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.

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Second chance saloon.

In 1951, the acclaimed novel From Here to Eternity was published. Many readers were unaware that James Jones fought to keep in sexual content and profanity, but he was forced to give in to the demands of his publishers.

It was only in 2011 that the deleted content was restored by e-publisher Open Road, who also released his book To the End of the War for the first time. Unfortunately, it came too late for Jones as he died in 1977.

In the same month in 2011, Kate Bush was allowed to use text from Ulysses in an album, having originally been refused permission in 1989. A little-known Tennessee Williams play from 1983 was also given its premiere.

Perhaps it was just a golden year for second chances. But attitudes and standards are constantly reshaping, editors come and go, and even individuals change their minds. What was unacceptable or clichéd several decades ago might be in fashion right now.

Major delays are extremely common in the screenwriting industry, where ideas can knock around for several years waiting for the right producer and director to pick up the project, not to mention the protracted process of re-drafting the script – often dozens of times – plus the actual filming.

Phone Booth (film)
Phone Booth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1960s, Larry Cohen first had an idea for a film set entirely inside a phone booth and he pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, neither of them could think of a good reason to keep the character in the same place for an entire movie. When Cohen revisited the idea in the 1990s, he had the idea of using a sniper; the mobile phone had also been invented by then, and this is a major plot point. Within a month, he’d written the script for Phone Booth.

I’m aware that last week I discussed when to let go of work. But if you’ve had a manuscript languishing in a drawer or an unopened computer file from years ago, bring it out. Can you look over it with more experienced eyes? Have those who rejected it now moved on? Is the subject matter acceptable today, or perhaps even more pertinent than when it was written?

If you’ve answered yes to these, it might be worth another shot.

A minor word of warning, however. If Victor Nabokov had written Lolita today, it’s unlikely any publisher would have taken it on. And when an uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in that aforementioned golden year, many critics felt it inferior to the original.