Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

It’s about {squiggle}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

Starting block

I did such a clever thing this month. I’d be boasting about it to you, but for the small problem that I’ve realised I have to do it again and at this moment I haven’t a single clue how. Let me call it a writing thing so that maybe it’ll be of use to you too but really I’m lying down on the couch now and you’re getting out your pen, you’re asking me about my childhood.

Funny: I said that as a gag but childhood is relevant because the problem is to do with where you start something. Specifically where you start a story.

You know this. There is a reason why any story, any drama, any play starts at the specific point it does and not one pixel sooner or later. This is one reason I think prequels are murder and so rarely successful murder: they’re set before that starting moment and have to concoct a reason why.

What I did that I was so smug about for at least an hour was that I wrote a short story which in retrospect you will realise covers nearly two decades of time for the character. As you read it through, however, you see quite clearly that it actually physically takes place in probably less than half an hour.

The cleverness, and every time I write that word I’m doubting it more, was that I had this incredibly long story but I didn’t just find the right spot to start, I found the only spot where it could all be told in that short moment.

Actually, do have a read some time. You don’t need to for the point I’m trying to make but I’m unusually pleased with it. It’s called Still Life and you can read it over on the Prompted Tales website.

I haven’t been taught writing and I don’t know if there’s some university module on starting but I’m on a thing now where, dammit, the story takes place over 32 years and I have 45 minutes in which to tell it.

I’ll get there. And although I blinked a bit when I realised I was in exactly the same hole as I was before Still Life, I’m going to enjoy finding the right spot to tell this story.

Readers need a good start, writers need the right start but somewhere in the tale there is a potent, pregnant moment where it can all take place.

Okay. Okay. I think that’s right. And it’s helped, thank you. Can I see you again next week?

Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.

Passing on experience

That’s passing it on as in hopefully giving it to someone. Not as in no, thanks, I’ll pass on that. Though it’s up to you whether you receive or give experience and we’ve all failed to take advice before post-rationalising that we learned more from making mistakes anyway.

Listen, four times this month the same thing has come up: four times people have called me very, very old. Okay, the words they used were euphemisms like “thanks for helping out a new writer” and each time it was meant as a compliment. But I didn’t need my world-class ability to disassemble and reverse engineer praise into criticism to see that what they all really meant was that I’m the old writer.

Clearly.

I don’t want to think about that: I haven’t done anything yet and an approaching Really Serious Birthday is just magnifying my regular terror that time is ticking by. When I’m in this mood then stopping to eat is annoying, relaxing is betrayal and going to bed at night is defeat.

But of course I’m going to help someone. If I know something they need, and they tell me, of course I’m going to help. I’m experienced enough to know, though, that what I do in this way and what I argue Birmingham and West Midlands writers do more than most, is not usual. Writing is an isolating job and it is to the media industry’s advantage to keep that true so what’s more usual is that we believe we’re in competition with each other.

Are we hell.

Yes.

Okay, let me try that again. Are we bollocks.

I’ve been in situations where another writer was pitching for the same work as I was and that is the purest, most undeniable competition there is yet I deny it. It was poet Jean Atkin last year and we were both after a terribly interesting gig working with libraries but she walked in and even I thought yes, I’d hire her over me. I do think she’s a more powerful writer than I am, but it wasn’t a question of quality per se: we could both have done the job but we’d each have done it differently. And one of us would be more suited to the job than the other. That time it was her and if she hadn’t been picked, I’d have been disappointed in the whole process.

That’s the closest example I can think of to writers being in direct competition. Otherwise, it’s me pitching X and you pitching Y and the commissioners going bankrupt after choosing Z.

Otherwise, I do my thing and you do yours. I can learn from you but I can’t ever write like you and you can’t ever write like me. (You could have a go: say bollocks a few times, write ‘not so much’, mention OmniFocus and collapse into a stutter at the sight of dark chocolate. You got me.)

This is going to sound like I work for Hallmark Cards. (Wait, there’s another one: write ‘this is going to sound a bit Hallmark Card-like’ and be sure to say it in an English accent. You could play me in a movie now.) But honestly, I do believe that a rising tide raises all boats. If you have a great idea and something I do somehow helps that get made or produced or just progressed then that is in all ways brilliant. Of course it is: it’s a great idea and it’s yours, it’s you. I want to see what you do with it, I want to see or hear or read the final result. Hurry up.

There’s a thing in writing: inescapably, you reveal yourself through what you write. Even when it’s with fiction and different characters, even if it’s in a news story or an email. You can’t fake this: you are there on the page and astonishingly easy to see. If you can just put any idea of competition behind you, if you can please forget this idea of new writers and (especially) old writers then your writing and my writing and everyone’s writing becomes visibly the better for it.

You know the Yiddish word mensch, meaning someone who does a good thing. You also know that writing is a job, amongst all the many other things it is and that writers claim it to be, it is an industry. Helping new writers, refusing to accept that we’re old writers, supporting each other and working better: I think that makes writers and non-writers, men and women, all of us into a businessmensch.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?

Work away

I am three hours early for a gig. I’m in a Costa Coffee and am on my second mug. Can I get you one?

It’s strange being somewhere familiar yet in such an unfamiliar way and at an unfamiliar time. We’re drinking in Stratford upon Avon, you and I, and I’ve been here a thousand times. What about you? Probably most often I come for the theatre – the RSC is just over there, behind the high street, you can see the tower – but I’ve also often come just for the sake of coming. Idly, purposefully, for half an hour, for a day.

Always for fun, though.

I’m confident today will be fun too, but it’s different. I’m at the Stratford Literary Festival and I’ll be doing The Blank Screen workshop for creative writers and possibly some normal people too. (Have you heard me go on about this? Take a look at The Blank Screen news site but bring a packed lunch, I talk a lot.)

I talk a lot, I do this particular workshop a lot and it is a thrill how weeks or months after a session I will get a tweet from someone saying they were using what I told them. That they had therefore finished their novel. God, that is wonderful.

However, since it’s you, I’m going to admit something. Today is the first time I’ve run The Blank Screen as a full day workshop. Considering that I have regularly struggled to get everything in, I should be ecstatic. But I’m so used to squeezing down that I’m blinking at the idea of not galloping through things at lightspeed. I’ve done this in a country hour.

In comparison, a whole day feels as long as a radio show: that clutch in the stomach when you know you could have dead air. I am prepared through the roof and I know this stuff I do works, I am excited to get to meet new people and talk about it. But I am stomach-clutching.

I knew I’d be nervous. I know I am always nervous until the second that I start and some kind of light switch switches on. I even spotted a while ago that I was so nervous about this one that I had made a mistake with the trains. I booked myself on one leaving Birmingham at half past stupid o’clock. Hence being here three hours early.

What I had forgotten, though, was how different a place looks when you’re working there. Most of the shops are closed. (Bless Costa.) People look like they’ve yet to be wound up properly for work. I passed a dozen Morris Dancers rehearsing. The streets are busy enough but they feel like a stage set, not quite ready for lights and cameras and action yet. Definitely not ready for tourists, not yet. I’m suddenly reminded of a morning in New York City where workmen just nodded at me like I lived there because no other tourist would be up at that silly time. (No other tourist was recording a UK DVD Review podcast, but that’s another story.)

And today I walked from the station to here. Walking is especially good for showing you a place. (I loathe that I just said that to you. I’m a writer. We sit. We sit good.)

Walking through streets and going to work. I feel more at home here today than I ever have. It feels more familiar than it ever has.

Which interests me particularly because I ran a news story on The Blank Screen earlier this week about research that indicates working away from home is good for us. Just to be Russian doll about it, let me quote the quote I quoted in that Blank Screen story that I’m now quoting:

Research shows that experience in other countries makes us more flexible, creative, and complex thinkers.

How does studying or working abroad change you? You return with a photo album full of memories and a suitcase full of souvenirs, sure. But you may also come back from your time in another country with an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.

These are the conclusions of a growing body of research on the effects of study- and work-abroad experiences. For example: A study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that among students enrolled in an international MBA program, their “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—predicted how “integratively complex” their thinking became.

Read that exact same quote all over again on Go Away. As Far as You Can together with details of the research or at least of where I first heard about all this. Plus musings of when I personally first gathered that going away was a good thing, before I read it anywhere.

It’s really, specifically, that working away somewhere is good though. Not just going. Not just visiting. Working. Becoming part of the place shapes you. And I am fully confident that today in Stratford would shape my writing. If I weren’t so nervous that I can’t write.

They do toasted things here, want to split one with me?

Star Wars is not a (Han) Solo effort

It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.

I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.

Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.

Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.

The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:

I don’t know and I don’t care.

It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)

The trouble is… it matters.

George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.

I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.

Hmm.

Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.

When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.

More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)

Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.

That is a crap baddie.

That is a cardboard baddie.

So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.

Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.

The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.

But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.

Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.