Following Suits

Every writer who creates multiple characters has to balance up two factors.

On the one hand, both characters are inherently part of the author, and their words and actions are dictated by what is written. Yet the voices of these two characters must also be sufficiently different from each other so a reader can accept both as individuals. This is not always an easy balance to achieve, and sometimes even the professionals don’t succeed.

English: Gabriel Macht in March 2009.
English: Gabriel Macht from Suits in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently been watching legal drama Suits. Generally speaking, the dialogue is of a high standard, and pared back to lend a speedy pace. But the standard, I’ve noticed, begins to slip around Season 4. The first observation was that every character – main, minor and recurring – swears in an similar manner. Had this attribute been confined to one character, perhaps two, I would have accepted it as a personal quirk; it works for Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, for instance.

Suits also relies upon the line What are you talking about? and its variations. Used sparingly, this technique can be a near-invisible way to clarify information for the viewer, but its constant use becomes obvious and lessens its effect. Writing in The Guardian, playwright Lucy Prebble even warns that If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Suits is not the only drama affected by such similarity. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Collateral Beauty. Among its other flaws, it seemed that each character held a spiritual belief and would often speak to the others in similar platitudes. Yet even if the writer did want to evoke a spiritual tone, it might have helped if someone had questioned or challenged these beliefs.

So how can we, as writers, avoid the trap of carbon-copy dialogue?

A good starting point is to reduce the number of characters where possible. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is on a whaling ship with dozens of other men, but Herman Melville tells their stories by illustrating only a few. He focuses, for instance, on the overbearing and egotistical Captain Ahab who who could not be confused with Queequeg and his strange customs.

For those who survive the cull, it’s worthwhile letting them live in your head and allowing them space to forge their own identities, perhaps even to construct their own back stories. It should be possible for the reader to follow two characters having a short conversation by looking at their individual speech, mannerisms and attitude rather than he said or she said tags.

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nning. Pushing The End to The Begi

I met a woman last week who reads books in a particular manner. She’ll read the last few pages first, decide if she likes the way it ends, and if so, she’ll then start reading from page one. She added that this method allows her to know if there’s going to be a satisfactory ending before investing time in the main story.

I do accept her argument as logically sound, but there are books where the ending makes very little sense unless you’ve ingested the main text. I’m thinking of an epic novel, such as Moby Dick. Reading the conclusion without knowing the tensions between Captain Ahab and his crew, detailed in the rest of the story, you won’t fully understand why their voyage ended the way it did.

If you ever do tackle Moby Dick, incidentally, you can quite safely skip Herman Melville’s obsessive personal polemics about the whale.

Another problem with this system is that some books paint a picture rather than tell a story. Consider Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the novella, not the film, although the woman in question uses the same method with DVDs. Truman Capote explores the complex relationship between the narrator and Holly Golightly in such a rich manner that there is as much to be gained from the description as the plot.

I do enjoy including some historical context in my entries. Read the prologue of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and those 14 lines give away the plot before any of the other actors say a word. Audiences expected to be given the precis at the beginning.

By the 20th century, the position was completely reversed. Agatha Christie understood this when she wrote The Mousetrap, at the end of which she specifically asks the audience to keep the secret. These days, there is still an expectation that endings will be kept under wraps, or clearly marked Spoiler Alertwith the odd exception such as Star Wars or The Sixth Sense, where it seems fair game to give it away. But there are also websites you can consult if you want the full plot.

I’ve created a poll to gauge how many WordPress users agree with my feelings on the matter. If necessary, do expand on your answer in the comments.