Time and time again, we return to this strange dichotomy that exists within writing, within all creative industries, that between art and entertainment, and the idea that one is automatically superior to the other. Those who have this splinter lodged in their minds are probably baulking at the very idea that creativity can be reduced to an ‘industry’. Just in case you were at all uncertain which side you fall on.
You’re not alone. I think at times it might well be the majority and I wonder if it is this very majority that is ruining much of what is produced. Those artists, those great minds that dreamed up the first season of True Detective, the re-gendering of Battlestar Galatica, who asked what if a high school chemistry teacher decided to whip up some class A drugs on the side? They by the artists reckoning need not be concerned with the mundane questions that all too often can be found in the indexes of books with title’s like ‘How to make a million at novelising’.. and ‘Bestseller-dom: The Do’s and Don’ts to get you on the NYT list.’
They don’t toil, sweat or revise. They simply create. Sometimes in some cloud of existential angst but the only odour would be incense not B.O. They aren’t concerned with monetary rewards – those millions are just happy accidents – and the fans, respect, reputation – embarrassing – and they would never ever want to know the answer to the question: What makes a work successful?
Despite feel incredibly guilty and obviously a complete hack for even considering it – I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. Being stuck between believing there is such a thing as craft, techniques, approaches and practices that unite all (or near as damn it) great writing, and the belief that every writer has their own unique voice that should be unearthed and honed, can if you listen to a lot of what is out there in writer-land feel like believing in a paradox. But that might be down to the fact that often what you are being asked to consider out there, is how to use your search and delete function on Word.
Here’s some stuff I think is worth considering: Familiar patterns that crop up in almost all successful works, the good and the bad. The difference I personally believe is down to how much considering you are willing to do.
Bring Back the 80’s
Famed for what became known as the hi-concept movie, an empty shell wrapped up in an intriguing idea, they hooked the viewer at the point where they needed to open their wallet, and didn’t much care if they threw the popcorn at the screen later. But poor execution doesn’t change the fact that many of those ideas continue to intrigue and the reason many are getting remade may not be entirely down to Hollywood’s belief that remakes always make more.
Here’s essentially where I talk a lot of cliches about foundations. Only I can’t be bothered. If you start with a bad idea you’re making it infinitely harder to make a good story. Which means you might have to get a little ruthless with yourself.
I like little stories. I’m not an epic girl. The world ending bores me. The world ends every week, twice, thrice, if they do a Buffy marathon about ten times a day. So this isn’t a plea to end the world more or up the stakes and throw some killer sharks into your dysfunctional family holiday tale, I’m just saying think about what it is that is drawing you to your story. Through this you might find the answer to, why would someone else like your story? That person is essentially your audience and if all the answers you come up with revolve around – I really want to be the gorgeous, raven tressed goddess saving the world while men fawn at my feet.. you might be your only audience.
I’m not suggesting that wish fulfilment doesn’t have a part to play in fiction, obviously that would make me sound like an idiot (more than usual). It has a huge part to play. I’m saying you need to understand how wish fulfilment is created. Much of your emotional attachment to a story may revolve around the fact that it’s you- your daydream, your desires, your voluptuous armour booby plate they are pawing at – which most of the rest of the world is going to feel a little less involved in. Your focus needs to be on the elements which will make OTHERS wish to be you, not on what others have constructed that made you want to be them.
Asking those questions can help you clarify where you need to be focusing, what you need to be doing, and how, when the time comes, to pitch it in such a way as to draw readers in.
Acquire a Squint
The hidden questions are more important than the main plot. These for the most part concern the relationships of your cast. The king of tightly plotted, intricately structured action managed to recognise this early on.
…the soap opera, the characters, the interaction between them is really what people respond to more than anything else ~ Joss Whedon
The key is that you have to keep things uncertain. Suggestion is definitely far more potent than reveal here. There’s good reason why Lisbon and Jane didn’t get together until the last episode, why Ross and Rachel were on, off, on, off, on a break.. The best example of this is Lois and Clark: the new adventures of Superman. A fairly cheesy show to start with it went rapidly downhill when they took the decision to marry up the pair.
And for all those who failed to make it through The Hunger Games on account of it just being ‘all about romance and dresses’, relationships are not limited to love. Stephen Kings greatest hit, The Stand, is structured to slowly build the relationship of Randall Flagg and Stu Redman. They are apart throughout the book, the relationship never explicitly stated, certainly never cited as a key plot point and yet they are intricately intertwined, each fate dependent on the others decisions. We the readers, are invested in these two distinct characters and the way the novel is set out, moving between the different viewpoints, slowly setting everything up to bring them together, always highlighting their innate differences and, every now and again, their similarities, much of our anticipation is built on their final meeting. True to form King never gives us this resolution, but like Superman, it’s probably best he didn’t. It so very rarely ends up satisfying.
Consider a moustache/Add a limp
Story aint king. The king is king. The who of your story is where emotional attachment happens and this is vitally important when it comes to getting the reader or viewer to keep coming back.
Agatha Christie may have recycled many of her plots, but few if any of her fans either noticed or cared. They came back time and time again for the sweet, pink cheeked old lady and her sly hints of Sapphic dalliances gone awry as she knitted her way through murder; for the little man with the big moustaches. Conan Doyle famously declared
..’if I had not killed him he would certainly have killed me’
about Sherlock, and yet still acquiesced to popular demand and brought him back. There are currently two top rated shows based on the character and his love of opiates and rudeness, a series of books for kids and a successful film franchise.
People latch on to people. People remember people. Ideas tend to have a much shorter shelf life if not attached to characters the audience enjoy. Would Homeland be a five series hit if not for the unusual and constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown heroine?
There are two facets at play here:
First is the novelty factor. Create a caricature – which I went into more depth on here – a quirk that allows for a different approach to yet another murder, medical emergency or terrorist plot. Sherlock may have been literally unearthed in several forms, but he’s present in countless other less obvious ones. Patrick Jane in the Mentalist is a show ground Sherlock – with an uncanny ability to sum a person up in a glance, a tortured slightly narcissistic personality and a habit of saying what no one else will. And he too is keen to credit science and reason not magic for his abilities. The differences however are where the emphasis is put – his showground scam artist past – and this provided endless fodder for the weekly episodes. Visuals can help, but you have to be willing to move away from your standard pin-up hero – a man with a fetish for fine tailoring and delicate china tea cups, – that is one thing I would personally love to see more of.
Second, is depth. Some might credit it as less important, but I rate it and I’ll hold to my belief that it pays in the end. It’s the harder of the two to get right, it would appear; novelty can hit you in the shower, depth might require a little more attention to detail. To return to the king of Plots.
One of the reasons why The X Files started to leave me cold was that after five years, I just started yelling at Scully, ‘You’re an idiot. It’s a monster,’ and I couldn’t take it anymore. I need people to grow, I need them to change, I need them to learn ~ Joss Whedon
An easy way to approach it is through novelty. Allow this to create within your character two contradictory elements, a burden or obstacle and a need or desire that drives them. This creates conflict and vulnerability, which allows us to connect with even the most seemingly inhuman of characters and endless opportunities for growth.
Both of these can clearly be seen in Sherlock and his offspring Patrick Jane. Their abrasive tactics threaten to disrupt the delicate equilibrium of their working relationships; both need to continue to work with the police whether to quieten their overactive minds or avenge their wives death; and these tactics are an innate part of their unique appeal.
Art is the place where we can say what we can’t say anywhere else. We currently live in the age of Dirty Laundry, the just rolled out of bed selfie, the blog expose, the divorce announcement on Facebook, which would suggest that we can pretty much say anything we like, anywhere, any time. I don’t have enough years in me to tell you whether things have changed much, but I sincerely doubt the honesty of much of what I come across on social media. We’re all gender neutral, gym hating, naturally slim, obscure religion loving atheists. The girl who bullied me posts anti-bullying sentiments. Who’s going to stand up and say, ‘I was the bully?’
Honesty has power. Because in between all the preaching lies the messy truth of human experience. None of us are without prejudice and we never will be, and as we are constantly bombarded with the message that we must strive to be, all we really want to know is that we’re not alone. All we really want is connection. Like writing great characters, investing in great relationships, all of these are part of the same desire, the very human desire to be accepted.
So stop lying and most importantly stop lying to yourself. Don’t preach what you aint practicing. You can always lie later and blame it all on the character..
Not Christain. Please god no. I’m talking grit, which apparently can be fudged with a grey film over the lens – harder to simplify to that degree in books. Violence, gore, sex.. You certainly don’t have to include such charming elements – I’m not personally a fan – however from Game of Thrones to True Detective to True Blood we seem to have embraced a more grown up form of fiction.
To my mind true grit is found in the point above – honesty – but there is a form which while I personally don’t claim to like it, seems to be working in much the same way. The willingness to go dark, dirty, a little nastier, creates a greater illusion of reality. And the public likes this. It makes it far easier to invest in. Think Brian Cranston in the opening of Breaking Bad, at the end of his rope, stuck in the desert wearing nothing but his tighty-whiteys. The image of the broken man, revealed in that most vulnerable and undesirable of ways, chicken legs and skid marks, is actually something of a well-known image within certain circles, but it’s a new trick for a prime time show. And it’s one that translates across genres: Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory has been shown in a similar light, giving vulnerability to an obnoxiously arrogant character and highlighting his childlike qualities. A little shade even in the sunny land of sitcom can be a potent card to play, visible in the anti-hero and rise of the unlikeable character. Personally its one I’d play with subtlety, but then I was thrown out of a screening of Kill Bill for being a sissy (it was from the living room).