A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

Sequels and lies

The Good Wife ended on American television last Sunday and I promise not to spoil it for you if you promise not to spoil it for me. I’m exactly 127 episodes behind. That’s five years, though at the rate I’m watching now I’ll have finished by next June.

So you gather that I like this show: it’s a US legal drama and I think quite extraordinary but I won’t press you to watch because people have been pressing me to since it began in 2009. Somehow I resisted them. No reason. Possibly stubbornness. I didn’t try an episode until earlier this year and as richly absorbing and engrossing as the show is, I’m not even going to try subliminally suggesting that you join us fans, join us, join us, join us.

I’m also not going to think about a show ending changes it. I find I can’t get into early episodes of How I Met Your Mother now that I know how he met your mother, but it’s not even that, not even a finishing of the story. There is something different. I remember Ronald D Moore saying of his best-known TV series ending and on the day after it finished airing that: “Yesterday Battlestar Galactica is this TV series, today it was.”

I’m paraphrasing but the essence is right, the essence is of how for the maker of a show, the end is the same wrench we all feel when we leave a job or when a relationship ends on us. I get that as a viewer and actually I don’t get it often enough: I’m trying to think of series where I watched up to the end and wished it had continued. I’d wandered away from Battlestar and still haven’t caught up, for instance. Certainly there’s Veronica Mars.

But usually TV shows are like British politicians: they always end in failure. The most successful British politician will eventually lose an election. It’s not like the US where you have a fixed term as President, here you end in defeat. That’s so British.

I am presently wishing for the end for various current politicians but somehow I wish The Good Wife had continued until I’d caught up with it. I can’t account for that, but there is something different now. Something different between a series in progress and a series that has concluded. There is the practical side that the finale was a big deal and it has been hard to avoid finding out what happens. Only last night, there was a trailer for a last-season episode on Channel 4 and both Angela and I actually sang loudly, a kind of broken, staccato La La La as we tried to find which of us had the TV remote.

We never used to have spoilers. I think that word, in this context, must surely be one of the those ones recently added to the dictionary because nobody did or could’ve spoiled something like the answer to who shot JR. I remember seeing on TV news footage of the next episode of Dallas arriving in the UK. It was a film or possibly video canister, I can see it being wheeled across from an aircraft to Heathrow or somewhere.

Obviously I mind spoilers but I don’t mind that they exist. I like very much that drama creates an urge in people to find out more and to rush around telling people. These are made-up stories about made-up people, there is no reason we should be interested and yet we’re avidly interested. In the best television drama, you worry about the characters from week to week: I think that is ridiculous and I think that is fantastic and I think I wish I knew how to write that well.

The downside of this way that drama characters get into us us not that there are spoilers that will ruin your day and could take a shine off the next 127 episodes for me. It’s that we struggle to let characters go and that means we get sequels.

It can work. There’s Frasier, for instance: strictly speaking it’s a spin-off from Cheers but it aired afterwards so call it a sequel. Similarly, there’s Lou Grant. But I think it’s telling that Lou Grant began airing 39 years ago and it is still the only hour-long drama to spin out of a half-hour sitcom. I don’t think anyone else has even tried to do that, it’s such a hard thing, but then also it would never be allowed today.

TV networks don’t really want sequels: they would like the original show to somehow start again and be the hit it was. Forever, please. I think we’re the same: what we really want when we love a drama is to have that same experience again. To be where we were and who we were when we first got hooked by these characters.

It’s not possible so we hanker to stay with the characters in some way and that gets us sequels. I don’t know if there will be a sequel to The Good Wife – I can hardly look it up without spoiling the aforementioned 127 episodes – but I’ll bet money that it has at least been considered. Maybe piloted. A pilot script to a How I Met Your Mother sequel was commissioned and I’ve read it: the list of reasons I’m glad it wasn’t filmed begins with how the only brave creative decision in it was to give it the wrong title. It’s called How I Met Your Dad. So near and yet.

That didn’t fly and maybe we’d be better if sequels never did. We would definitely be better off if we could learn to let go. A thing is a thing, don’t try to draw it out.

But we can talk about that next week.

Adjust your settings

I was trying to get some work on a TV show once and I can’t even remember what it could possibly have been, but I do recall the producer. She said to me that the single most important thing in television drama is the setting. Now, I’m sitting there in her office thinking bollocks, character is immeasurably more important but, you know, I wanted the work, so I’m nodding away saying how interesting that thought is.

I know I didn’t get the work. And I know I still believe right down to every individual pixel of my soul that character comes top, but she had a point. She had more of a point than I appreciated at that time and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Especially so since this week I worked with a group specifically discussing how novels benefit from where they are set.

I think I’m probably going to find a way here to conclude that a story’s setting is a kind of character itself. Just one that doesn’t talk much. Or usually, anyway: there is a famous BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Wuthering Heights that is narrated by the house. I long to hear that.

But let’s see if we get to this setting-is-character lark and whether it works or is just my hoping to convince that producer she should’ve hired me.

Her point, if I’m understanding her correctly, is that the setting enables drama. So Albert Square in EastEnders, for instance, is naturally home to a fairly diverse group of characters. Different ages, wealth, backgrounds, jobs. Differences are what make the world interesting but they are also what makes for sparky drama: our situations put pressures on us that affect how we see things and what we do about them. Everything we’ve been taught and everything we’ve done affects who we are. So when you can find a setting that naturally puts different people together, it is potent.

My mind has just leapt from EastEnders to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and specifically why it was set up to be different to the other Trek shows. Ridiculously, Star Trek got to the point where everyone on the Enterprise was lovely and they all supported each other perfectly. No difference of opinion beyond which technobabble solution would save which entire civilisation this week. It was a conscious choice: Starfleet officers are heroes. So for Deep Space Nine, the producers had the show’s Federation be brought in to help recovery in a region rather battered by conflict.

The baddies with the noses, the Cardassians, had used local Bajoran people as slaves in their mining space station. Now they were gone and Starfleet took over the station like a UN envoy. So very consciously and actually very cleverly, this space station setting was potent. You had the heroes coming in, you had the surviving Bajorans wondering whether they were swapping one group’s slavery for another, and you had the Cardassians hovering around wanting to come back. Rather than a single group of nicey-nicey people, you had at least three distinct groups inescapably in conflict.

It was well done and it means that to me, Deep Space Nine, is the only satisfying Star Trek out of an awful lot of different versions. I could argue that this is down to the writing: I read all 170-odd scripts for this show, most of them before I’d seen the episodes, and they read like a novel, they were so interesting. Somehow I also read all 170-odd scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation and they weren’t so good.

But then Deep Space Nine didn’t move so the problems faced this week continue next time. The Enterprise just pops off to save the day somewhere else.

So certainly the writing elevates DS9 but maybe it could because of the setting the writers created.

That’s not the same as the setting being a character, I’m struggling there. I’m not sure why I think I’m going to reach that point or why I’m focusing on it, yet I can already see that I’m regarding the place as important to the characters. If I want to tell a story about a school, the characters I have in there will inevitably be different if that school is Eton or if it’s in an inner city slum area.

Perhaps because I’m a scriptwriter, I have seen that I’ve avoided being specific about settings: this script is set in a city, that one in a village, and I’ve not bothered to say London or Little Writings on the Wry. Maybe I should have been specific. Certainly I’m going to be. For it occurs to me that the setting affects characters vastly more than I realised: if a place is comfortable, that tells me a lot about the people who stay. If it’s a foul place then it tells me a lot about the characters who go there.

Character and setting are intertwined. I want to go just a touch further and argue that settings have moods: an underground car park has a different disposition to a hayfield in the year 19summertime.

So settings have moods and feelings plus they are deeply entwined with characters. Go on, give it to me: your setting is a character. And excuse me while I go phone a producer.

Book people

This is new. As I write this to you, there’s a writing workshop going on and I’m producing it. Just over there. In that room. Now, obviously I would come out of it to talk to you – nobody else, mind, let’s be quite clear there – but I’m not in the room at all. The session is being run by <a href=”https://twitter.com/smalextownley”>Alex Townley</a> and I’m hearing laughter, I’m hearing the buzz of chatter, I’m hearing that it is going very well.

I should be feeling rubbish out here but instead I am deeply, deeply delighted. It’s like when you write a scene you think is good, you hope it’s good and then you see it working even better. A couple of years ago now I sat in the audience at the Birmingham Rep watching a discussion event on stage and actually marvelling that I’d made that happen. You can’t count the number of other people involved but I couldn’t dismiss the fact that I made it happen. Nobody in that audience had any idea I had anything to do with it and at the end, everyone on stage got applauded and I was right there applauding with them.

There is something just tremendous about creating things, I think, and when you have someone good doing part then it is tremendous that you saw what they could do and you got them. This week of the writing workshop series is about creating characters and bringing them to life on the page: no question, Alex is the one to tell them about that. Equally no question, or at least not very many questions or at least I’m not listening to you if you’re questioning, is the fact that I’m the guy to do next week’s one on dialogue.

You should probably not get me started on dialogue. It’s my thing. You’ve got your thing, I’ve got dialogue. It keeps me warm.

And the instant I say that to you, my mind splits in two directions. I want to tell you of a line of dialogue that cropped up in a TV drama recently where someone said: “I’m done with listening, do you hear me?” I don’t fully understand why I laughed at that.

But my mind also wants to address the realisation that I’m just after saying that to you about dialogue and what am I doing tonight? I said a few words at the start and I will at the end, otherwise I’m sitting here typing.

It’s not typing, though, is it? It’s writing to you. It’s a weekday evening as I write this, I’m sitting in the offices of <a href=”http://www.writingwestmidlands.org”>Writing West Midlands</a>, there’s a colleague working across the room, and next to both of us is this room where a group of writers are having a good time concocting characters. I think this is pretty good.

Three asterisks and the truth

I read a draft script the other day that included a scene where the lead character – I’m going to call her Susan Hare because she’s one of mine and I like the name – is startled.

SUSAN: What the f***!

That isn’t me being coy. That is what the script said. An F followed by three asterisks.

Just as an aside, when I worked on Radio Times magazine I remember hearing about the very rare times they included any swearing. It was always in a quote, obviously never in an RT journalist’s writing style, and it was usually wryly amusing but it was also always the first letter followed by asterisks or some combination of other symbols. And every time, readers would complain.

It’s just that sometimes they complained the there weren’t the correct number of asterisks or whatever. If you’re bothered by swearing, you’re bothered by swearing and I can’t do anything about that. But if you’re bothered enough by it to count the asterisks, disagree with the number and then complain to the BBC, there is something I can do. I can give you that look and then forget you.

Not that I swear all that much myself. No reason, I’m just PG-rated. But I’ve often had friends suddenly stop mid-sentence and apologise to me. What for? For swearing. Invariably, I hadn’t even noticed. Not because I wasn’t listening, but because it hadn’t bothered me enough to even be aware that bother was a possibility.

Besides, I’ve used Windows. I’ve heard worse, I’ve said worse.

What has really bothered me as I’ve spent a lot of hours on trains this week, is that idea of a scriptwriter typing an F and three asterisks. I don’t know the writer so I can’t ask but I’ve circled and circled around whether it was because they expected the actor to pronounce the asterisks as asterisks – which does seem unlikely – or whether they were afraid of upsetting anyone.

To which the only possible response is oh, for fuck’s sake.

You don’t have to have swearing in anything. You do have to have it if your characters would swear. There is that famous scene from The Wire where every single line, almost every single word, is fuck. It starts off without you being aware of it because that is what these characters would say. Then there’s just so many that you are very much aware that this is a cable show rather than network TV. Then you think about how it’s playing with the boundaries of television and giving us a slice of life.

But then unfortunately you just want them to please stop now, we got the joke an hour ago.

Maybe it’s because the scene has some detective work going on that takes about three minutes, or roughly three minutes longer than any real-life detective would take. Or fictional. Sherlock Holmes would’ve figured it out in a picosecond and be even now deducing the entire causal reality of the universe. Veronica Mars would’ve seen it and already left to do something about it. Though, true, the detectives in Luther would still be there five episodes later, scratching their heads.

Anyway.

Those three asterisks tell me a lot. It’s like the way asterisks are used to mean multiply in computers: three asterisks makes me think of multiplied multiplications, of powers of multiplications. Of geometric progressions of multiplication.

And this is where you get to after all that adding up aka all that riding around on trains pondering. The writer of this script that said f*** does not expect to ever be a real writer. In his or her bones, he or she is playing. This writer sees the film and television world as this thing which is easy but also where producers and actors have practically religious power. You, the humble poor writer – well, we are all poor, that’s true enough – present your script to the masters and mistresses of taste and power and art and more.

You daren’t offend them, no. You daren’t risk saying fuck when you are bowing before them. And I love that in this font that word looks more like bowling. Ten-pin bowling with the gods of drama, I’d be up for that.

I think I’m right and I think you agree but there is that bit I threw in about this writer thinking writing is easy. That gave you pause. I got to that because of this abdication of whether to asterisk or not: that tells me the writer thinks these decisions are made by others. Since what your characters say is beyond fundamental to every pixel of a story, they’re wrong. Since it is beyond difficult to do well but they don’t think they have to do it, they therefore must think scriptwriting is easy.

There’s no reason you should think it’s hard unless you’re actually doing it. Then you need to think it’s hard because you need to know you’ll be putting your back into this job for a long time.

Whatever writing you do, it is an odd kind of job and there are enough people wanting to do it – wanting to be writers without necessarily actually writing, thank you – that a little industry grows up around it. So for instance there are books and courses that belabour how you must format your script right on the page. Do it wrong and you’re out, they say.

Actually, do the formatting and the layout wrong and you have failed at the utter easiest part of the job. You’ve also telegraphed that you simply don’t read scripts or you would know what they look like. If you haven’t read a script, I don’t want to read yours because you just ain’t worth the time yet.

You can always and often tell all this, you can tell a writer is amateur and won’t be worth reading yet from one glance at the page.

But you can now also tell it from three asterisks.

All that from the word “f***”.

Say what?

If you don’t know something, fine. If I don’t know something, fine. We’ll work it out together. Or more likely one of us will look it up and explain it to the other. It’s not like there is a shortage of places to look things up.

But if you’re a writer and your characters don’t know something, that’s gigantic.

relativity 001Follow. Around 1996, I read the pilot script to a US series called Relativity. Written and created by Jason Katims, it was from the makers of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Plus, it was a romance and I like romances, naturally I read it. And I enjoyed that script a lot. I wish it were still online that I could point you at it.

I enjoyed it enough that of course I wanted to see the final show and I was enough of a writer to be curious to see how they would stretch this romance out to seven years of 20-odd episodes a year. They didn’t, as it happens. I think they made 17 episodes before being cancelled. I didn’t see any of them. I must’ve seen something, must’ve seen the title sequence or something because I knew what the major characters looked like.

But actual episodes: none.

Last year I got very excited when the pilot episode found its way on to YouTube – except that my face fell when I saw it. Because the YouTube copy was dubbed into German.

Now, though, the whole series is up on Dailymotion. Doubtlessly less than legally but then if the show were ever going to get a commercial release I would’ve bought that a long time ago.

As it is, nineteen years later, I’m finally watching the episodes.

It’s not great. Certainly not on a par with MSCL or thirtysomething. It tries to deal with some serious topics but it doesn’t have the bite of those other shows. And characters I remember liking on the page feel a bit whiny on the screen.

But.

What knaws at me in every single episode is one line from the title sequence.

It’s a smart sequence. If you ever seen a Bedford Falls show like thirtysomething, you’ve got the idea already: a montage of scenes, credits on the bottom of screen, great music by WG Snuffy Walden in his pre-West Wing days. All that.

But as well as the visual montage of scenes, this sequence has an audio one. Clashing, overlapping, audible and barely audible, clear and obscured lines rush by you in a way that seems chaotic. In practice every line is placed pixel perfectly in time and in the stereo image because you never fail to hear the key lines and you always fail to hear the lesser stuff.

It’s the main characters talking about relativity. “Like Einstein… E=mc squared…” They’re explaining what relativity is and quickly pushing the point. One key example is “the things you think you can’t do, you can do” which is just so far away from the definition of relativity that it belongs in a different series.

But then bam. The last line.

It’s said by the series star, Kimberley Williams, in character as Isabel Lukens. This show is primarily a romance but it’s really weighted toward her rather than her guy, Leo Roth (David Conrad). So this is your most important actor in the show’s most important role and she has the most important position in your entire title sequence. And she says:

“I have no idea what relativity means”

Then sodding look it up.

She says it with a laugh, with that kind of gosh, how could anyone be expected to know this stuff type of laugh.

If Isabel Lukens did not know what relativity meant despite having seemingly constant conversations about it, the character would be stupid. Not uninformed, stupid. Worse: passively stupid. She doesn’t know what a word means even though she’s just been discussing it. Couldn’t be bothered to either look the bleedin’ thing up or to listen to the people discussing it with her. Ignorant in every sense.

But Isabel is not speaking for herself. She says this to allow us to not know what relativity means. It’s okay not to know. In fact, gosh, who could know?

That one line is the most outrageously insulting line I can think of in TV title sequences. I don’t mean this because I know what relativity means, I mean because the makers assume we don’t – and the makers assume we need reassurance that this is not a bad thing.

I feel examining one line from a cancelled TV series of 19 years ago might be overkill. But I also feel that there is something in here about all of television and how all of it has gone down the reassuring ignorance route.

Didn’t we used to look up to TV characters? Was I just young? Detectives and heroes and all that, they were smart and they were cool and then something happened. I think it was around the time when computers became commonplace. Suddenly we hit the moment when we, the viewing public, knew more about this stuff than the TV characters did.

We knew and we know more than they are allowed to know.

TV characters are rarely allowed to be clever, certainly they are even more rarely allowed to think. Now thinking is a tough one to show visually – yes, I’m thinking Sherlock too but not every show can do what that does – so you can understand the problem. But if the plot requires a clever character, that character will not be the hero.

More, that character will be mocked for being clever. Just as you can’t be a woman doctor without a white coat, stethoscope and a clipboard, so you cannot be a clever character of either sex unless you wear glasses. And get kidded for being in some way socially awkward. Kidded by the cool-as-all-hell action hero, for preference.

We are expected to feel superior to the clever clogs. The expectation is that we will need to feel superior or we’ll stop watching.

I think I’ll make it to the end of Relativity but just four episodes in, that single line is threatening to stop me watching.

Easier said than done

This is easier to say than to do so I’m just going to say it. And perhaps you can do it. Let me know how you get on.

It’s just this: writing should hurt.

That’s what I think we get wrong, especially when we’re starting. I mean especially when we’re starting out, but also when we’re starting a new piece.

I was talking with a friend whose draft novel I’ve read and found myself saying this: there was nothing in the book that she had worried about me reading. As fun as it was, as enjoyable as it was, I feel this means she can go further, can go deeper. I don’t know whether she will and in fact I don’t know whether she should since the novel works as it is. Yet I know she can and I think it would be richer if she does. She’s got it in her so her book could have it too.

Tell a lie. She was concerned about one thing. There’s a deeply attractive character in it named Will and she wanted to make sure I knew there wasn’t one single pixel of him that was based on me. Thanks so much. You can over-stress these things, you know.

I wouldn’t have believed he was me, I wouldn’t have thought about it, wouldn’t have occurred to my noggin. Whereas I did notice that there was no pain in there, no exposed nerve endings, not of hers anyway. Her characters, yes.

Writing something should hurt you. When you write, you should be cutting yourself open and at most cauterising the wound. When you send that writing to someone, there should be something in it that you are worried about them seeing. Something new and very personal to you, something you don’t talk about, that you maybe avoid thinking about.

Now, as a reader sometimes I am just not in the mood to be put through a car wash and as a writer there haven’t been many Radio Times articles where I’ve bled over the page. Well, I have literally bled over the keyboard from effort getting something right, sure, but not from revealing something of myself in them. Not intentionally, anyway.

Drama and fiction need more blood. It is a curious thing yet the more personal, the more harshly deep you go, the further into yourself you search, the closer you get to your audience.

So excuse me, I’m off to search. I will spend some time reaching into the most hidden version of me, my very worst self, my very foulest being where I think things that scare and repulse me, where I want to visit now yet I truly do not want to be forever.

And then I’ll fashion all that into a lightweight romantic comedy.

Don’t lie to me

I must be on my own here or The Usual Suspects wouldn’t be so popular. But there is an issue in that film that came up to an extent in a play I just saw and unfortunately is also pressing on my mind over a project of my own.

There are spoilers here for The Usual Suspects but I won’t tell you the name of the play. That hurts me more than it hurts you: I enjoyed the play very much and I only saw it on its opening night, there’s a fair chance you could still see it – and I am certain it will tour and tour and tour. Nonetheless, I ain’t telling.

Let me get the Suspects spoiler out of the way: if you’ve not seen it and you want to, look away now.

The twist in the film is that Kevin Spacey’s character has made up the whole story.

Fine. As twists go, it is enormous because it transforms the entire film and reveals the baddie to be the one person who didn’t or at least were not supposed to suspect. And it’s a lie: I like being lied to in drama, I love being misdirected. That’s true in the production as much as it is in the story: I even wrote a Self Distract once called Lie to Me.

But.

I was really enjoying The Usual Suspects up to that revelation. It was written by Christopher McQuarrie, directed by Bryan Singer. The cast was impressive. (Well, you keep hearing stories that the actors didn’t know who the baddie was in the story and it’s a little hard to remain impressed if none of them could be bothered to read to the end of the script.)

Still, there I am watching this film in the late 1990s and I was quickly into it, into the story, engrossed by these characters. But that’s the problem, I was engrossed by the characters. And then told they didn’t exist.

It’s a funny thing: characters in a drama never exist, it’s just a story, yet being told that they don’t, told that within the drama itself, that makes a difference.

All these characters I’d followed and invested in and believed, they didn’t exist and they never did. All a lie. I was meant to be jolted and I was, I was meant to be blown away by the twist and I wasn’t. It’s done cleverly, I should write something that smart, but instead I solely found myself thinking oh. Okay. That’s clever. What time is it?

The twist gave us a surprise but it took away every single thing, every possible element that I had been interested in, that I cared about, that had got me into the story. I don’t think that’s a fair trade. I would’ve come away enthused but instead I left that cinema annoyed and clearly I wasn’t alone because it only won two Oscars and another thirty major film awards.

The Play I Saw Recently included two characters that we join as they are first meeting, first getting to know and to like each other. It’s a funny, touching, growing relationship necessarily conducted in little slices as these two happen to be in the same place. You quickly suspect they are both going out of their way to get back there when the other is likely to be around, but it’s sweet and believable. You want them to get together and that is quite a hard thing to pull off in drama. It’s done well and seems to be the sole light in a bleak story. Except toward the end you learn that their meeting was not an accident and that one of them has been explicitly working to get revenge on the other.

That revelation fits the play perfectly and I am vastly more satisfied with this PISR than I was with Suspects.

However, because we aren’t supposed to guess that this is happening, we only learn very late on that there might be a reason for anyone to want revenge on this person. It’s a big thing that’s happened. I envy how the writer has crafted something that we can be jolt-appalled by yet also feel for the person who did this big thing, how we can understand how it could happen.

But we get that for a moment and then we learn the reveal. The enormous thing is uncovered and dispensed with in a thrice and that reduces it. It doesn’t make it trivial, but it makes it smaller because we don’t get long for us to see how it affects that character. Something enormous is revealed late and the plot moves on instantly so the enormous because dispensed with. It therefore becomes smaller. So the revenge that comes immediately after that feels out of scale. The fact that we haven’t suspected anything – that may well be my fault, the script may well be riddled with hints and as I say it all fits in with the gorgeously bleak story – also changes things. We didn’t suspect this person had done this thing, we didn’t suspect that the other would be there for revenge.

So we’ve spent this time getting to know these two characters and really we didn’t get to know them.

I think it works better than The Usual Suspects, though, because I think we can feel that what we’ve seen is the real character beneath the plot. What we’ve learnt of how these two feel and think is real even though what we’ve learnt of how they act is not.

I’m not sure. Maybe this comes down to how I love stories and I don’t like puzzles. The Usual Suspects is a fundamentally different film if you watch it a second time. This PISR is a drastically different play if you go see it again. Jagged Edge is a taut thriller unless you know whether the guy did it or not, in which case it’s a bit empty.

All of which would be fine, I could do the critic dance and say McQuarrie and the writer of PISR aren’t as good as I am, QED, except that I am tussling with this issue in a project of my own and, oh my lights, it’s hard.

I have a tale that doesn’t exactly depend on you thinking a key character is something when she’s really something else, but it helps.

She’s lying her teeth off and of course I want the moment you realise this to be enormous. But I’m trying to make it so that everything you’ve learnt about her is still true, she is still this same woman going through these same issues – those issues are just gigantically bigger than you expected and they are profoundly more her fault than you thought. I want you to be truly shocked but then immediately feel for her.

Easy.

I know that moment, I can see that exact instant when you are to realise and I know to the pixel where it will come in the story. Unfortunately, it has to be instantly followed by another shock that I fear is about as big. The revelation causes the second shock, I can’t see a way to even separate them by a minute. So whatever part of my brain it is that just does plots for me while I sweat about characters, that’s tapping me on the arm and asking me to ponder this. To ponder a lot – such a lot – whether an immediate second shock diminishes the first one. You want to get the most value out of something, especially when you’ve worked hard to get us to that point, so it’s an issue of whether I am throwing away some of the punch. Whether I am making this enormous thing feel smaller and out of scale.

I might be turning this into a puzzle.

But I am clear on this one thing. Even when you learn the truth about this character, she will still be the same character you’ve come to know. She’ll just have this whole other issue and I hope to make it that this hurts.

I’ve said this before but I think drama is like running your hand over a piece of wood. Go one way, stroke against the grain and your skin gets cut by shards, it stings and you bleed. That’s what a story should do as you go through it. But the way when you then stroke back, stroke in the same direction as the grain, it’s all smooth. Stories have to work in retrospect; take us somewhere new and most certainly, definitely, unquestionably, undoubtedly take the characters somewhere they don’t want to go but they have to be the same characters.

I think.