Posts Tagged Doctor Who

What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)

In our house, we have a catchphrase: ‘Nobody will notice, Jon.’

We adopted it from Terrance Dicks, script editor of our favourite era of Doctor Who. He said it while discussing a cheeky plot bamboozle in The Sea Devils, for which I have great affection (excepting the cheeky plot bamboozle). During filming, it seems that Jon Pertwee (Who Himself) had concerns and Dicks reports the following conversation:

Pertwee: ‘But Terrance, how could the Master hypnotise the nurse, switch outfits with him and tie him up… all in 30 seconds?’

Dicks (valiant in the face of a scorching deadline): ‘Don’t worry, Jon. Nobody will notice.’

We did notice, and Pertwee noticed, and probably all of Whovania noticed. It’s now a house phrase, chez Morris.

What the reader will never notice

There are some things readers will never notice. Suppose your character has to take a train to Birmingham. Do you have to explain the minutiae? Do you have to prepare a description of slogging to the station with a wheelie bag that keeps capsizing, watching the fields pass with the roar and rat-tat of the wheels, find words to describe that precise train smell? Certainly you do if that scene contains anything that’s important. But if it doesn’t, the reader will never notice they weren’t on the train with the character. Just write ‘she took the train to Birmingham’.

But they will notice this

But here’s a thing they will notice. If you sneak a plot impossibility past them, or a character inconsistency… You might manage to conceal it at the time, especially if you distract the audience, perhaps with humour, or you cover it in the general mayhem of a fast-paced finale. They might not see it immediately (or they might). But at some point they’ll think…. ‘hang on… that just doesn’t make sense.’

Emu and Monk

Storytelling requires us to suspend disbelief. We will do it readily and eagerly, if all is aligned. We’ll even believe something as obviously artificial as Rod Hull and his puppet Emu – we may not like it, but we are in no doubt that Rod is truly worried about what Emu might do, even though it’s obvious that Emu is a giant glove on Rod’s arm. That’s the spell of characterisation.

Continuing with ventriloquism (don’t try saying that fast), Nina Conti readily breaks the fourth wall. Her dummies tell us she has her hand up their bottom, they grumble about the voices she gives them. It glories in artifice, but something makes us believe in it as a singular mad world of its own. Though it’s daft and not-real, it has a kind of logic. Consistency.

That logic – and consistency – is important. Every story has logic: it’s one of the agreements made with the audience.

Logic and consistency – of fact and emotion – make the reader comfortable to commit to our creation, to put their minds in our hands. The reader knows it’s all made up, every character, every word of dialogue, every action taken, every mark on the page. We have to teach them our story’s logic and then play fair by it.  We can make them believe anything if we set it up (see my post about plot holes and endings).

If we break the agreement, for instance like the madly impossible Sea Devils reveal, I’m afraid they will notice, very much. Jon was right, Terrance. But bless you anyway. This was the first book I ever bought with my pocket money. It’s still on my shelves.

Stop sign pic by Alexander Kovalyov on Pexels

There’s loads more about plot and logic in my plot book!

Also, I’m honoured that this blog has been selected by the freelance marketplace Reedsy as one of their best writing websites.

And if you’re curious about the mischief I’ve been making in my own writing life, step this way

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‘Music to grieve by’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Natalie Buske Thomas

for logoMy guest this week is writing about a very personal project – a book of oil paintings that contain a story where a young boy is watched by his grandfather. She was inspired by her memories of her father who died tragically young, and she struggled to do him justice in a medium that allowed her so few words. Her guide was the music of Enya, and certain signature tracks carried the emotions she was looking for as she painted and wrote – love, loss, the swift march of time, letting go and still loving. She is Natalie Buske Thomas and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Writing your scenes out of order – and the real title of The Mountains Novel

writing scenes out of orderI’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Mountains Novel and am breaking what has been one of my holy writing habits.

Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.

I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.

Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.

On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’

Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.

Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.

ideas book cropAnyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.

Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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‘Music to find inspired randomness’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JB Dutton

for logoMy guest this week says that when he writes he chooses his aural environment carefully. There’s a cafe in his native Montreal that plays just the right music: not too loud, not too unfamiliar; exactly right for random creative loosening. He attributes one of his major characters to a chance playing of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade on Winter while he was driving on a midsummer day – the sudden meteorological transformation was exactly what he needed to start creating this pivotal player. He is YA writer JB Dutton, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Your story needs two hearts

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.

Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.

One heart down

By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.

The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.

The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.

Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.

The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.

Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.

Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.

fringeTwo hearts beat as one

Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.

In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.

Thanks for the hearts pic Joselito Tagarao and the Fringe pic hherbzilla

Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?

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The long and the short of writing novels – guest spot at Beyondaries

beyondHow long does it take to write a novel? Years, months, a Nanowrimosecond? I’m riffing on this idea today at Beyondaries, the ezine of Port Yonder Press.

Port Yonder is one of those publishers whose remit I could have written myself. It looks for strong, original crossover books with award-winning potential. In charge is managing editor Chila Woychik, who recruited for her ezine a bunch of writers who like their rules thoroughly bent and kicked.

Among the other contributors is Dan Holloway, who often stops here with a challenging take on whatever I’m talking about. His video is about the music of words. Also at Beyondaries you’ll find Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talking about finding poetry in the everyday, and Grace Bridges comparing Witi Ihimaera to Doctor Who. And of course, Chila herself on the stubborn, self-driven qualities that mark out a true creative.

If you fancy a trip beyond the usual, pull up at Beyondaries.

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Doctor Who and the infinite possibilities – how original ideas take time

Last week Dave had a piece in the Huffington Post about the day his father took him, age 6, to meet a Dalek at the BBC, and then to watch Doctor Who being filmed. That evening we dug out the DVD of the old black and white story he saw filmed all those years ago.

More riveting than that story, though, was a feature on the extras about how the series was originally devised – the forms it might have taken and how much refining it took to get to its distinctive shape. On and off, inventing Doctor Who took about a year.

Doctor Who: the quantum shifts

1 A sci-fi story about telepaths or time travellers, or a time-travelling police force, or scientific troubleshooters keeping experiments under control for political or humanitarian reasons

2 Characters are a handsome young male hero (Cliff), a well-dressed heroine age 30+ (Lola), a maturer man with a character ‘twist’ (no name yet). They are scientists with different skills operating from an HQ with a lab and a Sherlock Holmes-ish office where they interview people who need their help.

3 Scrap that, make Cliff and Lola teachers, and add a teenage pupil (Biddy) to get into trouble and make mistakes. Cliff is a hunk, because everyone likes a hunk. Maturer man is now 650 years old and called the Doctor. Their HQ is a time machine the Doctor has stolen from his people, an advanced civilisation on a distant planet.

4 Hey, what if the Doctor was a villain who wanted to travel back to the perfect time in history and stop the future happening…? (Stroke your chin now)

5 Hey, let’s call Biddy Susan and make her alien royalty. And Lola is called Barbara. Cliff is called Ian and he’s not so much of a hunk, more an average guy.

6 Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. And the Doctor’s a mysterious time traveller in an unreliable machine that disguises itself to blend in with its surroundings. Ian and Barbara don’t trust him, but they’re stuck in his ship. Conflict…. nice!

7 The ship won’t disguise itself. The series will be educational.

8 No, it won’t be educational, that sounds dreary and condescending. As you were.

We all do this

As those BBC dudes wrangled Doctor Who out of infinite possibilities, the questions they tackled were the questions all writers grapple with  –

  • who might we identify with?
  • what kind of story do we want it to be?
  • which of our ideas are in tune with that and which are derailing it?
  • what makes it fit in its genre (and therefore the audience) and what makes it distinctive? Are any vital ingredients missing or misused?
  • what will make it distinctive enough and allow us to take it in a new direction?
  • what will cause conflict and drama?
  • does it have enough mileage  – for a whole novel or a whole series?

Few ideas descend fully formed on a lightning bolt. All the writers I know spend time banging heads with their ideas, fiddling with prototypes that are discarded and even forgotten. Our stories start as experiments and hunches – and when you think about it like that it seems so magical and random.

Almost as magical as a grainy production still from nearly 50 years ago, where there might just be a small wonder-struck face.

Thanks for the pic Machernucha

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How to write the right blurb for your novel – guest post at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?

Ooh, a TARDIS. Because a novel is like one, which you realise when you have to condense its loveliness into a 150-word blurb. From the inside, it’s enormous, labyrinthine. From the outside – a virtual bookshelf, a description to a prospective agent or publisher, or a casual chat at a dinner party – it’s got to look manageable.

Today, at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books, I’m explaining how I squeezed my novel’s multiple dimensions into a convenient, transportable box.

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New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 2: Doctor Who, The Runaway Bride

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)

Today: Doctor Who Christmas special – The Runaway Bride

In some ways I liked this as Russell T Davies is a slick, economical storyteller. I admire the way he takes a few intriguing ingredients and builds a script. In this case they are the rock that seeded planet Earth when the solar system was being formed, and ancient particles that have been deleted from the universe. I can imagine Davies daydreaming in school physics lessons and thinking ‘can’t we do something more interesting with the boring old atom?’. He mixes in a bit of showmanship and mayhem at London landmarks (and some soap opera, which I’m a little more doubtful about).

However, although he’s good at the big picture, he’s slipshod with details – and these undermine the whole story.

Writing sin 1: inconsistency in the pseudoscience We’re going to get technical here, so pay attention. Remember the deleted particles? They are attracted to the TARDIS. So one minute the bride, who has been secretly dosed with the particles, is walking down the aisle to get married. The next, she finds herself teleported to the TARDIS – which kicks off the whole story.

But later we meet other characters riddled with the particles who aren’t teleported anywhere.

The Doctor makes a flimsy attempt to explain this by saying the bride’s stress hormones and endorphins activated the particles in some way, but that’s a fudge. It’s obvious as a Dalek in your living room what the real reason is – if the other characters teleported too it would cause story chaos (and inconveniently get them out of a tight spot they weren’t supposed to escape from).

If you invent science, it has to be robust and stick to its own rules. If you find the rules are inconvenient, you can’t add exception clauses in small print. It’s particularly bad to bend them with a dose of exposition from a character who miraculously knows everything (and is therefore a get-out-of-gaol card whenever you like). If your pseudoscience rules don’t work the way you want, you have to rewrite them at a fundamental level or find another solution.

Writing sin 2: absurdity The big baddie is an alien spider creature who is millennia old. Despite this, it inexplicably knows the vows in the modern Church of England wedding service – and makes gags about them. This is clearly Russell T with his pantomime boots on, and it’s irritating. Yes, I do realise a Christmas special needs gags, but they need to make internal sense. Otherwise they smack you out of the world of the story. Oh yes they do.

Tomorrow, or next year: Salt

Until then, Bonne Annee x

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Characters: choose their enemies and friends wisely

The magic happens when your characters are together

Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully

There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.

This is the list I rustled up:

1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)

2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)

3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)

4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)

5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)

6 James Bond

7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)

8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)

9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun

11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)

12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers

13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)

14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes

15 Purdey (The New Avengers)

I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.

Characters in a story are like an ensemble

Only one character?

In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.

A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.

To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?

Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.

What about Lizzie Bennett?

Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.

No character operates alone

No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.

Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?

So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.

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