A Writing Lesson
Another of my occasional writing-update-newsletters this week, in which I share the latest lesson I’ve learned from my on-the-go scripted projects. I’m currently back to working on the scripts for The Dream Factory, my upcoming Radio 4 sitcom. They’ve been in a pretty decent second-draft state since just before Christmas, and this week Miranda and I (she’s helping me with the writing of it) met with Steve Doherty, my excellent radio producer, to talk about what stage they were at. To my initial sadness, Steve had flagged that one of the central characters in the scripts simply wasn’t working for him. Without giving away too many specifics, the sitcom is about my character getting a job at the Dream Factory, the origin point of all of humanity’s hopes, dreams, wishes and fantasies and, in classic sitcom style, proves to be utterly hopeless at it.
From early on, it had been important to me that the show didn’t play entirely by nonsense fantasy rules, and indulge purely in whimsy for the sake of whimsy. It was important to me that there was something recognisably human at the centre of it, something listeners can actually care about beyond all the surface-level nonsense. I think comedy writers my age who grew up on, say, The Mighty Boosh often misremember that show as being pure absurdity, but often forget that the entire show was anchored by a very rich, very well-drawn relationship between two very recognisable human characters. That sort of familiarity is key to selling good nonsense, I think. So the central character of “Joz” (very imaginative of me) has a best friend and flatmate called Anna whose approval and respect he is desperately fighting for. Every mistake he makes at the Dream Factory has catastrophic repercussions on his day-to-day life, largely manifested as new obstacles for him and Anna to overcome, so my hope was that the listeners invest in this simple friendship even as they see it challenged by his ineptitude at work. In the first draft, Anna simply wasn’t very funny, so in the second draft I had worked really hard to make her a living, breathing, funny character with her own flaws, failings, anxieties, neuroses, worries, her own ways of being at odds with the world. I thought she was a world away from the character of the initial draft, and felt like I was on a much stronger path with her, so to be told she still wasn’t working felt like a real blow. Maybe this character, and this friendship, both of which I strongly felt were key to the show actually doing something more than just being superficially silly and imaginative, were actually entirely redundant, which left me in the difficult position of not knowing what the show actually ought to be centred on.
A picture of the BFG catching dreams, although for legal reasons I must stress that my sitcom is in no way related to the BFG, why would you even think that?
Luckily, the solution lay within a reframing of the problem. There was nothing actually wrong with the character of Anna as I’d rewritten her – she was a lot more funny and distinct and recognisably human, and that was a big step forward. The problem was a structural one, in that the shape of the scripts I had written was completely split down the middle. The central character made mistakes in one setting, with one group of characters, which then rippled out and had repercussions on a completely different group of characters in a different setting. It meant that Anna either had to be completely ignorant of all the action that had happened in the other half of the plot, or had to be artificially caught-up with it in a way that would be frustrating and repetitive for the listener. It also meant it was impossible for her to ever have any impact on that other half of the plot, she could only be reactive to it. As funny and human as she was becoming, she was still essentially irrelevant in terms of agency.
There are a lot of writing-based newsletters that boil down the travails of their writer into simple lessons for their readers, which I’m not very good at, but if I had to do that with this one, the lesson would be this:
Is your character capable of making actions that have a direct impact ON the plot, or are they trapped being purely reactive TO the plot? If they’re stuck being reactive, then they’re either destined to be a minor character, or something has gone wrong.
When the problem was reframed in that way, the solution was obvious – Anna needed to work at the Dream Factory as well, and be folded into the central engine of the plot, so she could react to it directly herself, and so that it could also react to her. Reframing her as a friend who got Joz his job there in order to do him a favour, and who then effectively has that favour repeatedly thrown back in her face by his repeated blunders. It also suddenly gave Paul, the third main character, much more interesting stakes as well. He had been quickly established as an antagonist of sorts, Joz’s boss who is constantly suffering the consequences of his ineptitude, but the question kept dangling – “Why doesn’t this guy just fire him?” Reframing the show as a bit of a power struggle between these three, with Anna constantly having to put her neck on the line to vouch for her friend, Paul constantly having to reign in his own frustrations and give them further chances, Joz constantly trying to prove to Anna that he’s both a good enough friend and competent enough person to earn her trust, suddenly gave everyone more of a stake in the story, and more reasons for those stakes to shift and be poked and prodded in different interesting ways. I’m now in the process of rewriting the scripts and taking them in that direction, and am so relieved to have finally found a direction that all of us feel is the right one. On we go!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – My new show Blink has been booked for a 3-night work-in-progress run at Soho Theatre in March, which is a huge honour. My last show ended its life there, so to get to make a show that starts its journey there feels like a big step forward. I’ve got a lot of tickets to sell, so if any readers wanted to book a ticket, or to share the link with friends and encourage others to book, I’d hugely appreciate it. Tickets are available here.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I saw the anime film Belle this week, and there’s a funny little talking egg in it called Mr Reggsignation who really got me. If you go to see it purely for him, make sure you watch it dubbed rather than subtitled – I don’t generally like dubbed films, but the guy who did the English dub of Mr Reggsignation made some very funny choices.
Book Of The Week – Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk. On theme with this week’s newsletter being a sort of writing lesson, this book is full of them. Palahniuk goes through a bunch of some of the key things he’s learned about writing after a lifetime of avoiding considering himself any sort of “teacher,” and there’s some really great wisdom in there. Highly recommended for writers!
Album Of The Week – Permanent Waves by Rush. Not got much to say about this, to be honest. It’s a Rush album. It sounds like a Rush album. It’s pretty good.
Film Of The Week – Nightmare Alley. This was gonna be Belle, but last night I saw this and I fractionally preferred it to Belle. This new noir by Guillermo Del Toro feels like a bit of a step back from The Shape Of Water, it’s got a much less affecting story at the centre of it and ironically feels less human despite having no supernatural elements, but its 1930s world of carnivals and wretches and mind-readers and psychopaths is incredibly well drawn and designed and brought to life, and there’s a lot to love about it.
That’s all for this week! Thanks so much for reading, let me know if you had any thoughts! As ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves, and see you all next week,
PS Here’s another of Miranda’s rehearsal pics, because I think they’re great and I’m enjoying showing them to the world.