You couldn’t make it up

You’ve seen this over and over again: Trump does something stupid, Britain realises yet another thing it failed to consider before Brexit, and someone will say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Of course you could.

The End.

Only, as well as just being wrong, I think this ‘you couldn’t make it up’ lark is a kind of marker post. It’s saying that over here is reality, over there is fiction. Actually, I think it really says that reality is better or sharper or harder or just more.

Okay. Except there are going to be Brexit dramas aplenty, there are going to be Trump biopics, and the faultline between fiction and reality will be examined anew every time. Writing will be tested, writing’s ability to convey real-life drama is going to be tested.

And it will fail.

As both a journalist and a writer, I can’t do creative non-fiction: to me it’s either fiction or it’s fact. As a reader, I want the same divide: I don’t want to come away believing that Napoleon was the leading Tetris player in his gang.

And when we get dramas based on real events, I think the audience is watching for the facts – or actually for the errors. If it’s a brilliant, searing, insightful piece of drama that wonderfully conveys the human condition, there will still be complaints that this person didn’t say that or this other person never wore the other. I’m minded of people who would come away from the Harry Potter movies saying yes, great, but they skipped chapter 11’s reference to ostriches. Or something.

Anyway, the dramas that we are going to get about anything real, anything political, are going to be rigidly factual and that will just reinforce this notion that we can’t make things up.

True, we’ve had a Nigel Farage piece that was a comedy but it was really just one good trailer-length joke and nothing else. We’ve also seen real-life events translated into science fiction but pretty simplistically. We’ve more often seen dramas that are as faithful as possible to the real-life events.

And I just don’t see the point of them.

That’s not drama, it’s a Crimewatch reconstruction. Granted, plenty of what’s happening now should be examined in criminal law courts but my need for a verdict is firmly, totally centred in reality: I don’t have a thirst to see justice done only to make a drama’s happy ending.

The word dramatised, by the way, means moved. From some non-dramatic form to another. You can’t dramatise a movie, for instance, because it’s already drama. The aim is to move whatever it is to another form in order to make something new, to create something that has value and worth on its own. It is not to fill in the blanks.

Drama documentaries do this and nothing else. They are a foul idea borne of a need to have something to look at when there’s no contemporary footage. So some historian will talk to some camera in some gorgeous house saying “And of course WIlliam Shakespeare lived on Lemsip” and it will be followed by portentous music, ancient costumes and actors trying to put emotion into Shakey telling Anne Hathaway: “I doth so adoreth it greater than Night Nurse”.

You can make it up, but you won’t.

This took me a very long time to realise but I got there and it’s become a staple for me: journalism is about facts and drama is about truth. It’s not the same thing.

There’s a thing I stick to in drama writing and specifically when pitching an idea. I’ll begin with what the story is about but then as fast as I possibly, conceivably can, I’ll ditch that and move on to this: what it’s really about.

Drama is about what really matters, what really is going on. Journalism is about who, what, where, when, why and how. Dramatised versions of real-life events are just pointless bores. Drama that examines why people do what they do, that dives into people instead of diligently copying news reports we’ve already seen, that’s just tedious.

You shouldn’t make it up.

The facts, ma’am, just the facts

Sometimes you have to say something before you realise that you think it. Consequently this may be very obvious and I’m definitely going to take a time getting to it, but I first realised it on the ring road near Damascus.

Follow. This week in Stafford there’s been a children’s event called Page Talk, produced by Hayley Frances for Writing West Midlands. It’s a writing event where a small group of 10-14-year-olds have worked with professional writers, journalists, poets and more.

On Monday, they had poetry with Stephen Morrison-Burke. Tuesday was journalism with Alex Townley. Wednesday was science fiction and horror writing with Alex Davis. Tomorrow they get taught performance by Cat Weatherill. (Seriously, what a week for these kids, eh? Stephen, Alex, Cat – I don’t know Alex Davis’s work as well as I do the others but the kids told me he was superb. I’d pay to see that lot.)

Today they got me and “Play in a Day”. Twenty kids wrote a play together from scratch. At 11am, we had nothing whatsoever. At 4pm, we had a play.

What I hope also happened is that they got to taste a little of what it’s like writing for real. Not in school, not to be praised for how clever you are. For real. I told them that I wouldn’t be giving out grades. I told them that if we didn’t quite manage to finish the play today then we needn’t have bothered starting.

(I can do that, I can play the this-is-real and this-isn’t-school card because it isn’t school and I’m not a teacher. I’ve only once been studied by Ofcom people and that was a mistake. I’ll tell you now, I came away from this Play in a Day feeling pretty good – but I could because today I’m in my office writing for 16 hours or so. No kids. No trying to teach anybody anything. I’m not even a parent. Truly, I am a civilian.)

Anyway. No near misses, I told them, no well done for trying, the job was to write a play and that’s what we were going to do. That’s what we did.

But I was also strongly aware that this was one day in a week and that they have been doing all these other types of writing. They were obviously going to see what the differences are but there are two that I particularly wanted and needed them to know from the start.

I think one of them is obvious and I’ve said it a hundred times. Scriptwriting is different to novels and short stories and journalism and poetry because the audience never reads the script. The script is there for you and everyone else involved to make something else: a play, a TV show, a film.

It’s the other thing that I hadn’t realised I really think and it’s this.

Journalism is about the facts.
Drama is about the truth.

Journalism is who did what, when, where, how and only in the most coarse way why. Drama is all about why and also why it matters.

I’m not convinced that I gave them a brilliant example but it popped into my head and I said it. Since nothing else has popped into my head since, I’m going to say it again.

I was working with a guy named Connor Evan so I pointed at him. “If I walked in here with a custard pie and slapped Connor in the face with it,” I said, “that might be a news story.”

You can see the headline: Prat Pies Producer. Connor would point out that he isn’t a producer but we’re talking 21st Century journalism here and alliteration goes a long way.

You can also see the news report. You can practically read it now. A reporter would get a quote from a witness, from Connor and from me about why I did it – “Well, I had this spare pie and…” but otherwise the whole news story is Prat Pies Producer.

Whereas drama would convey to us – not tell, never tell, always convey, always show – what it is like to be the victim of that pie. What it’s like to feel cold custard against your skin for the rest of the day.

It would also convey why I’d really done it – and it would’ve accepted the fact that actually, maybe I don’t know.

Drama is messy. Drama is people. Journalism is just the facts.