Saturday, July 19

The kids fought in the car the whole trip up. Good for establishing character but seven hours is way too much exposition. Next time we have to start further along in the story. Plus, their arguments are just too generic. That old “Your arm is on my side!” is so clichéd. With lines like that they could be anybody’s kids. What they need is some kind of cute quirkiness that lets us know their backstory right away. Couldn’t Katie have some kind of nervous tic? It would be great if she would stare out the window wistfully or bite her nails or react with dread to the word “sandwich.”

The ride just did not provide the hook we need to grab our attention and make us want to know more. Who are these people? Where are they going? What do they hope to get out of a week by the ocean? Frankly, after an opening sequence like that one, I just don’t care.

As usual, Susie was the only one who provided the kind of detail we need to ground the whole scene with some gritty realism. Just as we pulled up to the house I told her I’d brought along some work and there was a great close-up when she glared at me. Good foreshadowing—signals the beginning of an interesting subplot.

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Sunday, Noon

Big problem—we’re halfway through the second day and still no inciting incident. I was sure we had one when Timmy fell off the deck and it looked like he was out cold. A trip to the hospital would have sparked all sorts of conflicts, and maybe even revealed some long-hidden family secrets. Of course, a kid in a coma might be over the top for a light family comedy, but not for an As Good As It Gets-style dramedy. But he was only faking it. Great tension for a few minutes, but another dead end for the through line.

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Sunday, 11 p.m.

Can’t figure out whose story we are telling. Is it mine or Susie’s? I thought it was mine, but then after supper she delivered a near perfect tagline: “Is this a vacation or a story meeting?” I can already see it on the poster. She also delivered the first plot point right on schedule when she refused to have sex with me. No sex didn’t seem to create a crisis for her, but it sure did for me, so I guess this is my story.

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The second act began taking shape today. Susie’s character arc is really clear and she hammered it home at the beach when she dumped the contents of the cooler in my lap. She really knows how to raise the stakes! Plus, it was a great image. That definitely goes in the trailer!

There’s still the problem of the kids’ subplots. Katie threw up after swallowing too much sea water—another great visual but it didn’t really advance the action. Tim found a dead crab, which I thought might turn out to be wonderful recurring image, kind of a poignant echo of the main theme. But then he kept chasing Katie with it and Susie got angry at me for, “just sitting around and not taking any responsibility for what goes on.” That led to the cooler-dumping episode so I guess the dead crab was a useful device. Note: Make Susie’s dialogue more convincing.

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Rained all day. Trapped in the house and the kids were climbing the walls with boredom. Tried to make some notes, with Tim and Katie screaming at each other and Susie bugging me to find something for them to do. Finally, some real conflict! My ignoring her drove Susie into a rage, which brought us exactly to where we were supposed to be—the point of no return, the halfway point in Act II, where the protagonist has to fully commit himself to the journey.

What I really needed was a little more adversity, like having the storm turn into a hurricane. Then in the process of saving the family from drowning, I could have rediscovered the true meaning of love, parenting and the restorative powers of vacationing. No such luck. All I could come up with was an old Monopoly set I found in the hall closet. The board was moldy so Susie wouldn’t touch it, Tim said Monopoly was lame and Katie started whining after about forty-five minutes. This could be a dysfunctional-family art film.

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A montage day. Hit the beach early, ate at a clam shack, played miniature golf, bought some tacky souvenirs. Things were going great. Then it happened—the second act reversal. I should have seen it coming. After all, we were almost on page 90.

We were getting into the car when Katie looked down at her legs and asked, in that eerily calm Sixth Sense way, “Mom, what are these spots?” Flashback to taking that shortcut to the parking lot. Close-up of legs brushing innocent-looking green plants. Jump cut to rash-covered hands holding first-aid book, open to page titled “Poison Ivy.”

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The crisis. Up all night, itching like mad, taking turns giving the kids Aveeno baths. Everybody is exhausted, miserable and ready to call it quits. Is the vacation ruined? Should we just admit defeat and go home a day early? Susie and I look at each other across the kitchen table, battered yet unbowed.

Who am I kidding? Poison ivy? A crisis? That sucks. A crisis is a shoot-out or a car chase. I tried driving extra fast when I went out for more Calamine lotion, just in case they were about to close. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a 24-hour convenience store. Would an armed hold-up and some hostage-taking be too much to ask for?

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The climax occurred this morning around page 104. Susie threw her suitcase toward the minivan and shouted that this was the last vacation she was ever going to take with us. Tears and everything. Shot the right way, and with the right music, it had the potential to be devastating. The kind of star turn actors go nuts for. Maybe even Oscar-worthy.

After that, the resolution practically wrote itself. At the rest stop about three hours later Katie looks up and says, in that cute little girl from Monsters, Inc. kind of way, “Hey my itchies are all gone!” Then right on cue, Tim looks up from his Gameboy and says, “I had fun. Are we going back next year?”

Susie turns in her seat, her eyes still red, sighs and says with mock resignation, “I suppose.” Then, and this is the clincher, she looks at me with that perfect wifely mixture of love, annoyance and contempt and adds, with just the right touch of sarcasm, “If your father can spare the time.” The perfect button to go out on! Pull back, car travels down interstate, disappears in traffic. Music swells! Fade to black! Roll credits! And what a terrific setup for the sequel!