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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.