Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.


The Double Act

One style that’s common to all genres is the double-act. From comedy to fantasy to police dramas, having two main characters is a powerful tool for increasing the tension and driving forward the plot.

One type of double-act takes two characters who are fundamentally different and observes what happens between them. In the 1987 film Lethal Weapon, the veteran Murtagh sees the world very differently from the trigger-happy Riggs, and they often fall out over each other’s actions.

However, a double-act doesn’t necessarily need to argue all the time. In Good Omens, Aziraphale and Crowley represent good and evil respectively, but they have a longstanding agreement to let the other do his job without interference. I find it interesting that the novel was written by a duo, but because Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett write in a similar style, I think that accounts for the consistent quality of the writing.

But even a duo needs support from time to time, and that’s where a supporting character can be useful.

In the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show, the duo comprises the serious Mark and the laid-back Jez. Two of their constant supports are Mark’s love interest Sophie and Jez’s acquaintance Super-Hans. Their actions can affect the two main characters, and drive forward the plot, in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The Short Verse

Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.


I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.

As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.

One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.

That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.

Two In a Room

Last week, I was working in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to see the TV writer John Osborne in Wolverhampton. The Arena Theatre wasn’t busy when I entered, but I didn’t expect to be one of just two people in the audience.

It must have felt frustrating for Osborne, especially as he plans to take the show on tour, but he didn’t let it show as he took the microphone. He was there to promote his book No-One Cares about Your New Thing.

And what a performance it was, with the first half devoted to poems and the second filled with a personal humorous story centred around his late grandfather’s collection of old Radio Times magazines.

At the end, he offered us both a complimentary copy of the book, though I did pay for mine; I’d planned to buy one from the moment I heard the first poem.

I’ve also had experiences where there’s far less of an audience than I expected. There’s nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.

At one meet-up of Hotchpotch a couple of years ago, there was me plus five attendees, far removed from the dozens we attract today. Since it was a mild summer night, we decided to head into the beer garden and hold an open-air event.

Incidentally, it seems that the Arena Theatre holds a similar open-mike event called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to their upcoming events, although I might manage to see the poet Jess Green in March.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.

Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.