When I’m writing a first draft, I do not – cannot – read any fiction. It’s not just that I don’t have the time, because there’s always time for reading if we’re honest, even on the loo – but because I don’t have the headspace. And I don’t want someone else’s words and style creeping into mine so that I’m doing the equivalent of bad karaoke.
But I still absorb stories, and I do enjoy fiction before, during and after a first draft. I just switch medium.
Happily, there is less snootiness about television now than when I was growing up, less temptation to lump it all into one big blob. Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor is not the same, and not viewed in the same way, as The Bridge or Breaking Bad. When we say “television” we don’t even mean the same thing we used to, pictures beamed from television centres to local aerials and on to our boxes. Our ‘boxes’ might be Apple TVs, PlayStations or laptops. I think we generally mean episodic content, whereas one off TV is treated and received more like an event.
For episodic content, we might watch linear TV (BBC4 showing acclaimed Scandi crime thriller The Bridge). But we might just as easily mean satellite or cable (Sky TV bringing us Boardwalk Empire). We might mean internet streamed shows (Netflix bringing us Jessica Jones or Narcos, Amazon Prime bringing us Transparent). We might even mean a good old DVD boxset (people still watch those, right?).
When people ask about finding time to write (I have millions of kids) and tips for getting started with a novel, TV always gets a mention. I say two things about it:
1. Stop watching crap TV. The number of people who say they’d love to write, but don’t have time, and then live tweet their disappointment with the reality cooking show they’re watching… no words.
2. Never stop watching great TV.
When I was discussing my second thriller with my UK editor, we were talking about how to display characters’ motivations that were seemingly at odds with their behaviour. “Watch The Leftovers,” she said. “You see all these people behaving in what seem like really strange ways, and then gradually you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing”. Which is a pretty good summary of the way many of us would like our suspense novels to be read.
I did watch The Leftovers. It had been on my ‘to watch’ pile for a while (if I’d known how breathtakingly handsome Justin Theroux was, I would have slapped it on to the top of the pile months ago) and I was hooked straight away. Despite the premise beinga big bang of a thing (over 100 million people across the world just disappear into thin air one day in October), it’s a slow burn. We meet the characters after ‘the departure’, we see the fractured families, the grieving, the angry, the resolute. The safety networks and bizarre communal coping strategies that have sprung up from the void. It’s very inspirational to anyone writing a plot that revolves around a sudden loss, or grief, or small town dynamics. Or breathtakingly handsome men.
Great television nails structure. There are some clunky and obvious similarities: Cliff hangers to make you read “just one more chapter”/watch one more episode, clear signposting of times and dates so people don’t get confused (a bugbear) and a beginning, middle and an end. I know it’s not always this straightforward, but I personally don’t want readers to feel short-changed, left with a pile of unfinished threads in their hands. I like to leave them satisfied that the loose ends have been tied up.
But great TV also plays with and subverts structure, which authors can ape.
The Sopranos’ infamous ending. [Spoiler alert, if you’ve not watched it and intend to, skip the next three paragraphs]. Everything you need to know is in that scene. It’s essentially an elaborate still life painting, with the tension cranked up so high it buzzes. All the clues are in place. Writer David Chase famously said “If you look at the final episode really carefully, it’s all there.”
But at first glance, we just see Tony arriving to meet his family at an ice cream parlour, Tony choosing a song on the jukebox, Carmella arriving, small talk, big talk, son Anthony arriving and daughter Meadow struggling to park outside. We see the family eating, fully in the moment, Meadow rushing in. And then the screen goes black.
“You probably don’t even hear it when it happens,” Bobby Bacala, Tony’s brother-in-law had said twice in previous episodes. He didn’t. We didn’t. Perfect.
Our Friends in the North, remember that? A masterclass in character development.
And I know everyone’s sick of hearing about The Wire, but… For all the millions of reasons people still cite it, The Wire. The writers’ dedication to themes, the ebb and flow of characters’ luck and arrogance, the ensemble of folk chasing one shared end while trying to hit their own goals or right their own wrongs, the realistic dialogue, the cruelty of ‘wrong place, all the time’ and everything else. The Wire.
Catriona Child, author of Trackman and Swim Until You Can't See Land says that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” was an inspiration for its “great writing [that] captures the journey from teen to adult brilliantly.”
Similarly for backstory and pathos, it doesn’t always come from the critically acclaimed dramas. The backstories of Fry and Leela from cartoon Futurama run through my head frequently. Leela’s mutant parents watching her from afar, as she grows up an ‘orphan’, Fry time and again giving up his own life for her. Anyone who can watch Jurassic Bark, the Seymour Asses episode and not collapse in sobs is a sociopath. That dog – that cartoon dog – spent his whole life waiting for his cryogenically frozen master to return, and died on the same spot. WAIL.
Good fiction is good fiction, and if it makes you think and feel and pick up a pen (okay, keyboard) then medium really does not matter.
Try Not to Breathe is published on 7 January by Corvus (Atlantic). Early copies are available now from WHSmith Travel stores through the Fresh Talent promotion.
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