 days (1982); 3 teens stranded for 50 days (2010); and a British couple stranded for 40 days (2008).

    I thought of *The African Queen* where two people choose to work together to survive.

    The "conditions" of each character will motivate them to try to stay alive an help one another. He is the sensitive artist; she is blind and therefore exceedingly sensitive to others and her surroundings. She is a survivor who cares. He is 26, and she is a teenager, though we do not know her exact age. She could be 13 or 19 or anywhere in between. Her exact age may dictate the manner the young man perceives her. Will he be more likely to kill a 13 year old or a 19 year old, if he entertains surviving alone.

    What demonic elements might surface in either or both of them. Maybe the young man is a vampire. Maybe the teenager is a witch. Oh, yes all kinds of possibilities.

    But then what about providing a happy ending, or at least semi-happy?

  4. I hadn't considered a magical/supernatural angle. I like that suggestion. I think I'll play around with it.