Drop the Dead Entry.

When I talked about short-form writing last week, I failed to mention the My Two Sentences blog, where Edward Roads writes a complete story in that number of sentences. Most recently, it’s a timely argument around the Christmas dinner table.

Speaking of few words, it’s been another busy week and I haven’t had much time to think of an entry built around one theme, so let me give you a few.

On Friday, it was my office party. I always think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a ‘day job’. It started me thinking of a particularly brilliant piece of writing on this theme: the last episode in series two of Drop the Dead Donkey. The first half focuses on the party itself while the second deals with the aftermath the next morning. The episode is available on 4OD, and it quite rightly won Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin a BAFTA award.

Yesterday evening, I was listening to playwright Alan Bissett on Pulse 98.4, a community station broadcasting from East Renfrewshire. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, and he likes to put issues and controversies on the stage, so I half-expected the conversation to turn to politics straight away. It did, particularly regarding the question of Scottish independence.

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight, I’m seeing the classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen for the fourth time. This will be the black and white version, which satisfies my inner purist, although the artificially coloured version I saw is incredibly well done. You might not be aware how many films are based on short stories, as filmmakers can still extract almost as much as they can from a novel. Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are two such examples, and the source for Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a story of 4400 words.

Later in December, I’m off to see a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book since I was a child, so I’ve forgotten much of the plot and I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Someone asked me recently which authors I liked to read when I was younger, and I could only name him and Enid Blyton. With a little thought, I added Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I did used to read quite a bit, but from all over the place. My grandad used to take me to the library: I would pick books I liked the look of, and I can’t remember any of the authors’ names. I’ll report back if that changes.

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A Sense of Time

I’ve recently started watching old episodes of the comedy show Drop the Dead Donkey. At the beginning of each episode, an announcer now explains some of the topical references. As the series ran from 1990 to 1998, it’s likely a lot of them will have been forgotten.

A similar rule applies to fictional writing. If you want to set a story in a particular era, there might need to be some explicit or implicit reference to the timeframe in which the story is set.

For instance, one of my novels is set in 1964. This is introduced to the reader when a 21-year-old character is revealed to have a birth year of 1943. There are plenty of other era references throughout, but this avoids the dull initial statement that, “The year was 1964.” In one of my short stories, the 1980s is drawn more subtly, since the main character possesses a Filofax and a pager. It falls under Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to show, not tell.

To me, it’s important to avoid jarring the reader by letting them assume the story is set in the modern day if it isn’t. If a character is described as arriving home by car, then watching TV, that could have happened any night in the last fifty years. But tell the reader that the character arrived home in a Ford Capri, or watched Popstars: The Rivals, and that says they belong to the 1970s or the 2000s, especially when they go on to look up a number in the Yellow Pages and dial it from a wall phone. There will, of course, be occasions when you’re already aware the author lived in or wrote about a particular era.

The alternative is to make this story timeless. It’s hard to do in an urban environment since architecture and technology change, but it can still be done very successfully. If you’re describing a natural scene, it’s much easier to imagine it being any time over the last thousand years.

For anyone reading this well beyond 2014, this entry was set at a time when David Cameron was Prime Minister, coffee-lovers went to Starbucks for their fix, and people still thought Twitter was a good idea.