It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

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.

Write Justified

Poster for FX TV show Justified

Usually you and I talk wherever we happen to be and if there’s a mug of tea, so much the better. Today, though, I’m in my office and so I can tell you with a single glance that there are 178 books on the shelf behind me. With a second single glance I can tell you that together they contain 1,127 scripts.

Okay, it took a little more than a glance and I’m partly telling you so that the two hours I spent counting them for a Writers’ Guild column don’t feel wasted. They weren’t really wasted but they also weren’t two hours: I ended up re-reading so many of these favourites.

You can’t be a writer without being a reader, it’s like breathing in and out. And if you’re writing a script without having ever seen one, I know already that your script is crap. Not because there’s some great rule you don’t know but because you’re plainly not interested in your medium.

But here’s the thing. I recommend all 178 books and I recommend all 1,127 scripts, even the bad ones, except I don’t. I’d have to count them all again to be sure and you wouldn’t ask me to do that, please, but I expect that perhaps only 40% of these scripts are really scripts.

The rest are at best reformatted. Real scripts look great to me: the layout, the form, it’s all as correct and pleasing as a haiku but I do see a problem for book publishers. There’s an awful lot of whitespace on the page. A TV hour could be 50-70 pages, a film is typically around 120 pages. In a book, if you stuff the formatting, you can get that lot into 30 pages and make off with all the printing money you just saved. Layout matters, it’s all done the way it is for a reason, but I’m mostly okay with that so long as the text is what was written.

For the very longest of times I thought the problem was that the text so often isn’t what was written. Actually, I still think that to an extent. Instead of the script as delivered by the writer, you might get the equivalent of what the BBC calls a Programme As Broadcast form: a verbatim transcript of the final result. Faber and Faber did this with Woody Allen films and I only found out after I’d bought the book.

Transcripts are worthless. You get fan websites where some astonishing sod has counted every word and written them all out. If you want to do that, there’s a part of me that applauds your effort and industry plus there’s a part of me that sees you’re honouring writers. But don’t pass this junk off as a script.

For real scripts are the true blueprint of a drama: they show you the scaffolding. The dialogue as written plus the stage directions plus the very style it’s all written in are to do with the setting the tone and telling the story. The actors don’t make up the words but a script is not just the words they say.

So when the internet turned up and had all these scripts on it, when I learned to spot a transcript at a million paces and thereby always recognise a real script when I see it, I stopped buying the books. Mostly. I still do. But not in the volume I did. And if you asked me, I’d recommend you do the same because the online copies are the best, most accurate representation of the job. It is the sole reason for recommending the BBC Writersroom, for instance: forget everything else they say they do, they have a genuinely excellent online script library.

Only, my newest obsession is an American TV drama called Justified. It ran for six years from 2010 and I’ve seen the pilot a couple of times yet not until recently tried the rest. But for the past week or two, I’ve been eating this show up and I’ve been reading the half-dozen scripts that you can get online. And it is fascinating because the differences between the show and what appear to be the final drafts of the script are far, far greater than I’m used to. They’re peek-inside-the-writers’-mind level of differences.

I can’t count how many scripts I’ve read because it was quicker than watching the film or the show. I read something like 150 scripts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before watching a second episode of it. When it’s well written, that’s fine, it works on the page tremendously and differences in the broadcast version are minor. Read The Good Wife pilot script online, for instance, and it’s a final draft that is near-as-dammit verbatim to the aired show. The only difference I particularly noticed was that one very good scene was taken out of the pilot and popped into episode two. But with Justified, the changes are huge, most especially in the pilot and I think I’m learning a lesson here from both reading the scripts and watching the show.

I think that changes in the pilot are probably only to be expected: this is such an important episode that you can imagine it being reworked and reworked and reworked all the way up to the editing room. Except some of the differences are not tweaks, they are fundamental changes to the very premise of the show.

They’re actually quite small alterations, they’re a few different lines, a couple of different scenes at most, but their impact is seismic. Let me give you the example that made me want to talk to you about this.

Justified is about US Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens who returns to his home state of Kentucky after, well, some problems. It’s based on a character in an Elmore Leonard short story and the pilot is written by the series creator Graham Yost. Here’s the script as written, though with apologies I’ve had to change the layout to get it on here. It’d help to know that Dan is Raylan’s boss.

INT. US MARSHALL’S OFFICE – SOUTHERN DISTRICT – DAY

RAYLAN (CONT’D): You want me to take some time off?

DAN: No. I want you to take a temporary reassignment.

RAYLAN: Where?

DAN: That’s up to you. There are five districts nationwide low on manpower, could use you.

RAYLAN: Is Eastern Kentucky on that list?

DAN: It is.

RAYLAN: I’ll go there.

DAN: You don’t want to think about it?

RAYLAN: That’s where I grew up. And I know the marshal, Art Mullen. He and I taught firearms at Glynco.

DAN: You still got family in Kentucky?

RAYLAN: Ex-wife in Lexington. I believe my father’s still down in Harlan.

DAN: You believe?

RAYLAN: (shrugs, then:) There’s another reason I’d like to go. I was checking out the national suspects list and I saw a name in Eastern Kentucky I recognized: Boyd Crowder. (off Dan’s look) He was a guy I knew growing up. Back when we were 19, we dug coal together.

So Raylan is going home. If that’s not a series start, I don’t know what is. Except possibly this. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but this next is a transcript. Someone has transcribed Justified and if they’ve done it really badly – each word is there but not a clue who is saying which sentence and often no evidence that it’s now a different person – then at least they saved me some typing. I’ve cleaned it up and made it clearer, added the scene heading, but otherwise, here’s the same scene as broadcast and transcribed:

INT. UNDERGROUND CARPARK – DAY

DAN: Let me put it to you this way. The weather forecast is for a shitload of shit raining down on this office from Washington. I’m gonna reassign you.
RAYLAN: Prison Transport?
DAN: No, I’m getting you out of Dodge. They need manpower in the Eastern District of Kentucky. I talked to the chief of the district, Art Mullen, says you guys taught Firearms together at Glynco.
RAYLAN: No, no, Dan. I grew up in Kentucky. I don’t wanna go back there.
DAN: Well, then we have a problem, because you don’t wanna go back to Kentucky, and you cannot, under any circumstances, stay here.

So Raylan is going home and he doesn’t want to. Now that’s a series start. Remember that this is the same writer but every part of it is different right down to how much better, in my opinion, the dialogue is. I think Yost found the right way into the story and as soon as he’d done that, the dialogue flew too.

I don’t know. The other scripts available online are final draft production ones with long lists of revisions – and actually, slightly more than I’m used to seeing. Usually there’s a half a dozen to a dozen rewrites on these things but with the Justified scripts you see them specify that a rewrite was on a particular scene. That tells me the rewrite came very, very late, that production was well underway. I don’t know why that should be on this show more than any other, but I do know that Justified is a superb piece of writing.

I’m just so thoroughly engrossed by how that change about wanting to go makes such a deep-rooted difference to every aspect of the show. From the plot to most definitely the character but also the atmosphere. And the exposition. There is some detail in that drafts script that didn’t make it to that transcript of the broadcast but the few that mattered are delivered in a later scene instead. They work better there, too, but then they would.

You think you can tell any story in any way yet somewhere along the line, there becomes just one single way to tell it well. Find that and suddenly it all works. If only it were as easy as that sounds, if only if I weren’t struggling with the same thing on a script of mine too.

Listen, go watch Justified. And when you get ahead of me – I’m on the last episode of the first season – you cannot, under any circumstances, tell me what’s coming next.