I didn’t plan this

I appear to be changing, please stop me.

Previously on William Gallagher, I was opposed to planning or outlining stories and scripts. It was better to dive in, start writing, see where you got, and accept or even relish how you had to be willing to throw away a lot of writing.

Only this week, I told someone that if I write 100,000 words and 90,000 of them are rubbish, that’s a bargain. I’ve got 10,000 words I like, and all it cost me was a hell of a lot of time.

I said that in a workshop and even as I said it, since this topic has come up before, I felt my polite brain prodding me to say one thing more. Which was was this: “Of course, everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.”

Not only did I also say this, I have also said it before, and not one single time have I convinced anyone that I mean it. I do, but I don’t. Not for me, anyway.

Except.

About 15 years ago now, I was in Hollywood – get me – interviewing a producer for Radio Times. On the wall behind him was a breakdown, a kind of basic outline, for the episode of Battlestar Galactica that he was then working on.

And he told me the one thing, the first thing, that made me think outlines and plans have a point. He said you can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night’s TV, or whichever day it was. Writing to see where you go is fine, but it goes wrong and you have no possible way to guarantee that it will work at all, let alone in time. Outlining, planning, story breakdowns, they get you to the goal in the most reliable way.

Curiously, though, that producer/writer was Ronald D Moore and I can’t remember now whether he told me or I just read it somewhere else, but he had done exactly this thing of just writing to see what happened. But it was under one very specific and unusual circumstance.

Battlestar ran as a two-part miniseries in something like 2003 or 2004, I forget which, and it was an enormous success. Deservedly so: that show is remarkable. But even though its ratings success was so good –– uniquely, the second part’s ratings were higher than the first because everyone was talking about how great it was –– the decision to go to series hadn’t happened yet.

It was going to, there was no doubt, but it hadn’t happened yet. So he couldn’t hire staff, he couldn’t set anything up, and there was Christmas in the way.

So over that Christmas, Moore just wrote an episode by himself, start to finish, no outlining. When the show went to series, that script became the first episode. It’s called “33” and I’m sure you can watch it on some streaming service or other, but you can also read the script right here.

It is a superb piece of work. I remember, so vividly clearly, sitting in a corner of the Radio Times office with a VHS tape – VHS? then? – starting the episode on this tiny CRT television –– CRT? no flat screen? then? –– and wondering if it could possibly be any good. The mini-series was two feature-length episodes and it was all so rich and filmic that it was easy to imagine squeezing it down into a 42-minute episode would lose a lot.

Except it didn’t. I wish I’d written “33” and I’ve rewatched it, I’ve re-read it, many times.

You can tell that in my heart, I still believe in the writing to see where it goes. And you can tell that in my brain, I accept that there are circumstances where you can’t do it.

Only, about six weeks ago now, I finally outlined a radio play script that I’ve been piddling about with since at least 2017, and I did so because writer Alex Townley nudged me into it. And four weeks ago now, I finished the whole play. I don’t mean the outline, I mean the play.

And one week ago, I was struggling with a novel that I’ve been working on for at least a year, and this time it was me who said to writer Alex Townley that maybe I should outline it.

I don’t wanna.

But it’s a story that on the one hand is bleedin’ complicated, and which on the other hand needs the most enormous, huge, gigantic finish. Which I didn’t have. I was writing all this ominous stuff with no idea what I could ever do to pay it off. Until I was piddling about with the outline and I realised what this big ending could be.

Everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.

Nope, I’m still not convincing.

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.