Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

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.

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.

Don’t answer

I’ve been talking my mouth off about writing all week. There is something funny about talking about writing and there’s something not at all funny about a writer not getting to write much. But in the course of yapping away, I rediscovered something so persnickety and detailed, an opinion of mine so exclusive to writing that normal people would think I’m barmy to care and writers would again recognise me as barmy but also as one of their own.

Naturally, then, I’ve got to tell you. For once, it won’t take long, either, as it’s so precise and so vehement as to be less an expression of opinion and more a banging my hand on the table for emphasis.

Do not ever write anything where your character answers a question.

Not.

Ever.

Let me give you the example that keeps popping into my head. Here’s Burt asking Susan a question. (I have no idea who Burt and Susan are.)

BURT: What were you doing in aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Buying bacon.

Susan answers the question and in just two words I’m bored with her, that dialogue is dead air and it achieves nothing beyond the obvious. Now, if you had to have Burt ask this question, it would be because you needed your audience to know this fact that Susan had been at Asda in aisle 9 this morning. But you never need them to know that same fact twice.

The sole thing that “buying bacon” does is tell us that yes, she was in Asda’s aisle 9 this morning and presumably that’s where the bacon is stored. Unless we deeply care about bacon, this is worthless dialogue. Whereas this isn’t:

BURT: What were you doing in Aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Were you following me?

Look what that just did. In both examples, Susan is actually saying yes, she was there. So that’s your plot exposition done. She isn’t wasting air with a pointless detail about bacon and pointless is always boring. If that were all, I’d at least be happier than when she just said “buying bacon”.

But it isn’t all. Without the rest of the scene we can’t tell what attitude she’s got – is she afraid? is she annoyed? is she flirting? is she a vegetarian who’s just been caught out? – but we do know that she has got some attitude. She’s on her feet, she’s pushing back, this may be very mild conflict but it is conflict. She’s pushing back and Burt is now on the defensive; she may have just changed the power in this conversation.

That’s drama. And I’l tell you this: you now want to know what Burt is going to say next. When it was about bacon, I doubt you were excited waiting to see if he’d enquire about smoked or unsmoked, back or streaky. Maybe you and I would both gasp if we learned she’d bought turkey bacon – there’s such a thing as turkey bacon? – but neither of us would be giving a very great deal of a damn.

You can think of situations where actually “buying bacon” is the right response, it’s the response that would bring up the end-of-episode drums of EastEnders. So when I say never do it, you know that I mean never do it but okay, if you must.

It’s as I’ve said to you before: there are no rules in writing, but if you break them…

I’ve got one word for you

Bollocks.

That’s the word. It’s not personal. But before I ask you to come along for a reasonably strident ramble about something, I want to examine that word.

Bollocks. You read that and you know I’m not an academic, I’m not writing a paper, I’m just talking to you. You don’t need to know me well to recognise that I say it quite a bit too, it’s part of my ideolect. (Countries have languages, towns have dialects, people have ideolects.) I think you read the word ‘bollocks’ and you have an idea of my age as well. Maybe you can’t pin it down to the month and day but you don’t think I’m 15 and you don’t think I’m 70. It’s a broad range, I agree, but it’s there.

You might get that I’m a man. It’s hard to judge this from in here where I said the word, but it feels more like a man saying it than a woman. It feels more British than it does, I don’t know, Indonesian.

There’s a tone in the word, too. It’s not exactly serious but it isn’t playing about either. Bollocks is a firm word, said with intent, it’s not a filler word like ‘well’. Nor is it strong like ‘fuck’. You can argue with a man who says bollocks, there’s often no talking to someone who’s saying fuck.

I did have a worry that you could think I was saying bollocks to you, somehow about you, but that came more from the headline up there where I said “I’ve got one word for you”. It’s possible to interpret that as meaning I have one word to describe you. On its own, though, if you’d just come in on that word bollocks then I believe that you would unthinkingly, unconsciously but immediately have thought this is a non-academic, firm but not overly serious, debatable point being made by a British man who isn’t a teenager and isn’t a pensioner.

I believe that but I know this: you would not have got any of that if what I’d actually written was “Insert Word Later”.

I have regular arguments about dialogue, especially dialogue in drama, and the short summary is that I’m right about it being vital and anyone who thinks it isn’t, is wrong. Told you I was strident. I’m struggling to think of anything else that I am so irrevocably black and white certain sure about. Tea and dark chocolate come close, but this is more important to me.

What previously I’ve said to you before and what I have argued in countless pubs is that if I don’t believe the dialogue you give a character, I don’t believe the character. It’s common for dialogue-haters to be plot-fans but what they miss is that if I don’t care about the characters, if I’m not interested in them, the plot is just the thing I have to get through before I can go home. Characters facing grave peril, I’m in. Characters whom I don’t believe in facing the same peril, well, let them die. What do I care?

The reason this is all on my mind now, though, is partly because it is always on my mind. I am a dialogue man and it’s one of only two things I will accept I’m good at. (The other is typing. Can’t touch me for typing.) I am immeasurably pleased and relieved to say this to you because my dialogue writing is responsible both for everything I get to write and for how successful any of it has been.

Dialogue is obvious in scripts but I’m really writing dialogue to you right now. Didn’t I just say bollocks? That’s dialogue.

Emails I write are really dialogue and so are articles. I can’t do it when the house style of a magazine is more formal but the rest of the time I can because I’m always doing the same thing. I’m trying to convey something to you. Talking.

That’s what dialogue is in scripts: I’ve heard arguments that say dialogue is pretty speeches when actually no, it’s people talking.

The other reason this is all on my mind now is that I recently went to a couple of sessions of the PowWow Writers’ Group in Birmingham. I don’t think the word dialogue came up once. We certainly didn’t have this bugbear argument, I could write you an advert for how interested the group is and what they’re doing. Yet there was something.

I think it was in the way that one thing which did come up was the idea that when you’re writing, you should just get the stuff written. Get it down, then you can work on it. All true. Writing is rewriting, editing is critical.

Hours later, I joined a dot. The people I’ve most argued with about dialogue, the ones who are plot fans and believe dialogue is pretty speeches, also reckon you can do it tomorrow. Get down the story and the plot, then just before you’re finished, you can go back to do a dialogue pass. You can make the speeches prettier later, it’s a tasty extra that you can worry about just before you print the thing out and look for some pink ribbon.

Can you bollocks.

Everything you’ve just read sprang from the word bollocks at the top. I could’ve begun with Insert Word Later and then gone on to all this but it wouldn’t be the same. The bounce, the rhythm, what I wanted to say to you and when would all be different. I’ll bet money it wouldn’t have been so strident, for one thing.

So let’s say you’re writing a character who is strident. A character who is also a non-academic, firm British man who isn’t a teenager and isn’t a pensioner. At one extreme, you end up writing dialogue like “Hello, William, my old British friend who I think should have gone into academia but I’ve been saying that to you since you were a teenager back in 1989”. At another extreme, you end up writing a narrator. Shudder. Or the single worst descriptive prose novels have ever known.

Or you could just say bollocks.

Sorkin about a revolution

Here’s the thing. I really do believe that Aaron Sorkin brought a revolution to television. He made the first hit political drama in decades, he got us worked up equally about massive issues and tiny relationships. He also writes dialogue like music which is deeply important to me and, I’d offer, to all drama.

Then he’s a celebrity for being a TV writer. The man does theatre and film too, but you know his name and you know he wrote The West Wing. There aren’t many TV writers who get known at all: where you may well have favourite novelists, it’s a lot less common to have favourite TV writers.

It’s not a giant leap to say that Sorkin by himself – and his writing teams – helped making television drama become the respected form it is. And it is respected. Film makers are turning to television and that’s got to be partly because they stopped being able to get funding for movies but it is also because TV at its best is a more compelling form of drama than most films at the moment. Mind you, I am fully in hope that this will change when the movies run out of superhero sequels. Any day now, any day.

But.

“Here’s the thing” is an Aaron Sorkin phrase. It’s entered my ideolect – wait, I didn’t know this term, is it already familiar to you? Your nation has a language or languages that its people speak; your region has a dialect that everyone around you shares; you have your own specific and personal ideolect.

Mine is replete with quotes and phrases that have stuck in my head and sometimes for no clear reason. Many are from Alan Plater, there are couple of Jack Rosenthal lines, some Doctor Who, some Paul Reiser, it goes on. That way I wrote ‘But’ on a line by itself is from Anton Chekhov. I’ve said this before: sometimes I’ll hear Angela laugh from another room as she’s watching some ancient film and suddenly there’s been a line that she has often heard me say. It’s got so that now I sometimes have lines of my own that keep bubbling up out of me then I feel obligated to add “and that was one of mine”.

Angela seems fine and/or resigned to all this now but she does wish that I hadn’t picked up this from Community: “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.” The joy when a friend said exactly that in an email to me the other day. I rushed to show Angela: see? it’s not just me.

But it is just me. As in, it’s me and it is not my characters. I have no doubt that I must unconsciously give my characters some of these lines or some of these repeated rhythms, but I fight against it and I believe I fight successfully.

Aaron Sorkin does not.

I’m actually okay with the way that characters in The West Wing talk like each other: I can see a close group picking up each other’s phrases and styles, I’m good with that.

Similarly, characters in Sports Night speak like each other. (Here’s how great Aaron Sorkin is: I watched a show with ‘sports’ in the title. I watched 45-odd episodes of it over a week – and I’ve watched them all again several times.)

What niggled at me was how the characters in Sports Night spoke an awful lot like the characters in The West Wing. What disgruntled me was that there are stories in Sports Night that get repeated close to verbatim in Sorkin’s later series. When it was Sports Night and The West Wing, I felt it was him using a good story in the far more successful show and I didn’t like it but I liked the stories, I liked how they were told. When it was Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip then, well, not so much. A tale that had been genuinely romantic on Sports Night became nothing short of creepy on Studio 60.

Plus you can tell me that The West Wing was good after Sorkin left it but it wasn’t. I watched the next ten episodes and realised barely a word registered with me. I later learnt that one of those ten episodes was nominated for a writing Emmy and the only conclusion I could make was that it must’ve been one hell of a crap year for American television drama.

Repeated stories, identical-sounding characters, it was all infinitely better than the later and just plain ordinary years of The West Wing because the stories and most especially those identical forms of dialogue were so good. They would stir you and they would soar. I watched a West Wing with a fella who turned me afterwards and said he could’ve written that. No, he couldn’t. No more than I could. The brilliance of Sorkin’s writing is, I think, clear to see yet it’s also better and richer and deeper the more you look under the covers.

I wish I could write like that – but I can’t watch Sorkin’s stuff any more. His Studio 60 and The Newsroom have problems – some of which you can see immediately when you’re watching so you wonder how the makers missed them – but what prevents me watching is that the damn stories are the same and the damn dialogue is the same.

I’ve also said this before: I couldn’t accept Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy because I can’t see him. He’s got West Wing, Studio 60 and Sports Night characters standing in front of him, getting in the way.

But then by the time The Newsroom came around, we had several videos that shaped what I think of Sorkin. A good one was a pixel-perfect parody called The Foodroom.

Then there was this which, interestingly to me, has two of I think the best writers on television performing in camera: Aaron Sorkin in a cameo with Tina Fey on her 30 Rock series:

But then the bad was Sorkinisms. It’s a video showing how many, many, many, many times he uses precisely the same words in all his series. I watched that and it depressed me. This week I saw the sequel video, Sorkinisms II and it’s worse. Worse enough that I am minded of all this over again and wanted to bleat at you.

The fella who does these YouTube videos says both that they are loving rather than mocking and that Aaron Sorkin has been great about them. I like that. Yet I don’t know that I can convey to you how disappointing it is to see such repetition. Well, I say that and yet I think you’ve worked out that I’m regarding this fella as a fallen hero. Make every character sound the same, don’t make every character sound the same, it’s completely up to you – except doing it to this extent, this rather extraordinary extent, is a problem.

Specifically this problem, for me: it means I can’t watch any more. The work I’ve already seen, that remains important to me, but I can’t make myself get through another Newsroom episode. Still, partly to try countering the Sorkinisms video and partly to explore what I think of Aaron Sorkin in order to pour my heart out to you like this, I just re-watched a West Wing episode called 17 People.

It is a bit of a come-on title: there’s a fact in the story that is uncovered by a character we learn is the 16th person to know so you do spend the hour wondering who the 17th will be. That’s a come on that becomes a bit of a cop out.

But otherwise 17 People is beautiful. So simple. The West Wing was way over budget at this time so it was mandated that the episode have no new guest cast, no location filming, no new sets. It was a bottle show, though the show’s sets were so expansive that it didn’t feel like one. Like the very best bottle shows, though, it was a series of people in rooms talking to one another.

That doesn’t sound great but it is entirely, fully, one hundred percent-ly my favourite form of drama. Two people arguing in a room – where both of them are right. Unbelievably powerful, unbelievably hard to pull off.

This episode is full of little else and though it’s 14 years since I first saw it – 14 years! – so the context of the surrounding episodes is gone, it is still strong. I’ll tell you: it made me cry, it was that exquisitely well done, that exquisitely perfect. The West Wing: Season 2, episode 18, 17 People.

Why did I have to see that Sorkinisms video? Why couldn’t I avoid thinking about how repetitive Sorkin is? And having seen this and been disheartened by it, why could I have not just avoided spoiling him for you?

There’s the thing.

Star Wars is not a (Han) Solo effort

It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.

I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.

Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.

Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.

The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:

I don’t know and I don’t care.

It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)

The trouble is… it matters.

George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.

I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.

Hmm.

Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.

When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.

More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)

Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.

That is a crap baddie.

That is a cardboard baddie.

So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.

Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.

The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.

But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.

Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.