Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.

“I said explain it to me, not talk science”

You’ve seen this. You’re reading a book or watching a film and some character says something that jars. It sounds more like the author talking than the character. It feels imposed somehow, like an idea has been added in through product placement.

Sometimes it actually is product placement. There was a sitcom recently where a character needed to find out something and announced that he’d Bing it. No, he wouldn’t. He’d Google it like everyone else, but Microsoft was paying for the promotion of their search service.

Often it actually is the author or the screenwriter, such as when there’s a political point to be made and it’s theirs instead of the characters.

That’s a tougher one: I don’t think writers always notice when they do it.

And then you have issues like Abi Morgan’s Suffragette. I think she did a marvellous job of conveying society and in particular men’s rejection of women’s rights. Yet it’s a case where the protagonists are the suffragettes and the antagonist is an entire society that is giant and also so clearly, entirely, totally wrong.

Drama works best, I believe, when it’s about two people arguing and they’re both right. Morgan had to find a way to embody male society and for dramatic purposes also to not make it as clear-cut a case of men wrong, women right as it actually was. The more I think of what she had to pull off in that script, the more impressed I am that she did it yet it’s still a case of the writer’s politics impressing on every character in some way.

The Bing case just saw me jerk my head and lament the state of advertising on television today. The Suffragette one was a case of my thinking about it after seeing the film.

Whereas “I said explain it to me, not talk science” is a line that stops me watching.

Quite literally: that line stopped me watching.

I relish time travel stories and there’s an intriguing film called Deja Vu by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio but I can’t get through it. Because of that line. In fairness, it isn’t quite as bad as the more common “Talk English, Doc!” that you regularly get.

But the intention is the identical and so is the effect. It’s just that those two things are not the same.

The intention is to make an explanation sound scientifically plausible while simultaneously making it accessible to non-scientists. The intention is to have us identify with the hero, who is always the one saying this, and so humanise the situation.

The effect is to say that the audience is stupid and the hero is more so. Without one single exception, whenever you hear a line like this, it is interrupting a scientific explanation that a five-year-old would’ve understood anyway. This is because the writer has no interest in science and so picked up the first fact he or she found in Physics for Dummies and assumes you don’t know it.

invariably, the science is nothing so having the hero interrupt is actually making that hero look thicker than multiple planks laid together. You can argue that it’s making an adversarial relationship with the scientists and drama feeds on argument, but instead it’s telling me that the scientists are rubbish and that they are the hero’s enemy.

Every character comes out of this badly and perhaps that’s ultimately the problem: I cease to believe any of them. i’ve said it before, if I don’t believe the characters, I don’t give a damn what happens to them. And this particular case, i’l never know because I stopped Deja Vu right there.

Here’s the trailer. If you see the film or if you have already seen it, tell me whether it gets any better. I’m on @WGallagher. Thanks.

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.

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.


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***”.