Strong characters drive the story.

Eve-Myles-Keeping-FaithFor the last eight weeks, we’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Faith Howells as she attempts to sort out the mess of intrigue, corruption and loss that happens after her husband, Evan, disappears.  That is, we’ve been watching a Welsh TV drama called, Keeping Faith, on BBC 1.  Faith’s trying to discover what’s happened to Evan, with not much help from the police or her community, but she’s attacked each new obstacle with grit, ingenuity and warmth, so we’ve mostly cheered her on.

I’m not saying she’s got it right all through.  There have been moments of blatant idiocy when we’ve shaken our heads, agreeing that no mother would do that.  In the first episode she drove off into the night leaving her three small children alone in the house, for at least an hour.  ‘Really?  Would she?’

The answer was yes, she had to.  ‘Get used to it,’ this incident warned us, ‘we’re dealing with a woman who’s impetuous.’ She’s generous and loving and loyal, but she sticks her neck out and trusts.  Of course she does, we should have got that from the title, ‘keeping Faith’ is about playing with all aspects of the meaning.

And, do you know what?  We began to like her all the more for it once we’d accepted who she was.  Faith is a clever lawyer, but she’s been away from work, having children and looking after the family.  She doesn’t know what’s happened with Evan and their law partnership. His disappearance forces her back to the office. As she picks up the cases Evan should be dealing with, we see how capable she is. When she begins to untangle the clues we are on her side, sharing her confusion and trusting her intuitions.

The odd’s against Faith got darker each episode, her list of potential allies diminished, and what did she do?  She grimaced, sucked in a breath, painted on a fresh smile as required, and turned back to her battle.

Eve Myles and Demi Letherby in Keeping Faith (2017)Maybe what our outrage really meant was, no mother should do that.  It’s easy to sit in judgement when we’re safe, but drama is about what happens when the supports are taken away.

One of the first pieces of writing advice I remember being given in script-writing classes was, ‘Put your characters on the edge of the cliff, then make them find a way back from it.’  That’s where Faith’s been, episode after episode.  Each of the people she thought she could turn to have failed her at a crucial moment.  She’s been driven to the edges of literal and metaphorical cliffs, by ill-will, indifference, fear, prejudice, resentments and avarice.

What keeping faith has meant for Faith, is that help has come from unexpected quarters, as a result of her generosity and goodwill.  Characters are not simply good or bad, daft or smart, they’re more complicated.   They don’t all keep tidy houses, sometimes they get drunk, they make questionable choices, they take risks, and too often, the past impacts on the way they make decisions.

I was involved in the action, wondering what, how and when, and willing everything to work out comfortably for Faith and her children. It’s only in retrospect I see the shapes of this drama.

KeepingFaith with Aneirin Hughes

Warning, genre shifts in progress.

Danger_Of_Death_Sign_fullAnyone who knows much about British crime fiction will be able to tell you that there are certain areas of Britain that have notably high ‘unexpected-death’ rates.   In case you’ve missed out on the genre, then take my advice, and don’t think of moving to places such as Oxford, Grantchester, Broadchurch, Midsummer, Shetland, Lochdubh or Carsley.

Also, should you find yourself sharing ‘an ‘otel’ with a Miss Marple or Hurcule Poirot, move to another one immediately.  That may well put you to the head of the suspect list when the bodies start falling, but at least you’ll not be amongst the deceased.  Better the shenanigans of hen and stag parties in the bar beneath your back-of-the-building bedroom, than that, surely.

Such deductions, you may think, are stating the obvious.  Well yes, that’s my point.  Know your genre, and there are certain givens we can rely on – even anticipate.

danger-of-death-signIt hardly needs me to add that in those other genres death tends to be an occasional occurrence, so why have I?  Well, I enjoy a radio soap opera called The Archers.  It offers listeners a fifteen minute visit to a village called Ambridge, in the heart of England, six days each week.

The programme was created in 1950, to educate farmers and small-holders about the latest farm-technology.  There were small and large farming families displaying varying degrees of efficiency and enthusiasm for change: it was dramatized propaganda about increasing food production.

Growing up, The Archers was a small part of my background, because it followed the news, which had followed the weather forecast, which was always on at lunch-times.  By then, there was a stronger focus on family story-lines.  We laughed about the characters, but continued to listen. I’ve taken breaks, sometimes for months, but it’s easy to slip back into the routines.

This week, though, I missed two crucial episodes, and when I tuned in on Friday evening I was tipped straight into the death scene of a young mother.  Where did that come from?  Apparently, Nic cut her arm on a rusty nail on Sunday, and her cold symptoms were actually sepsis taking hold.

In retrospect, it was heavily foreshadowed.  Lately Nic has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather-in-law, Joe Grundy.  He’s a widower, and they’ve been discussing relationships and love in great depth, with a lot of emphasis on how he coped after the death of ‘my Susan’. Clearly, this was not just Valentine-fever, it was preparation.

I forgot that The Archers has shifted its target from farm-issues to general social-issues.  I was partially lulled by assuming that there had been enough high-drama in recent years, and we were probably due a restful period.  As it is, at the moment we’ve got toxic waste seeping into the local river where several of the younger characters have been wild-swimming (yes, in the middle of winter – brave souls); a drug-dealing teenager who nearly caused the death of his cousin, and a local businessman covering-up his part in creating a flood that caused the death of Burt Fry’s wife!

Thinking about that, I began to look back.  I’m hazy on dates, but since Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall from the roof of Lower Loxely Hall, there’ve been several other serious incidents and there are already more ominous foreshadowings seeping across the Borchester landscape.

I’m picturing the office at the BBC, where the Archers is planned, disappearing under a heap of information leaflets about the latest issues that should be included.  Maybe, when Julie Beckett, the programme producer walks into the production meetings she takes a heap and auctions them off to the writers.  What other explanation can there be for this descent into darkness?

hazard warning

 

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade runner 2049‘Anyway, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, rather than the tv,’ Ray said.

‘Me too,’ I said.  ‘The special effects were spectacular.  But I don’t think I’d want to see it again.’

There was a pause, then Ray said, ‘The acting was good.’

‘Oh yes.  Very good.’

‘So what was wrong with it?’

‘Too similar to the original?’ I said. ‘I suppose it had to be, if it was going to pick up those threads of ending and take them further.’

‘Is that what you think it did, then?’ said Ray. ‘Take them further?’

‘I liked the game of spotting references to the original.’

‘But what about the story?  Was it too contrived?’

‘Maybe we’re so loyal to that original that nothing could possibly follow it.’

‘No,’ Ray said,  ‘there was a problem somewhere.  They missed the mark. I think it was the time-frame.  We’ve got colonies on other worlds in thirty-two years time?  That just doesn’t work.’

‘Well that’s not their fault, though.  They had to stick with the dates, or the story wouldn’t work.  The problem was that the first film set the date as 2019, and we’re trying to impose fact onto something that is meant to be a warning.  It’s an alternative reality.’

blade runner 2049 3Three days later, and I’m still getting flashbacks from those film visuals.  That landscape in shades of grey; the dark city extending into an even darker infinity, and the swirling, dust laden acres of waste-dumps feel close as I take Rusty for his morning walk across the fields.

These mornings the birds are too busy gathering autumn breakfasts to sing.  Is that why I think I hear that haunting, and rather beautiful, Blade Runner theme tune?

It seems, after all, that I may need to watch this film again.

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

IMG_0212

*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’

 

 

*Photo by Leon Keer.

Snail, and The Simple Linear Plot.

DSCF5265Despite being an enthusiastic, if erratic gardener, I’ve always had a sneaking affection for snails.  It’s not just their shells, which are actually far more decorative and varied than seems necessary, I like the delicate elegance of their antenna, and I’m fascinated by the way they move about.

Out walking on damp mornings, I find them crossing the slick tarmac lane.  Sometimes I anthropomorphize them.  Why did the snail cross the road? Are they fearless, or just oblivious? I’ve often stopped to move them onto the verge.  It’s a quiet lane.  I wonder what I shall say if someone sees what I’m up to?

This is despite the fact that at this time of year, when I’m trying to raise a veg garden, the battle between me and the various gastropods turns epic.  In one night, a sneaky squadron of six slugs turned the leaves of my four young courgette plants to lace, and lacerated the stems either on the way to or from their feast. 

My tolerance doesn’t stretch that far.  I found them skulking under a potato plant nearby.  Don’t tell Dad, who tried to teach me that there’s no place for sentiment in gardening, but I launched them over the fence into the field.  There’s a lush headland of weeds there that ought to keep them happily fed, if they can overcome their homing instinct. 

Yes, snails do have one, (so I assume slugs share it) it was proved in the radio 4 great snail-expirement in 2010.  Apart from anything else, I was glad to discover that I’m not the only gardener who’s too soft-hearted to extinguish them.  Why else would someone have set out to prove that they return again and again?

My gran kept a giant slug in a pot on the garden wall, when I was little.  She called it George and said that he was the biggest she’d ever seen.  That could have been just for entertainment, or to teach us about gardens.  I like to think there was an element of affection involved, that eventually she released him into the wild, rather than ended his life in a salt bath.  It’s far too late to ask, but I thought of her when I turned the bathroom light on the other evening and discovered an uninvited visitor travelling across the window sill.

 After I’d taken a few pictures (well, it’s a talking point, isn’t it?), I un-suckered my mollusc from the tiles, took it out to the hedge and hurled it into that patch where the others had been sent. 

Next night Snail, the same one, surely, was back.  This time Snail had made it past the windowsill and was heading down the wall to the bath.  I’m too well versed in linear plotting to take this lightly.  In making a second attempt, after overcoming my first obstacle, Snail had achieved the status of PROTAGONIST.

Something big was required, something that would leapfrog the story to its third and climatic stage, and have an outcome that was good for me, the ANTAGONIST.  If Snail got the happy ending it was intent on, then one evening I might find tens of freshly hatched snails traversing my bathroom tiles.

So I took Snail on a hike to a woodland glade, about half a mile down the road.  It’s well supplied with tasty flowers and leaves, sunshine, dappled shade, and plenty of protective cover from predators.  It’s surely a snail des-res.

baby snailsI wonder if I’ll feature in the epic stories Snail will recount to all the hatchling snails as a benevolent giant, or an indomitable ogre…Either way, I didn’t give Snail chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs or pebbles. 

I’ll be keeping close watch on that bathroom window, but I don’t think Snail will be back.  It’s occurred to me that travelling up a wall, a pane of glass and over the window-ledge could be counted as Snail’s first obstacle, and therefore all three plot points have been achieved.