Count on it

I’ve been asked to do a talk on plotting next week –– you know, around the time we may finally know the who’s the leader of the free world and who’s Trump — and you also know, I hope, that it’s not going to be me who does the talking. I have to tell this group something, I suppose, but really they’re going to talk, I’m going to listen, and we’ll probably discuss, well, I don’t know the name for it. See what you think of this, please, and tell me if you can think of a word to describe it all.

Last time I did anything like this, I wrote out what I called the Ten Rules of Plotting. Of course they’re not rules, of course there were Twelve of them. But I thought it was a useful kind of –– guide? list? brochure? — or something. Chiefly because I thought it included some things — nuggets? pearls? a third thing? — that could help you avoid the kind of plot choices that make your audience switch to Netflix or your reader turn to looking up the US electoral college count. Again.

It also had –– suggestions? tips? advice? –– on how to make your plot last longer, which is immensely useful for scriptwriters becoming novelists.

And then there is this.

The quickest way to create a plot, I believe, is to think of a character and then ask yourself what the worst thing that can happen to them is.

There is more, as in you really shouldn’t take your first thought. Especially since that first thought is probably that they die. Look for what’s worse and especially what is the worst thing for them, not just for anyone, specifically for them. My usual quick example is when your character is a surgeon and I offer that the worst thing that can happen for her is that she catches her hand in a car door.

That’s career-pausing, could be career-killing, but I think it’s more than that because in my mind this character is an egotist and she’s just had everything that she thinks makes her special deleted from her.

I love putting characters into situations they cannot live with –– and then seeing how they live with it.

To my mind, that’s really character and that’s what’s really interesting and the car door is just a prop. Plots are a prop for characters. But you can find plots by testing your characters.

Which is all well and good, except I have never been more politically aware and we are at a time when it feels as if politics moves on by choosing what the worst thing to happen is.

I love putting characters into situations. I’ve had enough of this happening to us all in real life. And I do know a word for that.

Writing by numbers

I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.

This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.

I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.

At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.

There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”

If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.

This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.

I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.

I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.

Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.

Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.

So take a look.

Apple vs Samsung count image

That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.

It’s night and day.

Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.

The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.

In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.

I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.

Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.

I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.

No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.

But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.

I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.

The same but different

The streaming service Britbox just added a shovelful of more British TV dramas to its service and one of them is Cracker by Jimmy McGovern. I saw that when it originally aired on September 27, 1993 and now I saw it again on Wednesday. That’s 26 years, 10 months and 30 days, but throughout that time I have remembered and admired one scene in precise detail.

Admire is a funny word. Feels a bit clinical. As if I were saying I could appreciate its technical merits, or something, but otherwise it left me cold. No. Cracker is a crime series with the ability to make me frightened for the victims in it. No high body count, no meaningless deaths – at least not in the sense of just being done for a plot twist; plenty of times the deaths are as meaningless as ones in real life.

And actually I do feel as if I’m going to reduce the show by focusing on what I want to talk to you about. It is the smallest moment in an exceptionally well written, commanding, engrossing, provoking drama.

The lead character, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), sees a news report on the TV. That’s it.

Swap this show for any other police series, even ones I like, and there is a fair to total chance that this scene would play out in exactly the same way. The hero catches a news bulletin just as it happens to mention what he, she or we need to know for the drama. There’ll be a helpful photograph, some exposition that would never really be said that way by any journalist, and the hero would then unerringly know the precise moment to switch off the TV.

In the first episode of Cracker, The Mad Woman in the Attic Part 1, McGovern does have a news bulletin like this. It has a photograph of a woman who’s been murdered, it has a news presenter presenting news. What it doesn’t have, what Fitz doesn’t have, is the remote control for the TV set.

So we see him noticing the photo on the TV news, then scrabbling to find the remote to turn the sound up, and finally crossing to the set to find the controls there. And he succeeds, he gets to turn up the volume, but he’s too late.

He’s too late to find out anything and it is perfect. I’ve remembered that moment for three decades.

It’s perfect in part because we already know she’s been killed, we know a huge amount. We don’t yet know what his connection is, but there is no information that news bulletin could possibly give us that we either didn’t already have or couldn’t see from his frantic searching.

It’s also perfect because it’s new. That may sound strange to say when it is 9,830 days old, but it was new then and it is new now. A very familiar situation is completely reversed and providing the same information in a totally new way.

In a somewhat smaller way, I’m minded of when I worked on the Radio Times website. Back then there were sub editors, subs who checked facts, smoothed out grammar issues and really a dozen or more different things that meant articles were as good as they possibly could be.

Except sometimes I’d find a sentence I’d really carefully fashioned would come out as a cliché. I did ask, I did protest, but I was told that it was necessary because people like clichés. You can tell me that until the cows come home in freezer bags, I told them, it isn’t true.

Look what I did there with the freezer bags. I’m not saying it was great writing or even noticeable, but you understood it as completely as if it were the original cliché, and it wasn’t. It was the same thing but different and maybe this is just me, but that’s worth the world.

No, wait, it can’t just be me because you’re nodding and, besides, there is even a term for it. When you write a sentence that is a cliché or, more commonly is just a familiar phrase, you can recast the sentence. Audition different words and hire them if they’re right for the job. I’ll never turn to a thesaurus, but I will spend as long as it takes to find a different way of saying something.

I just realised this week that maybe it comes from that Cracker scene. Seeing how you can deliver the same information in even a slightly different way, it’s stuck with me.

Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

Faster and slower

Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. Scrooge was this right old git, but then he slept on it and bought a turkey. There was a bit of war, but then also a bit of peace.

There you go, you’ve just read three books and doubtlessly got the full value out of them. Mind you, I realise as I say this to you that while I know many people who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know anyone who has only read it once. Such a great book.

Here you go: Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. You’re welcome.

I’m saying this to you because I’m grumbling. There’s this thing in podcasts which some people love so much that I just read a piece where someone was longing for film and television to do exactly the same thing.

Speed up.

Now, you can think of films that dragged a bit, naming no names Sean-Bean’s-death-scene-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s not that anyone wants films to get on with it, it’s that some want the footage to run faster, and reportedly many play their podcasts at 1.5 or twice normal speed.

Many podcast apps have a button for this. Some will analyse the podcast episode and also remove silences so that it runs a bit shorter.

I like to get on with things, but if you’re listening to a podcast or one day watching a film that you genuinely believe is improved by running at twice normal speed, I have a different button for you.

It’s the stop button.

Ditch that show and go listen to something better made.

For just as the spaces between words in a book are crucial, so the minuscule silences in speech are, too. I’ve produced a lot of podcasts and there was one where for some reason the recordings had a teeny delay so that it sounded as if my co-host was forever aghast at the stupid thing I’d just said. I did edit that to cut those out, but I left many of them in because quite often he was.

There is a reason scripts have the phrase “beat pause”. There is a rhythm and a pace that is every single bit as much a part of the whole story as the words.

The argument for speeding up what you’re listening to is that you get the information faster and you can enjoy more podcasts or whatever in the same amount of time.

I think the latter point is spurious. You’re not enjoying the podcast, you’ve already decided not to experience it the way it was built and produced.

And I think the first point about getting the information faster is idiotic. Since you’re ignoring the form as it was created and you’re believing that the worth is in the words spoken, read the damn transcript.

There was an acclaimed audio series recently that was on a topic I was deeply interested in, but the presenter’s delivery was so slow that it was as if she were insulting us. It was as if she were talking to a child and it was unbearable even before the show also became repetitive.

I did have a 1.5 button on that app. I did have a twice-normal-speed button.

But instead I used another control entirely. I tapped on Unsubscribe.

Accented characters

I’ve a friend who insists, really strongly insists, that he has no accent whatsoever. He’s American. I just look at him. But then this week, I was asked if I had deliberately changed my own accent.

I’m from Birmingham in the UK and if it’s fair to say we have a particular accent, then it’s very unfair how that accent gets maligned. When a Cockney tells you that your accent makes you sound stupid, truly the only thing you can say is “goodbye”.

As it happens, I don’t speak in a particularly Birmingham accent, but I am deeply uncomfortable at the idea I might have deliberately done that. I vow to you that I haven’t, but the very idea cuts deep into me and in part, I think because it connects to a key failing I think I have in my writing.

Let me triple underline that I have not and would not deliberately change my accent. I’m told that at times a sudden stab of Brummie will come out of me in some particular word. Good. If I cannot change my accent to avoid Brummie, I suppose I can’t in all conscience choose to change it so that I am more Birmingham, but I am proud of where I come from and where I live now, and enough so that I want you to know. If you get that from me actually telling you, fine. If you get it from a sudden Brummie word, all the better.

I used to tell people that my accent is what it is because I grew up watching Bob Hope films. But as I said to the person who asked me about it this week, I’m no longer comfortable saying that because of how Hope treated his writers.

He used to make them all stand at the bottom of some stairs while he was at the top. He would write their cheques and throw them down to them.

Maybe I could just amend my accent explanation, maybe I could just be more precisely accurate. I grew up watching the Road movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were in. Seven movies from 1940 to 1960-something, so long before I was born, but films like Road to Singapore, Road to Rio.

My favourite is Road to Morocco, and probably because it contains one of my favourite lines from any film. It’s a quite tortuous line that Hope and Crosby manage to sing on their journey and it goes: “Like Webster’s International Dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound.”

Now you’re looking at me.

I wonder if my clearly British but otherwise not apparently very precise accent is less my exposure to American films, and more because of this writing failure.

I could tell you the history of Birmingham. I have been a kind of tour guide for the place, I’ve dragged friends from the US and Canada around it. With friend and writer Yasmin Ali, I’ve put a visitor from Myanmar through every possible site in the city. I remember when I eventually left him and Yasmin, I actually sank to the street, my legs were evaporated.

When an interviewee recently described Manchester as Britain’s second city, I switched off the audio recorder and gave him a talking to.

When a college friend insisted that actually Nottingham should be the second city, I explained “Bollocks”.

Yet apart from right now, here, talking with you, I don’t think you ever see Birmingham in my writing. It’s certainly not from any particular decision, and I do have a current script that’s set here in the city, but my writing is definitely not riddled with my home town.

And I do think that’s a failing.

Alan Plater’s work, for instance, was so often not just set in the North East, but positively imbued with the place. You can think of so many more, too. Places, usually home towns, that seep into a writer’s work and, I think, give it something I lack.

I have set more writing in the TARDIS than I have in Birmingham.

And this is all on my mind again because the friend who asked about my accent did so at a book event. There’s a new book called “Spake: Dialect and Voices from the West Midlands“, published by the great Nine Arches Press. It’s a collection of prose and poetry and essays about and using the dialects –

– sudden flashback to school. I’m in a technology lesson and the teacher is talking about computer languages and dialects. Then he finally writes that word on the board and the whole class goes “Oh, I see” because it had kept sounding like he was saying “Daleks”.

The book is funny and insightful and it’s a collection of writing from writers whose work I relish and some of whom, I know and relish as people too.

Each piece is about myriad other topics as well, but they all touch on location and they are all deeply steeped in the different regional accents and dialects of the West Midlands. I think sometimes it’s piled on a bit for effect, but the effect is brilliant.

The more precisely defined that a region is in these pieces, the more specific and particular the words and the grammar and the sounds of the writing, the more universal it all is. You may not know what a particular word means, but still it gives the writing life and verve.

You can’t make this stuff up, I can’t fake an accent I don’t have, and I suspect my writing will always lack this core, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay about it.

An 11th Top Ten Writing Lesson

Back in 2018, I decided to read a script every day for a year and the only failure was that I got a wee bit carried away and ended up reading 624 of them. I counted. But as you can imagine, my first thought on January 1, 2019, was that thank goodness that was done, I had completed the year, I could relax now.

Unfortunately, my second thought was that I really wanted something to read.

So 2019’s pledge was to stop this reading a script a day, but I screwed up nearly completely. When you and I are done talking today, I’m off to read my 596th of the year.

Give me credit, though, that is less than 624. This is the quality of information you get from me: 596 is less than 624. I’m not wrong.

Then true, as I write this it’s December 20 so there are another 11 days, including today, so there’s a fair to decent chance that I’ll end up having read 606. But that’s still less.

Also, on March 24, 2019, I forgot to do it. So that’s failure in every way possible.

Last year I wrote about the ten things I’d learned from reading daily and this year did reinforce every one of them. But I’d like to add one more, an 11th in my top 10.

It’s this:

11) A good bit at the end isn’t enough

I read most of these scripts for the fun of it, but maybe 70 were actually for work. I’m involved in many different projects that required me to read scripts, and one of them was from a soap. I’m not a soap watcher, nobody expected me to be of any particular use on this part of that project, but I started reading it.

And then asked the person who’d hired me whether I really had to finish.

We both knew there was nothing useful I was going to be able to contribute – and there may even have been a dozen other people on the project so I didn’t matter – but she insisted yes, I had to read it, because there’s a really good bit at the end.

I pointed out that every line on the first few pages was a cliche and she argued that this is the trouble with soaps, they have to have realistic dialogue. They can’t do great speeches, they can’t rely on music and sound effects and green screens.

Yes, I said, but they don’t have to talk bollocks.

Soaps do not have realistic dialogue. They have dialogue that sounds like every other soap. What’s that supposed to mean?

I’m being unfair. This year I read a radio script that you could argue is a soap and it was so good it made me cry. In my mind, that makes it drama, but there’s a decent argument that it’s a soap and so clearly I’m wrong with my all-encompassing, all-sweeping description of soap dialogue.

Whether you like soaps or don’t like soaps, though, if you’re not into the first part of any script and/or you can’t bear the dialogue, my 11th Top Ten writing tip is that a good bit at the end is not nearly enough.

This was all very early on in 2019 and, besides, it’s only you and me here, so I’ll tell you. I didn’t read to the end.

He said, She said, It growled

Maybe it’s fashion, maybe it’s just right, but at the moment the general consensus is that in good writing, people say things. Say or said. Not enunciated, pontificated, bellowed, whimpered. Just said.

As a scriptwriter, I like that because I think the bellowing and the pontificating and all that should be in the dialogue itself. Let the character speak that way, don’t point at their lines and tell me how I should hear it.

But when pressed on this point in workshops or wherever, I cannot help myself. I always – I’m irritated at me even writing this – I always say that you’re only allowed to use “he said, she said, it growled”.

Now, for one thing, I loathe that I say all that because as you know, there are no rules in writing. Although if you break them…

I also loathe it because it’s a joke based on something so few people can know that it’s impossible to really call it a joke.

You have to know the Target novelisations of Doctor Who.

The thing is, even if there aren’t really that many of us who do, if you’re one of us, you know those books extraordinarily well.

The most prolific writer of the range, Terrance Dicks, died this week and it came as a huge jolt to me. He was 84, I’ve never met him, and yet my head jerked back when I read the news.

And then this happened. Since he wrote something like 60 of these novelisations of old Doctor Who stories, naturally a lot of the covers were being shown on Twitter and Facebook and the rest.

It didn’t happen with all of them, but there are certain covers of his books where I would see the image on screen but I would feel the book in my hand. The weight, the heft, the shape, the texture. I’d feel the book and I’d even feel just an echo of the excitement.

Truly, this little book range had electricity in it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you never knew which Doctor Who story was going to be novelised and you didn’t know when. I remember so clearly being on holiday with my family and phoning a friend to ask if a new one was out and, if so, what it was.

It was Death to the Daleks, by Terrence Dicks. Published 20 July 1978.Cover of Death to the Daleks

That’s the thing with Doctor Who, if you can remember even a scintilla about anything to do with it, you can find the full details online. So I didn’t remember the date, didn’t even remember the year, but I remember the sunshine and the phone call and the book when I got home.

I also remember thinking that Doctor Who books, at the time, and in so many cases, were the scripts to the TV show with he said, she said, it growled added in. And that was unfair. It wasn’t always unreasonable –– there’s a ten-part, roughly five-hour Doctor Who story called The War Games whose novelisation is a pamphlet –– but it was unfair.

I know this because since Dicks died, I’ve re-read three of his Doctor Who novels. They’re not exactly long, they’re not exactly hard reading, but I started from nostalgia and I carried on because I was enjoying them.

This would be a good point to say, as so very many other people can and have, that it was these Doctor Who novels that made me a writer. It wasn’t. I’m a writer because of Lou Grant. But there’s no question that they helped.

There’s also no question that they belong to a long ago era. Target Doctor Who books were published when there was no possible way to see a Doctor Who story that aired last week, let alone across the show’s 50-odd years. They were Doctor Who for us, and there is an innocence to that whose loss is hanging a little heavier this week since Terrence Dicks died.

Wait and Wait for It

I want us to fix a problem I missed back in 2007. I was going to say that it’s a drama problem, and I still think it is, but it’s to do with an episode of the comedy How I Met Your Mother, a series I think should be legen –

hang on, no, let me get specific. I’m talking about season 3, episode 1, Wait for It, by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, which first aired on 24 September 2007, and which I just watched again – after seeing the preceding 44 episodes over the past few weeks.

I bought the whole series on iTunes and then discovered that it’s also on Netflix. Anyway.

When you binge-watch something, it changes. I think overall comedies, at least the best ones, tend to blur into dramas because after a few episodes back to back, you’re not as receptive to surprise as you are when watching it weekly. How I Met Your Mother, I think, certainly works as drama, and actually after a few years into its run, that was chiefly why I continued watching.

It would still always be sporadically funny, but I was just into the characters. And watching the first few seasons again now, it is a joy to find how continually very funny it originally was.

HIMYM features some really smart writing: there are episodes where I’m totally into the story and yet the writer in me pops up to applaud something particularly well done.

I should say that it never occurred to me that the show would ever actually reveal the mother of the title. I simply unconsciously thought that it was a great title, a smart framing device for the stories with a father narrating tales to his bored kids, and not at all that it was a deliberate plan they hoped to play out over nine years.

I should’ve realised, not only because when they finally did the reveal at the end of the eighth season, they did it superbly. I should also have realised because How I Met Your Mother is one of those extraordinarily rare series, a successful romantic comedy.

And, grief, it was fantastic on romance.

There was a particular recurring motif that they played for every ounce of romance, and that was a yellow umbrella. When you heard that mentioned by a character or you just glimpsed it in the back of a scene, it was electric.

And the problem is that I now think it was set up very poorly.

Maybe I didn’t follow every episode on its first run, certainly there were things I just assumed I’d missed, but now I’ve been watching the whole run again in rapid sequence, I’ve seen one key point about the yellow umbrella that I failed to spot before.

“Kids,” begins the narrator at the start of Wait for It. “There’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella.”

WE DO NOT.

Maybe as written that line could be meant to say that the children have previously been told about the umbrella, maybe it’s meant to be that since they are the kids of this mother and father, they know the story as family lore.

But it sounds, it plays, as if we viewers have heard about this and we haven’t. This is the first mention of something crucial to the run of the series and, trust me, it ain’t mentioned once before this 45th episode.

Now, it’s easy to criticise an episode 12 years after it was made, especially a US TV sitcom episode where they were making 20 episodes one after the other, bang, bang, bang.

And clearly there were plans for this umbrella, plans that became scenes and whole episodes that I think are both marvellous and far better than I could ever write.

But.

Given that I’ve had either a dozen years or about a week, depending on how you count, I do have a way they could’ve launched the whole yellow umbrella story without clunking into it like this.

Within this one episode, the yellow umbrella makes two appearances. Once is during that wobbly start as the kids are reminded that they know about it. The other, gorgeously effective, catch-in-your-throat great, is the penultimate scene, really the last before an unrelated tag. The narrator is talking about everything is leading inexorably to how he met the mother, and how close that was.

And during those words, we see someone holding the yellow umbrella as she walks by McLaren’s Bar, the show’s regular pub setting.

It is that proximity that gives the episode a last little spark before the end titles. I just think now that it doesn’t need the opening reference. It’s tempting to set up something you’re going to pay off, it’s even automatic, but in this case, less is more.

All week I’ve been thinking that this is a dialogue problem. That rather than the narrator telling us about the yellow umbrella at the start, he could tell us at the end. Tell us about it over that last shot of one yellow umbrella in the crowd.

But talking to you about it, replaying the episode in my head, I think I’m wrong.

It’s a yellow umbrella. It stands out. And just as you always know who is the important character in a story without being actually told, so this time you would get that the yellow umbrella was important.

I offer that you would inescapably know that it was the mother who was carrying it.

Part of the satisfaction of writing, to me anyway, is in taking an audience to a certain point. Knowing where you’re going to take them, and then getting them there. How I Met Your Mother was first class at bringing you to a point –– and then throwing you with the smallest extra instant.

This was one of those. I just think, some 4,322 days after it aired, that this one could’ve punched even better.

What do you mean, I’m currently trying to write a romance and find it damn hard? There’s a word for anyone who can pull that off and it’s the same word for writers who can create a catchphrase I’m still quoting a dozen years later.

It’s dary. Legendary.

Change the word

It’s been Baader Meinhof Effect week. Well, it’s also been the destruction of my beloved captain’s chair, the seat I’ve been in for every book, every script, every article and too many meals. The main metal rod sheared off and sent me tumbling across my office. But while I was lying there with one leg up on my desk and the other in our kitchen, it was the Baader Meinhof Effect that I was thinking about.

The brilliant thing about this is that if you haven’t heard of it before, you will now. That’s what it is. It’s the term for how once you’ve heard of something, you suddenly keep hearing it. I guarantee that you’ll hear it again soon.

What happened is that last week I mentioned typical reactions that writers get. Now, I don’t expect anyone but writers to know or give the slightest damn what writers do or say or experience. But as people stopped me all week to say they’d had exactly those typical reactions, they also told me something that I haven’t been able to stop hearing over and over again.

Writer Jacqui Rowe started it. She told me that she kept hearing of people who dream of being writers, but what they actually dream of is anything but the writing. They dream of the book launches, they dream of celebrity parties, they dream of money.

And as soon as she said that, it seemed as if every time I checked social media, I would see another discussion about writers and our dreams or our motivations.

I get that it would make for a dull dream and a long night if you regularly fantasised about thousands of hours typing. But you’ve got to enjoy those hours because you’re going to have to do them regardless. Maybe enjoy is too simplistic a word because nobody sits here constantly beaming with happiness. But this is what I dreamed of, the writing.

It wasn’t the only thing I dreamed of. I also dreamt of seeing a book of mine in my local library. That wasn’t a long or detailed or even recurring dream because I didn’t really think it was possible. (It was. I did it in 2012, a book of mine is in the Library of Birmingham and any day now I think someone may consider being the first to borrow it.)

I want to suggest to you that this dream, the specific dream of being a writer actually writing, is a kind of pure dream. I definitely want to suggest to you that people who just dream of being a writer at a celebrity party are unlikely to manage it.

But I chiefly want to suggest all this because there is also the question of why in God’s name you, I or anyone, anywhere, ever wants to write. And there I am wondering if I just have a failure of imagination.

Baader Meinhof Effect.

Told you.

For in many of these same online discussions during the week, the same question has been asked and the responses were always what I’d call crazy-ass. Some writers said that they wrote to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I may have exaggerated a little there, but that was the core of it. The world needs these writers, said these writers.

And maybe it does. It needs something and what it needs, it ain’t getting it from me.

I do write to pay the mortgage, thought not as cynically as that sounds, or actually as effectively. But it is an issue and it has to be. Beyond that, though, my real reason to write is just that I’ve got to find out what happens next.