Episodes

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be part of the Beans Podcast, run by three friends and updated twice a week. I appeared as one of two guests to speak on a subject of our choosing and to join in the general banter. Released on Christmas Day, the episode is available here.

But the main thrust of today’s entry is to talk about Star Wars. [Reader’s voice: On a writing blog?] Indeed, on a writing blog.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace villag...
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace village nearby Nafta, Tunisia in Tunisia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hadn’t previously been interested in the series; I’d only seen Episode I: The Phantom Menace on its release while trying to impress a girl. But 1½ weeks ago, I decided it was time to watch Episodes I to VII in the order of release then Episode VIII: The Last Jedi at the cinema, which came as a shock to some friends.

It’s a huge time investment to watch eight films at around 2¼ hours each, and you risk letting your concentration wander, thus missing a vital plot point. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve now become really rather immersed in the universe. From reading articles online, it seems I’m more or less up to speed with the action so far, and I’m understanding a lot of the jokes and references. The next stop will be to watch some of the official spin-offs.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Star Wars, it won’t be news to you that the plot of each one follows a formula. Yet you might be surprised to find out that almost every mainstream film follows a similar formula. On his website, Michael Hague discusses the six turning points of all successful screenplays, using Erin Brockovich and Gladiator for reference.

The word ‘formulaic’ is often used negatively as a synonym for ‘predictable’. Predictability often stems from weak plot twists. A formula, by contrast, helps the screenwriter to keep the attention of the audience as the characters’ difficulties become worse and worse.  Note that a happy ending isn’t necessary, merely a satisfying resolution of the preceding story; I refer you to A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Buried (2010).

Next time you’re at the pictures, look out for the structure. A good writer will make the turning points natural and the formula invisible, but these elements will almost certainly be present.

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Character reference.

As a writer, I often think I should denounce television and sell my set. I could easily live without watching the box again, and use the time to read stories and work on my own novels.

But on the other hand, I’ve now watched every episode of Fargo season one, and Inspector Montalbano and The Young Montalbano – collectively cited hereafter as Montalbano . In their individual ways, these programmes can teach a writer some valuable skills.

In Fargo, we have distinctive characters. Lorne Malvo, the controlled and self-assured lone wolf who often speaks in allegory. His demeanour directly contrasts with the nervous and uncertain Lester Nygaard who constantly stumbles over his speech. They’re being pursued by the two police chiefs in Bemidji and Duluth, who believe they’re superior both in rank and intellect.

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s therefore difficult to mistake one character for another. As such, each earns his or her place in the story. Incidentally, I found it impossible to unravel the formula behind the Fargo screenplay.

Montalbano also has well-drawn characters, but its formula is more obvious when you watch a number of episodes in succession. At the start, the inspector will probably be woken by a phone call; halfway through, a Mafia connection might be made; at the end, it’s likely the suspect will confess then commit suicide. There are a dozen additional common plot points.

This description makes the show sound formulaic, and it is, but formulae exist because audiences react well to them. The writer’s job is to work with the formula in such a way that the structure becomes nearly invisible. In the case of Montalbano it took a good few episodes to see the commonalities. I haven’t read the Andrea Camilleri source novels, but I expect they’re similar.

While we’re here, let’s take a moment to look at so-called reality shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex or The Hills. There is still a formula at work, but the writers approach it in a different way. It’s a technique that was shown to me by a drama teacher long before either of these shows were made.

Instead of a word-for-word script, the cast are told what the scene will be. Each actor is then given a card with his or her individual motivation that the others don’t know, and any information that needs to be dropped into the conversation. This produces dialogue that’s much closer to natural speech than a traditional script, especially if there’s an argument in the scene. The structure for the complete programme is still under the control of the writers.

From these TV programmes, we have masterclasses in structure and character. These are two considerations that have helped me redraft one of my novels that simply wasn’t working.

The first thing I did was to cull some characters. The protagonist worked with five people, and now works with three; his partner’s sister was only there to look at the protagonist disapprovingly, so she’s now been cut out.

Secondly, the structure simply wasn’t working, particularly towards the end. As it’s an adventure story, I looked up possible structures and found one called the Monomyth, a more detailed version of the three-act structure. By following this and using my own variations as the plot demanded, I now have a structure I’m happy with.