You are quite amusing

Okay, that subject heading has nothing to do with what I want to talk to you about. But it’s on my mind. Yesterday I was working in a school, doing the usual thing of coming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again. But at one point, a young girl of either 10 or 11, said to me: “You are quite amusing.”

I took it as a giant compliment, but I was also supremely tickled by the word ‘quite’. You were, too.

Anyway, I was there running a writing session and she wanted to ask me about a story problem she was having with a book she’s working on. We talked during a break, I think her story is delightful and very well worked out, and then I went back to my hotel room and learned what had been going on with Brexit.

I’m not going to talk to you about that. I just can’t. Last night I was able to forget about it quickly because I was working on a thing, writing late into the evening. Yet maybe it’s because this young woman’s story problem was to do with plot and maybe it was because Brexit is insane, but something made me change my mind about drama.

It used to be that, without exception, I knew, I just knew that the very greatest drama comes when you have two strong characters in a room arguing – and both of them are right.

God, but that’s hard to write. Both characters equally smart, intelligent, passionate and equally right about an issue that is complex, challenging and vital.

I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off myself, but you know it when you see it. For some reason my mind is leaping to The West Wing and its first seasons with writer Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair because he and his West Wing writing staff were very good at this, but it’s also appropriate because that was a political show and it is specifically politics that have changed my mind.

I’ll still and forever relish the kind of drama where you have these two characters who are both right.

But now I am forced to wonder if it isn’t more dramatic, much more dramatic, when you have two strong characters arguing passionately – and they’re both wrong.

I think that’s what we’ve got here with Brexit as all these votes, all this posturing, all this bollocks goes on. All we’re missing is strong characters.

But to make up for it, while these arguments are going on, it’s our futures that are going to be affected. That are already affected. Maybe that’s what makes this dramatic, that giant consequences are resting on the shoulders of a government and opposition that prefer to pose instead of look us in the eye.

I said I wasn’t going to talk to you about this and I didn’t intend to. I’ve reached the point where I can’t always actually understand the headlines on BBC News – last night I had to keep re-reading one before I could work out the double negatives about not voting for a no-deal – so I’ve taken to reading the New York Times instead.

That paper is covering this but with the detachment of being based in a different country, even if admittedly a country with its own problems. When the New York Times writes about Brexit, it does tend to be well written and clear, sometimes with helpful diagrams, but it also has this unintentionally bemused tone.

Which can be quite amusing.

Misterioso

I’ve worked a lot in schools this week because Thursday was World Book Day. It’s a privilege to be asked into a school as a visiting author and always, always an exhausting delight. But this time, rather reasonably, I did seem to keep being asked what my favourite book is.

Depending on when I was asked, my answer ranged from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and probably all points in between. I didn’t lie to anyone, but I want to tell you the truth.

My favourite book is Misterioso by Alan Plater. It’s out of print, long out of print, and you may not think it’s the best of his immense body of work. I know you may not because he didn’t. The last time I saw Alan before he died in 2010, I mentioned this book of his and he told me that he hadn’t read it since he wrote it in 1987.

I had.

Many times.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book now, but it’s easily six or eight or more in those years and the last time – so far – was particularly special. I’ve got the hardback, I’ve got the paperback that followed and I’ve read them both but now I have the original typescript.

Well, no, I have a PDF of the manuscript. I photographed every page in the Hull History Centre when I was doing some research there. I photographed every page of the manuscript, all the publishers’ correspondence, two drafts of the television version that was aired and one episode of a substantially different TV script that was never filmed.

So you could say I’m quite keen on this story.

But I will tell you right now that there appears to be very little to it. In reality, well, there’s genuinely not a lot to it. When her mother is killed in a car accident, Rachel sorts out her papers and discovers that her dear old Dad is not her father. The novel starts off appearing to be a reasonably familiar tale of someone searching for their real parent.

Except in this case, she finds him and quite quickly.

It’s not about her father, it’s not about her Dad, it’s not about her mother. It’s about Rachel and how small moments become big questions and little changes of attitude become life-altering.

You can easily argue that nothing happens in the novel but by the end, Rachel’s life is transformed.

That’s it, just a little complete life transformation.

For World Book Day, though, I would like to get really specific and tell you that my favourite book is this manuscript version of Misterioso. Because as well as feeling like a special thing, having the typewritten pages my friend wrote, the manuscript also answered a question that had been annoying me since 1987.

There’s a mistake in the novel.

It’s always been there and Alan knew it was there because he fixed it for the subsequent TV version. But as ever with his work, it’s a small thing that’s simultaneously huge. In the novel, Rachel’s real father, Paul, does not know her name when they meet. And that’s despite our having learned that a mutual friend of his and Rachel’s mother used to keep him informed about how Rachel was.

It’s a slap to the reader. It’s a head-jolt and I’ve never understood it.

Until I read the manuscript.

There aren’t many alterations from the original pages but there are the odd few points where Alan rewrote and retyped something, then taped it over the first draft. Literally taped. This was 1987, this was a typewriter.

Typewritten!


And one of those alterations concerns a plot point. Alan seems to have felt that he needed to be clearer about how a character got a certain piece of information that ultimately leads Rachel to her real father. I don’t think he needed to do it, but fixing that small point early on in the book left us with this slap about a third of the way in or so.

To stand up why a character has Paul’s address, Alan creates a little two-paragraph story about how he and she had stayed in touch. He gives a reason, he makes it sensible that she would have his address. But that story, that excuse, is what then makes it impossible that Paul wouldn’t know Rachel’s name.

Alan missed it.

I read that page and the original version in the Hull History Centre and I jumped up in my seat, looking for someone to tell. Where were you?

No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.

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.

Hawaiian topping

Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.

He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.

Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.

I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.

Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.

But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.

One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.

In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.

Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.

Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.

Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.

One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.

More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.

So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.

It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.

When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.

Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.

The one writing tip I learned from Alan Plater

I won’t stretch out the suspense: I learned from him that it’s your characters that matter more than anything and especially more than plot.

I’d like to just pause for a moment and explain that I may be being a bit previous saying that he taught it to me or even that I’ve actually learned it. I think I learned it, I certainly deeply believe in characters over plot, I know that it’s what I aim for and I hope that it’s what I do.

Also, it’s not like the man formally lectured. Nor is saying that I learned one writing tip terribly accurate as I don’t think a writer can watch any of Alan’s novels or 300-odd television, radio, film and stage tales without learning somewhat more than one thing.

But I have a striking visual memory of a moment sitting at the dinner table with Alan opposite and his wife, my friend, Shirley Rubinstein to my right. I remember being a bit young and I remember enthusing about some fantastically complicated plot I was writing. What I can’t remember is a single damn thing about that plot, not one syllable of it or even the title. Unfortunately I also can’t remember everything Alan said.

I just see him saying “No”.

He didn’t just say that, though I don’t imagine he said a great deal more, but I remember that moment and my clearest recall of the entire time was that I didn’t agree. It wasn’t that we argued, it wasn’t that I thought I’d show him, it was a tiny and passing moment more like the comment not registering with me.

It registered later. I don’t know when, I wish I could imagine how, but at some point it deeply registered. I can now neither imagine not believing in characters first nor conceive how I ever thought anything else. One of my absolute favourite things is to have my mind changed by someone: I have one opinion then they say something, they persuade me of something and from then on I hold completely the opposite opinion. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s great when it does, except there is usually very specifically one moment when it happens. Thought one thing, bam, think the other.

This one took years. I wish it had been a light switch kind of moment, primarily of course because I’d have written better, sooner, if it had. But also maybe I’d have been able to ask him to elaborate and I’d be able to tell you his position.

Alan died in 2010 and I was writing this way long before then but not stopping to examine it. I’ve stopped to examine it now because I was recently asked about a piece of his in an interview. He wrote a famous Z Cars episode called A Quiet Night and right from when he pitched the idea, it was set: this would be the episode in which nothing happens. He said that, he called it A Quiet Night, and to this day even people who saw it will tell you that nothing happens.

Part of it is that you do just enjoy spending time with these characters and that was something Alan always pulled off so well that you don’t realise how hard it is.

I can’t give you his opinion but I can give you mine. Characters matter more than plot because if you don’t care about the characters, who gives a damn what happens in the plot? Myself, I take one more step: I think dialogue is supreme. If I don’t believe that a character is saying these words, that instead it sounds like the writer conveying some plot, then I don’t believe in the characters and therefore I don’t care about them and therefore who gives a damn what happens in the plot?

The surprising thing to me is that my plots do still tend to be a bit, well, thorough, but they’re never plotted per se, they’re never planned. I get these characters and I see what happens to them. It’s as if by looking after the characters, the plot looks after itself.

The delicious thing to me is that I believe it’s the same with Alan. I detest claiming to know what someone would say if they were still here but I think he’d deny this because I think he used to claim that he didn’t do plots. With the greatest of respect and fondness, he lied.

I think I say this in my book about his show The Beiderbecke Affair but the man was trained as an architect and underneath all the business of nothing happening, gigantic things are happening and his scripts are structured superbly. A Quiet Night officially has nothing happening and despite Z Cars being a police series there is no crime in this episode, nobody is arrested, there will be no trial. Yet a man dies and it is someone’s fault. It is an enormous punch and stays with me years after I read the script. (The episode itself has been lost but the Z Cars script was published.)

That man who dies is a guest character and while the impact hits one of the regulars, it is because Alan made us care about this man we’ve not seen before and, well, clearly won’t see again. A Quiet Night was in 1963 and Alan was doing exactly the same thing with characters in the 2000s. I remember him asking me to read a Lewis script of his called And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea. Actually he wondered what I thought of the plot and whether it worked. I am half proud and half not that I did see a plot problem and that a suggested fix of mine became something great in the final draft. I didn’t think of the great bit but I could see its root in what I’d said and that was a pretty good feeling.

Except there was this draft script and even there, on the page, with no idea who would be cast in a guest role, I told Alan that I fancied his leading character. That’s making you care. Lewis is a crime series and in this as in every episode ever made, there is a death and, admit it, you’re not that fussed about murder victims in these shows. But you were about this one.

I don’t remember the plot now, though I’m sure it was involving and interesting, but I vividly remember how I saw that character on the page and then how she was portrayed on screen. Because in retrospect it is only character that matters – because in whatever the opposite of retrospect is, when you’re writing right at the start, it is only character that matters.