It’s just a number

Listen, it’s my birthday so surely I am allowed to do anything I like –– and I’m 55, by which time I should surely be expected to do anything I like. I have no problems with the concept of birthdays, I’ve nothing against being an adult and making my own choices. I just have the single most enormous difficulty knowing what it is I like to do.

I mean, hello. I’ve been looking forward to nattering with you so that’s a huge tick in the Like column. Other than that… I’m about to have croissants and pain au chocolat in a late breakfast with Angela. That’s rather good, each word of that is pretty excellent. But it does remind me that I haven’t done today’s French lesson in Duolingo.

What do you do to relax?

I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve managed to make everything I’ve ever been interested in become part of my job, at least partly, at least tangentially, at least sometimes. But when I finished working last night, I shut down my Mac and stared at the screen for a bit, wondering what to do next.

Speaking of the Mac, I should say, a thing I definitely like doing has reached a little milestone of its own. I have this YouTube series called 58keys, which is for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads – ah, you know how YouTube loves a niche – and it recently crossed 500 subscribers. There’s a competition in this week’s edition which has now seen it cross 570 subscribers, so that’s also pretty enjoyable.

The competition, by the way, is to win a year’s subscription to Setapp. That’s a kind of Mac app equivalent of Netflix: you pay one monthly fee and get full use of 200 or more apps. I’ve written about it a lot, recommended it often, and the company agreed to let me give away two of their subscriptions. That’s been fun.

I know we’re friends but you are still allowed to enter because the two winners will be chosen randomly through some software thing. If you read this before midnight on Friday 27 November, 2020, off you pop and have a look.

Oh, grief. I just went to search for that link and one of the results that came back was “William Gallagher obituary”. Well.

Anyway.

So, that’s a YouTube link that I Googled and it’s about Mac apps. Even stepping away from the keys, this appears to be something I like. And I do: I cannot explain why, but I do find it engrossing and satisfying to use great software tools to make something. I think it’s the making, I find if I’m required to learn some app then it’s an impossible slog until I actually need it to make something and then I’m off, I’m flying.

It has been pointed out to me, gently but firmly, that I can spend more time fiddling with writing software than I do actually writing. Can’t argue with that. But I offer that writers are the people who do anything they can to avoid writing.

Plus I mentioned that this was my birthday and that I’d crossed 500 subscribers to that 58keys series. What I didn’t say is that this week’s special is the 58th I’ve made. It’s not the 58th you can watch, there were a good seven at the start that no one will ever be shown ever again, plus I’ve some Christmas ones ready to go. But on my 55th birthday, the 58th edition of 58keys crossed 500 subscribers.

It’s like I planned it. What I didn’t plan was that, I promise you, my writing has improved. I find I can write my own dialogue, I can write my voice, and I learned it from filming myself and wincing a lot.

I’m going back to work, aren’t I?

That’s what I’m going to do with my birthday. I’m going to work. But I will enjoy it, so. Let’s you and me have a tea and a croissant together first though, okay?

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.

Guild edged

I’ve been looking at you for ten minutes, easily ten, with my head going in two directions. Part of me wants to enthuse at you about a table reading I attended over Zoom last night, but I’m not sure I can. I can definitely tell you that scripts I’d read and very much enjoyed seemed even better performed by however many people in Celebrity Squares-style video boxes.

But I think what I really want is to talk about the Writers’ Guild. This week I was re-elected as co-Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and I may never get used to that. Except this is my last year – the Guild is a trade union and it of course has rules, which of course include term limits.

I promise to hand over power peacefully.

It’ll be reluctantly, but it will be peaceable. And that’s not for a year yet, so in the meantime I plan to be as bleedin’ useful as I can. The Writers’ Guild raises the tide for all writers, which I think is amazing, and actually it does so whether you’re in the Guild or not, which I think is astounding. Pay rates, conditions, the Guild is constantly –– and I really mean constantly –– negotiating, pressing, arranging every possible aspect of professional writing life and doing so in our favour.

Writing is an isolating kind of job which might suit you and it might not, but it makes us vulnerable. I think it’s telling that during this hard time, Guild membership is going up. The more of us there are, the stronger the Writers’ Guild is, the better we all fare.

Take a look at joining and what membership brings you.

Tinker, Spy, Soldier, Tailor

I’d like to use something very specific so we can talk about something very broad. Right now, BritBox has the 1979 Arthur Hopcraft version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the BBC iPlayer has the 2011 film version by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. And of course John le Carré’s original novel is available everywhere. Plus the script is online.

I’ve read that novel years ago, re-read it now, watched both the BBC and film versions, read the 2011 script, and there is a single scene in the movie that I’ve been fixating on for about a week.

In all the versions, here’s the thing. A British intelligence agent, Peter Guillam, is infiltrating his own agency to steal some files. (This is in the 1970s, files meant big paper and cardboard folders, not a USB stick or three.) It’s every bit as tense as you can imagine with Guillam diverting attention, distracting people and then of course he’s stopped just before he can get away.

He’s doing all this to investigate various senior intelligence officers and he’s stopped by one of them. Before you can wonder if he’ll find a way around this one man, he’s being escorted to all of them.

So now he’s in a closed room meeting with all the people he and we suspect, and if it’s been tense before, we are now certain the game is up.

Except, very nicely, if the game is up then it’s actually a slightly different game. Guillam is threatened, bullied, shouted at, and it’s all over the fact that, as we know, he has been speaking with a particular other agent named Ricki Tarr.

To mix spy genres for a second, Ricki Tarr has been disavowed. Meeting with him is treason, literally. So Guillam has a choice and he makes it. He claims he’s not seen Tarr and he keeps that up throughout – until he is eventually believed.

Fine. More than fine. It is a successfully tense and compelling couple of scenes and so well done that you can feel in your stomach the moment Guillam commits to his lie about not seeing this man.

In the novel.

And in the 1979 BBC version.

These same couple of scenes are in the 2011 movie, but they’re dramatically different, in every sense, because in the movie Guillam has not been speaking with Tarr. He hasn’t seen him.

In the film version, he first meets up Tarr right after these scenes and there’s a bit of action as he takes out his fear – amongst other things – on the man. But here’s the specific general point: his fear is minuscule.

He hasn’t seen Tarr so he wasn’t lying in that scene, in the film. He wasn’t lying so he can’t be caught out. In the BBC version there is every chance that the people accusing him of meeting Tarr have actually seen him do it. In the novel, he’s reasonably confident that he wasn’t under surveillance at the time. He doesn’t know, he can’t be sure, so while it’s weaker in the novel than in the BBC series, the tension is still there.

It isn’t in the film.

I liked the film when I saw it around 2011 and I liked it now, except the BBC one was so fresh in my mind that it was hard to separate them. I think that was probably why I noticed this because I do remember thinking the film was taut and tense the first time I saw it.

I keep thinking and thinking about this. About how a change in the sequence of a story can destroy tension that had otherwise been very carefully engineered.

It’s like the opposite of the Hitchcock theory that a long and boring dinner between two characters can be made riveting if they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table –– and the audience does.

I suspect that the film did the story in this sequence for one of two reasons. It could be collateral damage from decisions about other sequences, when to tell which other bits of the tale. Or it’s possible that it was done to serve Peter Guillam’a character. In the other versions, Guillam gets no big release from surviving this interrogation, no particular action.

In the film, he gets back from the interrogation, sees Tarr and makes a dive for him. It’s one of the few pieces of physical action in the story and it does also let Guillam believe some of the things his interrogators have told him. But he only gets to believe them for a moment, he only gets a brief spot of action.

If it was to give Peter Guillam a character moment, I think it came at the cost of a gigantically bigger one in that interrogation.

So if it were deliberate, I think it was just wrong. If it were a consequence of other issues in the script, other needs, then it’s a shame.

But whichever it is, there is always a reason why a scene is where and when it is in a story.

We had a time

I had forgotten this. When it was announced that I was leaving Radio Times, like thousands and thousands of years ago, I sent out an email to everyone on staff. I’d been in a rare position of working with most of the departments across the separate editorial teams on magazine and the website, so it wasn’t as if I were a stranger to all 120 people, or however many it was.

But I was stranger to enough of them that I apologised for the mass email and asked those who’d never heard of me to turn to their left and say “Who?” to whoever was there.

I also pointed out that this place had been my home, that these people were my closest friends and that they meant a lot to me. I did acknowledge that a ridiculous number of them had commissioned me for work over the years, and so concluded that “this means they’re dear to me and I’m expensive to them.”

Since it’s you, I’ll tell you that I was proud of that line then and, mumbling quietly, still am.

However, also since it’s you, I’ll tell you that email included one last line that nobody knew then, nobody recognised, and which wasn’t original to me. I signed off by saying “We had a time”. That line was written by Winnie Holzman and it is the final one in the pilot episode of “My So-Called Life”.

I’ve been trying to work out the maths of when I must’ve seen that show and how old I may have been, but I can’t. It was made in 1994 and I definitely didn’t see it then, but I imagine it was close. Call it 1995. In which case I would’ve been a British, 30-year old man writer but for 17 episodes of 50 minutes apiece, I knew what it was to be an American, 15-year-old school girl.

I can’t think of a single actual point of reference in the show –– and last night I watched that pilot again so I checked –– no single thing that I could identify with between me and Angela Chase (Claire Danes), the lead character, nor with Rayanne (AJ Langer). Not one. With either of them. And yet every point hit home then and hit home again last night. Some of it is that I do think the acting is extraordinary with moments of silence so painful that they draw blood.

But I’ve been re-reading the available scripts this week, too, and it is all there on the page.

I’m now somewhat older, possibly somewhat more male, more British, but the razors in the dialogue that bounce between perfectly inarticulate and shockingly profound, they’re still there and they still work and I still wish to god I was even a fraction as good as that. I’d take being pixel as good. Half a pixel. And you could name your limb.

This is all on my mind again after not having thought of this show for a long, long time. But a month or two ago now, I worked with journalist Genevieve Hassan and she has a new podcast called Celebrity Catch-Up which is a particularly well-done series of interviews. Well, I say interviews because that’s what they are, especially in how good Hassan is at drawing her interviewees out. But what they really feel like is you getting to have a proper natter with two friends.

So naturally I subscribed, but that meant when the latest episode came out, I got a notification. I picked up my iPhone to call someone and there on screen with this line about an interview with AJ Langer. Hand on heart, I have no idea who I had been supposed to phone. If it were you, I am so sorry. But come on, this is My So-Called Life.

It’s also an actor so aside from bizarre missteps like Lawrence Fox’s Question Time appearance, you know an actor is going to perform and perform well. Wait, there was also Meg Ryan on Parkinson. And most of Bruce Willis’s film promo chats. But otherwise, you interview an – no, I interviewed Trevor Eve once and loathed him. Okay, so it’s not a universal rule, but in general you can expect an actor to be good value in an interview, you can expect them to fun.

What you unfortunately can’t expect its that they will give any credit to the writer –– but Langer did. Repeatedly.

Yesterday I was in a long workshop session and the topic of scriptwriting came up. I found myself saying, completely truthfully, that seeing an actor inhabit my lines is ceaselessly wonderful to me. Sometimes I don’t think writers appreciate actors, but far more often you know actors don’t appreciate writers.

This one did and the whole podcast is a treat. I had a time.

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.

A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

The importance of being Brian

Here’s a thing. I never use your name. We natter away here and I never use your name. You don’t use mine, either, and that’s right. We know each other so unless, I don’t know, you spot me across a room, you’re not all that likely to say “Hello, William Gallagher”. Unless I’m introducing you to someone, I don’t use your name because I know it and what I want is to get straight to asking how you are.

This is how it is, this is how it always is for everyone, unless they’re in a drama.

In film or TV or radio or theatre, we are being introduced to characters who we’re going to know for only quite a short time. I have no problem being told their name, so long as I don’t notice how it’s done. When Lt. Columbo introduces himself to people over and over again, that’s fine, because he’s a police officer, he’s got to tell them, it’s so right and normal that it doesn’t register with me.

But when The X-Files returned and Mulder and Scully referred to each by name eleventy-billion times in the first episode, I noticed. When the makers of Airwolf decided that their hero’s name of Stringfellow Hawke was stupid and somehow concluded that everyone suddenly calling him String instead was much more macho heroic, I noticed. Because in a one-hour show, they called him it either two or three times per minute.

If you notice you’re being told a name, you’re out of the story and I know no greater sin, failing or crime in drama.

And this is on my mind now because of ITV’s drama serial Quiz, about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing fraud case. It was a remarkable piece of work, pulling off dramatic moments I cannot imagine being capable of. And yet I stopped watching after the first episode because, to me, it was unbearably bad at introducing characters.

I’ve a friend who is an enormously more successful writer than I am and she entirely deserves that because she is also enormously better than I will ever be. And yet when she kissed the air and described the writing of Quiz as perfection, I couldn’t help myself. I asked her about Adrian.

Adrian is the key example for me in Quiz, but actually my stopped-me-watching problem was almost every character’s introduction. This writer pal doesn’t disagree with me, she just doesn’t care. Introducing characters is murder and sometimes, as she well points out, you just have to get on with it.

But in Quiz, each introduction was so poor that with one of them, I wondered if it were a joke.

Adrian was just the worst. Diana Ingram is walking into her house with her husband Charles a step behind her and she says that Adrian is here. He responds something like this:

CHARLES: Adrian? Your brother?

Maybe we’re supposed to think that this is an important character, since we’ve been told his name twice. And we must learn that he’s her brother, this is clearly key.

What I actually thought first was ouch. Then second, I thought this is really crap writing, and then third I realised I was out of the story.

While I was out, I realised that the intention was clearly to establish the name Adrian, the relationship, brother, and also because of how it was delivered and the reactions of all the characters, it was telling me that this man is at the house a lot and Charles doesn’t like it. I think it fails at even that much because you don’t check if someone is somebody’s brother if he’s pissed you off by coming over nightly for a year.

I want to underline that I do not and will never say that I could have written Quiz better than James Graham. But as a viewer, I’m out of the story – and while the show did get me back in after a few moments, it would shove me out again every time a new character was this badly introduced.

If you agree with my writer friend that sometimes you just have to get it done, even if it clunks this badly, let me tell you this. I wrote every word of this today convinced that the character’s name was Brian. That character was introduced to me with hammer-blow subtlety, and it didn’t work.

If you’re watching a show and all you can think of is that there are better ways to convey that information, the show has let you down.

And there were. Here’s one way that the line could’ve gone that would be better.

CHARLES:

Yep. Charles could’ve said nothing. We’d have got the character’s name from Diana, and we’d have figured out he was a brother by how the next scene goes, how the three characters act. I suppose we might mistakenly think this was a ménage a trois, but we’d soon figure it out.

I was going to suggest some other alternatives, such as Charles saying “oh, well, let’s get the whole family around and have a party,” but the silence and figuring-it-out combo works for me. I’m a dialogue fanatic, and I think the best line here would be no line.

Funny that I should be so certain that the character’s name was Brian, though.

I feel silly singling out one solitary line from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but of her torrent of tremendous writing, one single piece of dialogue that sticks with me is “Where’s Brian?”

If I remember correctly, it’s said by a woman during sex. What I adore is that these two words can be taken in several different ways, and they still convey the same one key dramatic point.

I don’t think we know who Brian is, so he could, for example, be the couple’s child. She could, perhaps, be wondering whether he’s close enough by that he’s going to come in and see them during sex. Equally, Brian could be an adult man and she could be recalling how good he is in bed.

Either way, what “Where’s Brian?” is really telling us is that she’s distracted, it’s telling us that the sex is dreadful.

That’s using dialogue to convey the plot point about the sex, but more interestingly the frustration of the character. You could argue that the character could be clearer, but I don’t think you can make a case that she should be. The scene would not be improved by her instead saying “Where’s Brian, my previous lover from last month who is significantly better at sex than this man here has turned out to be?”

It’s easily 20 years since I saw and also read The Vagina Monologues, yet I correctly remember the frustration of the character. It’s a couple of weeks since I gave up watching Quiz, and despite writing to you about this specifically because of one character, I got that character’s name wrong.

This does say something about me. But I think it also says something about that script.

The new normal

I’ve been working with a lot of writers lately and specifically about how to make more time for your writing. It’s not as if this is something I’ve never done before, but it is unusual how I somehow currently have three totally separate projects with completely separate groups and even in entirely different forms, that are all about this.

Maybe it’s that volume of thinking about this topic, maybe it’s because I’ve learned from these writers, or maybe it’s just age, but I have realised something. I realised it this morning, actually, as I came to talk to you.

If you want to write or to do anything, make it normal. Don’t think of it as new or different, it’s just what you do, so you’re doing it.

It takes time to make something a normal, regular part of your routine, but I would have said it takes five years and now I think it can be weeks.

Don’t let me sound as if I’m talking about making a habit of something. That’s different. What I mean is – well, actually, let’s take you and I for an example.

When Self Distract started, easily ten years ago now, it was a place for me to promote something or other. Something to do with Radio Times, where I was doing most of my writing at the time. But it changed.

It’s now you and me getting to talk. And I don’t know when you read it, but I do know exactly when I write it.

Early every Friday morning, I make us a mug of tea and we start. Like we always do. Like it’s normal. And if it’s taken years for me to see it as being as much a normal part of the week as cooking breakfast is, the last few months have seen a change to that normality.

Lately I’ve been spending so very many hours at my desk most days that to talk to you, I move to the couch in my living room. If you’d asked me about it yesterday, I’m sure I would’ve told you that I do this, but I’d have had to think about it. Whereas this morning, I had the tea, I had the couch, but I’d forgotten my iPad. It’s in my office and surely the sensible thing is just to go there and write, especially since the moment you and I finish nattering, that’s exactly where I’ve got to go.

But it felt wrong. Without my realising that it had happened, the couch had become normal and anything else had not.

I got the iPad. I made more tea.

And if all of this is on my mind today, I think that perhaps it’s because I’ve been looking for it. You know how when you hear some word for the first time, you are somehow guaranteed to keep hearing it over and over again. Not once in your life had you heard it before, now it’s practically daily.

I think that really the reason I’ve been looking at how to make something part of your normal life is that something else has changed for me and it’s probably only taken a month or two.

Twice this week, two entirely separate firms I work with had problems and I offered to produce a video for them. In fact, for one of the firms, I just did it. Wrote, produced, shot, edited and delivered a video that did this thing they needed.

At some point very recently, video production became one of my regular, normal tools. It helps that I write the scripts, and it helps that I do believe video editing uses the same mental muscles as writing, but still something has changed. I’ve edited video for two decades, easily, but never before has it been the obvious solution to a problem.

What’s changed is not that I now edit video, but rather that it is a normal part of my working week.

Once you make something normal, you just do it. And I think you end up doing so much more of it than you had thought. That’s both in terms of how you find more uses for whatever it is, but also you do somehow make more time.

I shot five videos this week and so far have delivered four of them. Whether they’re any good or not is a very different issue, but the five came on top of everything else I was doing this week, which is exactly what I was doing every week two months ago.

I know you get faster at things through practice, but I believe that you can take on something new and that you can find the extra time to do it more when it stops being this scary new thing and instead becomes normal. When your To Do list becomes Write Script, Pitch to X, Interview Y, do Food Shopping – and Shoot Video.

So come on then, it’s just you and me here, let’s figure out what new things we can take on next.