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.

The facts, ma’am, just the facts

Sometimes you have to say something before you realise that you think it. Consequently this may be very obvious and I’m definitely going to take a time getting to it, but I first realised it on the ring road near Damascus.

Follow. This week in Stafford there’s been a children’s event called Page Talk, produced by Hayley Frances for Writing West Midlands. It’s a writing event where a small group of 10-14-year-olds have worked with professional writers, journalists, poets and more.

On Monday, they had poetry with Stephen Morrison-Burke. Tuesday was journalism with Alex Townley. Wednesday was science fiction and horror writing with Alex Davis. Tomorrow they get taught performance by Cat Weatherill. (Seriously, what a week for these kids, eh? Stephen, Alex, Cat – I don’t know Alex Davis’s work as well as I do the others but the kids told me he was superb. I’d pay to see that lot.)

Today they got me and “Play in a Day”. Twenty kids wrote a play together from scratch. At 11am, we had nothing whatsoever. At 4pm, we had a play.

What I hope also happened is that they got to taste a little of what it’s like writing for real. Not in school, not to be praised for how clever you are. For real. I told them that I wouldn’t be giving out grades. I told them that if we didn’t quite manage to finish the play today then we needn’t have bothered starting.

(I can do that, I can play the this-is-real and this-isn’t-school card because it isn’t school and I’m not a teacher. I’ve only once been studied by Ofcom people and that was a mistake. I’ll tell you now, I came away from this Play in a Day feeling pretty good – but I could because today I’m in my office writing for 16 hours or so. No kids. No trying to teach anybody anything. I’m not even a parent. Truly, I am a civilian.)

Anyway. No near misses, I told them, no well done for trying, the job was to write a play and that’s what we were going to do. That’s what we did.

But I was also strongly aware that this was one day in a week and that they have been doing all these other types of writing. They were obviously going to see what the differences are but there are two that I particularly wanted and needed them to know from the start.

I think one of them is obvious and I’ve said it a hundred times. Scriptwriting is different to novels and short stories and journalism and poetry because the audience never reads the script. The script is there for you and everyone else involved to make something else: a play, a TV show, a film.

It’s the other thing that I hadn’t realised I really think and it’s this.

Journalism is about the facts.
Drama is about the truth.

Journalism is who did what, when, where, how and only in the most coarse way why. Drama is all about why and also why it matters.

I’m not convinced that I gave them a brilliant example but it popped into my head and I said it. Since nothing else has popped into my head since, I’m going to say it again.

I was working with a guy named Connor Evan so I pointed at him. “If I walked in here with a custard pie and slapped Connor in the face with it,” I said, “that might be a news story.”

You can see the headline: Prat Pies Producer. Connor would point out that he isn’t a producer but we’re talking 21st Century journalism here and alliteration goes a long way.

You can also see the news report. You can practically read it now. A reporter would get a quote from a witness, from Connor and from me about why I did it – “Well, I had this spare pie and…” but otherwise the whole news story is Prat Pies Producer.

Whereas drama would convey to us – not tell, never tell, always convey, always show – what it is like to be the victim of that pie. What it’s like to feel cold custard against your skin for the rest of the day.

It would also convey why I’d really done it – and it would’ve accepted the fact that actually, maybe I don’t know.

Drama is messy. Drama is people. Journalism is just the facts.

Don’t lie to me

I must be on my own here or The Usual Suspects wouldn’t be so popular. But there is an issue in that film that came up to an extent in a play I just saw and unfortunately is also pressing on my mind over a project of my own.

There are spoilers here for The Usual Suspects but I won’t tell you the name of the play. That hurts me more than it hurts you: I enjoyed the play very much and I only saw it on its opening night, there’s a fair chance you could still see it – and I am certain it will tour and tour and tour. Nonetheless, I ain’t telling.

Let me get the Suspects spoiler out of the way: if you’ve not seen it and you want to, look away now.

The twist in the film is that Kevin Spacey’s character has made up the whole story.

Fine. As twists go, it is enormous because it transforms the entire film and reveals the baddie to be the one person who didn’t or at least were not supposed to suspect. And it’s a lie: I like being lied to in drama, I love being misdirected. That’s true in the production as much as it is in the story: I even wrote a Self Distract once called Lie to Me.

But.

I was really enjoying The Usual Suspects up to that revelation. It was written by Christopher McQuarrie, directed by Bryan Singer. The cast was impressive. (Well, you keep hearing stories that the actors didn’t know who the baddie was in the story and it’s a little hard to remain impressed if none of them could be bothered to read to the end of the script.)

Still, there I am watching this film in the late 1990s and I was quickly into it, into the story, engrossed by these characters. But that’s the problem, I was engrossed by the characters. And then told they didn’t exist.

It’s a funny thing: characters in a drama never exist, it’s just a story, yet being told that they don’t, told that within the drama itself, that makes a difference.

All these characters I’d followed and invested in and believed, they didn’t exist and they never did. All a lie. I was meant to be jolted and I was, I was meant to be blown away by the twist and I wasn’t. It’s done cleverly, I should write something that smart, but instead I solely found myself thinking oh. Okay. That’s clever. What time is it?

The twist gave us a surprise but it took away every single thing, every possible element that I had been interested in, that I cared about, that had got me into the story. I don’t think that’s a fair trade. I would’ve come away enthused but instead I left that cinema annoyed and clearly I wasn’t alone because it only won two Oscars and another thirty major film awards.

The Play I Saw Recently included two characters that we join as they are first meeting, first getting to know and to like each other. It’s a funny, touching, growing relationship necessarily conducted in little slices as these two happen to be in the same place. You quickly suspect they are both going out of their way to get back there when the other is likely to be around, but it’s sweet and believable. You want them to get together and that is quite a hard thing to pull off in drama. It’s done well and seems to be the sole light in a bleak story. Except toward the end you learn that their meeting was not an accident and that one of them has been explicitly working to get revenge on the other.

That revelation fits the play perfectly and I am vastly more satisfied with this PISR than I was with Suspects.

However, because we aren’t supposed to guess that this is happening, we only learn very late on that there might be a reason for anyone to want revenge on this person. It’s a big thing that’s happened. I envy how the writer has crafted something that we can be jolt-appalled by yet also feel for the person who did this big thing, how we can understand how it could happen.

But we get that for a moment and then we learn the reveal. The enormous thing is uncovered and dispensed with in a thrice and that reduces it. It doesn’t make it trivial, but it makes it smaller because we don’t get long for us to see how it affects that character. Something enormous is revealed late and the plot moves on instantly so the enormous because dispensed with. It therefore becomes smaller. So the revenge that comes immediately after that feels out of scale. The fact that we haven’t suspected anything – that may well be my fault, the script may well be riddled with hints and as I say it all fits in with the gorgeously bleak story – also changes things. We didn’t suspect this person had done this thing, we didn’t suspect that the other would be there for revenge.

So we’ve spent this time getting to know these two characters and really we didn’t get to know them.

I think it works better than The Usual Suspects, though, because I think we can feel that what we’ve seen is the real character beneath the plot. What we’ve learnt of how these two feel and think is real even though what we’ve learnt of how they act is not.

I’m not sure. Maybe this comes down to how I love stories and I don’t like puzzles. The Usual Suspects is a fundamentally different film if you watch it a second time. This PISR is a drastically different play if you go see it again. Jagged Edge is a taut thriller unless you know whether the guy did it or not, in which case it’s a bit empty.

All of which would be fine, I could do the critic dance and say McQuarrie and the writer of PISR aren’t as good as I am, QED, except that I am tussling with this issue in a project of my own and, oh my lights, it’s hard.

I have a tale that doesn’t exactly depend on you thinking a key character is something when she’s really something else, but it helps.

She’s lying her teeth off and of course I want the moment you realise this to be enormous. But I’m trying to make it so that everything you’ve learnt about her is still true, she is still this same woman going through these same issues – those issues are just gigantically bigger than you expected and they are profoundly more her fault than you thought. I want you to be truly shocked but then immediately feel for her.

Easy.

I know that moment, I can see that exact instant when you are to realise and I know to the pixel where it will come in the story. Unfortunately, it has to be instantly followed by another shock that I fear is about as big. The revelation causes the second shock, I can’t see a way to even separate them by a minute. So whatever part of my brain it is that just does plots for me while I sweat about characters, that’s tapping me on the arm and asking me to ponder this. To ponder a lot – such a lot – whether an immediate second shock diminishes the first one. You want to get the most value out of something, especially when you’ve worked hard to get us to that point, so it’s an issue of whether I am throwing away some of the punch. Whether I am making this enormous thing feel smaller and out of scale.

I might be turning this into a puzzle.

But I am clear on this one thing. Even when you learn the truth about this character, she will still be the same character you’ve come to know. She’ll just have this whole other issue and I hope to make it that this hurts.

I’ve said this before but I think drama is like running your hand over a piece of wood. Go one way, stroke against the grain and your skin gets cut by shards, it stings and you bleed. That’s what a story should do as you go through it. But the way when you then stroke back, stroke in the same direction as the grain, it’s all smooth. Stories have to work in retrospect; take us somewhere new and most certainly, definitely, unquestionably, undoubtedly take the characters somewhere they don’t want to go but they have to be the same characters.

I think.