Category Archives: Writing Tips

The Trolley Problem

A runaway streetcar is hurtling down a track and will kill a group of five unsuspecting people in its path. If you could pull a lever and divert the trolley onto a track where only one person will die, would you do that?

Or would you do nothing?

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Alternatively, if your only other option was to push a very large man off a bridge into the path of the trolley, knowing that he would die but the trolley would stop, would you do that in order to save five people?

Most people say they’d pull the lever but not push the man off the bridge. But is that the right decision?

And what if the five people were children and the large man very old: would that make a difference?

The ‘Trolley Problem’ is a philosophical problem originally devised in 1967 by Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot and developed further by Judith Thomson at MIT. Among many questions it raises, it asks whether, if moral decisions are about outcomes, we need worry about the manner in which we achieve them; whether a passive decision is less culpable than one requiring action; and whether we take certain decisions because they are ‘right’ or only because then we feel better about ourselves.

The Trolley Problem is an excellent exercise for a crime writer, and expresses the kind of dilemma that DI Grace Fisher has to resolve in my new novel Shot Through The Heart.

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On the naming of names

Beginning a new novel means dreaming up new characters. Some will play very minor roles, others may evolve to carry the heart of the story, but they all need names.

This will be the third book in a series featuring Detective Inspector Grace Fisher, following on from Good Girls Don’t Die and Shot Through the Heart (published March 2016). When a name for a new character popped easily into my head, but then felt rather too familiar, I realised that I needed to make a list of all the character names I’ve already used – and was amazed to find there are already well over fifty on the list just for these three books.

If I look back over five novels and almost fifty screenplays for film and TV drama, that’s a lot of people I’ve dreamed up. Enough to populate a small village.

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Some I can barely remember. Others still feel as vivid as friends or colleagues I’ve lost touch with but who nevertheless remain a part of my life, of me.

Naming characters is an odd business. Often a name just doesn’t sit right, which seems to prevent the character quite coming into focus. When that happens, finally hitting upon the right one feels satisfying and important.

When the police have to name an operation, they apparently consult a list compiled from dog breeds, American rivers, English coastal towns or exotic birds. I have used names connected with Shakespeare’s Globe or Victorian watercolourists, and also, when setting something in Manchester, pulled out a class list for a long-ago school reunion. Once, when requested, I named a character in memory of a friend’s mother: it took a while to find a minor character whom I felt really deserved her name.

Quite often I’ll look at lists of pop, movie or sports stars who were in the news the year a character would have been born – the kind of associations meaningful to my character’s parents – and choose something that helps me to keep in mind the world they were born into, the style and aspirations they were brought up with.

As Alfred Hitchcock is said to have remarked, you have to know what your characters keep in their cupboards (dead bodies, skeletons and all). Their name is what has to be written on the door.

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Why is crime fiction addictive?

All sorts of ‘rules’ can be bent or broken when writing genre fiction except one: that the story must confront the genre’s greatest fear. In romantic fiction, for example, it is that love cannot prevail. In crime fiction, it is that the riddle may go unsolved.

All sorts of novels can encompass murder, or be about unlocking the past, confronting secrets, pursuing justice, righting a wrong, revenge, investigating current social and moral concerns, but a crime novel must also solve a puzzle. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘this is the purpose of detective investigations … to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.’

Certainly two other great crime writers would agree. Raymond Chandler described the detective story as a tragedy with a happy ending, while P.D. James spoke of the detective taming the outrageous breach of nature that is crime and restoring society to order and stability by unraveling complexity and containing irrationality. Sometimes the pattern is reversed, and we identify with the perpetrator and wait to see whether we will get away with it. Either way, in choosing crime as a favourite genre, we seek the frisson of risk that the breach will not be resolved, that evil will escape unpunished and we will not be safe.

Our anxiety is pleasurably channeled into how we as readers collude in arriving at the solution to the puzzle. It’s vital that we actively experience that heady mix of transgression, anxiety and satisfaction that makes crime so popular, whether in books, film or television: the question ‘How will all this turn out?’ has to be made to matter to us. The settings, characters, social issues and means of detection will always change, but what must remain is the addictive gratification of teasing out the riddle in tandem with the teller of the story.

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It’s clear from the long and distinguished tradition of series protagonists – Holmes, Marlowe, Marple, Warshawski, Rebus, Salander – that readers also desire the satisfaction of repetition. Freud thought that we enjoy the compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to re-live events that were traumatic because, in doing so, we can gain mastery over them. As readers, we have the reassurance of knowing that a familiar central character will crack the riddle while simultaneously we can believe that we’re working it out for ourselves – and maintain the illusion that we might fail.

The crime writer’s ability to never quite let us in on the secret, to create suspense, anxiety or dread by crafting hooks, twists and unexpected reversals or by scattering false leads and withholding information, and in the end to allow us to feel as if we have uncovered the truth for ourselves, is not a matter of superficial puzzle-solving cleverness but of truly understanding the primal pleasure of reading crime fiction.

For, after all, the riddle to be solved is not only ‘outside’: it is also within ourselves. Our greatest fear – glimpsed through the flaws of the greatest detective protagonists – is that we ourselves might not be either safe or good. As in the classic whodunit, we’re all guilty until the killer is unmasked.

This post was originally written for the Crime Readers Association National Crime Reading Month, June 2015.

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On being a door-to-door salesman

On Saturday I took part in the awesome KillerReads CrimeFest15 organised by Sam Missingham, Head of Audience Development at HarperCollins. Bloggers, former cops, ex-offenders and dozens of crime and thriller authors – including such legendary names as Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid – all took part in online events on Twitter and Facebook and also in store at Waterstones.

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My Q&A with Sarah Hilary centred on writing for TV versus writing fiction. The pace on Twitter was fast and furious, and got me thinking about what the most fundamental difference actually is between the two.

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And I reckon it’s this: before a script gets anywhere near production, it has to be a sales document in a way that a proposal or first draft of a novel very seldom is. Between a first verbal pitch and the first day of principal photography a screenwriter is grilled many times by different people on what the story is, who the characters are, why they do the things they do, why an audience will engage, etc etc. In other words, a script is a strategic document designed to convince other people it’s a good idea to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions – making it, and then to motivate a small village of other highly skilled people to devote months of their time, often far away from home, to bring it to life.

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The process has its drawbacks: way too many cooks … As much can go wrong as can go right, but when it all comes together, it’s magic.

And, by the time I deliver a final shooting script, every single line, scene and end-of-part hook has been tested to destruction. As have I as a writer.

In contrast, the freedom and autonomy of fiction, feels – to quote the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – like the deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue. I’m loving it.

And am now working on the follow-up to Good Girls Don’t Die featuring detective Grace Fisher.

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House of Cards and the Fourth Wall

In honour of today’s launch House of Cards Season 3 on Netflix, this post is brought to you by Frank Underwood, a master of how to break the Fourth Wall and get away with it.

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Kevin Spacey’s sly looks to camera (and of course those of the late Ian Richardson in the original BBC series), and his asides to us, the viewers, all add immensely to our appreciation of the character. It means that we, too, have directly experienced his charisma and been seduced by it.

House of Cards has proved that, on screen, breaking the Fourth Wall can deliver big results. But if the viewer is ever reminded that they’re merely looking at a TV set, then the magic is destroyed. Frank Underwood’s audacity lies not only in his invitation to collude but also in the huge risk he runs that our suspension of disbelief will be shattered, bringing the whole meta-fictional house of cards tumbling down: we feel what it’s like to walk that political tight-rope.

In prose fiction, a deliberately unreliable narrator can add suspense and mystery or, as in Wuthering Heights, a complexity of sympathy and interpretation. Get it wrong, however, and an unintentionally slippery point of view quickly induces queasiness in a reader.

Some writers creatively exploit the possibilities of a first-person narrative, others find it constricting, but either way it removes any confusion about what other characters know or might be thinking. In a third-person narrative, however, it’s all too easy to jump in and out of different characters’ heads, sometimes even between paragraphs, breaking the Fourth Wall and leaving the reader unable to settle down and identify with, or care about, any of them.

Point of view needs to be tightly patrolled. On screen, POV is constructed by who the camera is looking at while dialogue or action is happening, and can radically alter the meaning and intention of a scene. We identify most strongly with the person for whom there is something at stake. I think there’s a fundamental weakness in the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3, for example, (I saw it last night at the gala preview in London) because we share the POV of Doug Stamper far more viscerally than that of either POTUS or the First Lady.

That vital emotional investment in a character has to be there on the page, too. If a reader can effortlessly stay with a character, and get to know them by understanding what they notice and how they think – hopes, fears, self-delusions, denials and all – then they’ll be there, walking that tight-rope right along with them.

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Ask an expert

Accurate research is a vital part of writing crime fiction. I am spoilt rotten in that I have a recently retired Home Office pathologist in the family. He is incredibly patient and generous about answering my questions, which means that I do try very hard not to ring him up every other sentence. However, I did ask him to read the chapter in Good Girls Don’t Die in which the police and a forensic pathologist attend a murder scene. He talked me through exactly what he would do, and was quite happy for me to omit or bend the procedure for dramatic purposes, but he had one total and absolute sticking point: there was no way the pathologist would drive a Volvo.

When my brother was at his busiest, with sometimes only two forensic pathologists covering several counties, he spent far too many hours in his car, sometimes arriving home past midnight from one job only to get another call and immediately have to drive a further hundred or more miles to another crime scene, and then home again, on his own, eating a service station sandwich and working out what would go in his report, what he’d have to think about when he started the post mortem, and what cruelty or tragedy he’d just seen.

So I rewarded my fictional pathologist with a gold Porsche Panamera.

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I’ve been privileged, writing television crime drama, to have hung out with quite a few serving and retired police officers, from a former head of the Vice squad to beat officers, from detectives on a dedicated ‘burglary artifice’ squad to Jackie Malton, the DCI who inspired Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. I’ve been out in vans responding to 999 calls and followed officers into people’s homes; been out in the area car that would have been the first on the scene (and I mean, the first) should there be any kind of incident in Downing Street; I’ve watched proceedings in both a coroner’s court and the Old Bailey (even lunched with the judges); played the ‘criminal’ in a CID interview training exercise; and visited an identification parade suite.

And yes, I learnt an enormous amount about process and vocabulary and how things work, but the most valuable lessons lay in gleaning some understanding of what makes people in such professions tick.

Although writing fiction seems horribly trivial in comparison to the responsibilities that those who work in frontline services face every day, nearly everyone has been kind, patient and open-minded. Only once did I witness how easily one bad apple can generate untold mistrust and resentment within a south London community.

What has really helped me feel that I’m writing with some vague authenticity is not so much the accuracy of the physical details as the jokes, the attitudes to life, the food, and the everyday frustrations, like finding a parking ticket on an unmarked CID car. Frontline humour is shockingly black – far blacker than it would ever be possible to reproduce when the context is merely fictional – and so is the intense and apparently bottomless empathy for victims.

Years ago, when I was writing half-hour, stand-alone episodes of The Bill for ITV, I grabbed a story from one of the full-time police advisors on the show. A fairly hard-bitten retired sergeant who quite enjoyed making the writers’ lives difficult, Malcolm told me about a night when an old man on a Zimmer frame had been brought in. The old man had had a suicide pact with his wife, killed her but lacked the physical strength to finish the job on himself. It had been Malcolm’s role as custody sergeant to lock him up and then check on him every half hour.

The story for me was not the old man’s, poignant though it was, but that of the cynical custody sergeant who, by the end of his seemingly endless night shift, could no longer hide his emotion. For me, that story said everything about The Job, about the protective armour that officers grow and about what it takes to pierce it.

Which is why I understood why it was important for my fictional forensic pathologist to drive a flash car, for reasons both obvious (speed, comfort, safety) and more subtle – a different kind of safety, perhaps, a protective cocoon both on the way to a scene and on the way back?

Growing up as the only non-medic in a family of four hospital doctors, I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to frontline jobs, and in how the rules, values and responses to the pressures of such exceptionally intense professions gradually become an unconscious part of who they are. So, while it’s been amazing to have experts willing to explain the nuts and bolts of ballistics, DNA or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, I’ve also realised that such details are seldom of primary interest to them. I always try to watch out for the ‘tells’ that explain what is in it for them, why they first decided to do what they do, what it takes to be the job, and how they feel about the effects of their work on their everyday lives and their families.

So when you talk to an expert, never mind the facts: find out what car they drive, or get them to tell you a joke. That’ll show you what they really do.

 

This piece first appeared in Red Herrings, the members’ magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Cooking with data

Netflix are about to spend £100m on a biopic of the Queen. According to The Atlantic magazine, ‘Royalty’ is Netflix’s second favourite subject (after ‘Marriage’). The new 20-episode drama series is to be written by Peter Morgan and shaped by director Stephen Daldry, both of whom have been nominated for Oscars. ‘Oscar-winning’ is another important Netflix tag for what viewers are likely to watch.

So is this the first drama series to be commissioned by an algorithm? And, if so, does that matter?

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All creative media are constantly a-plunder because artists influence and inspire one another, because artists are sucking on the same Zeitgeist, and because, if audiences and readers have enjoyed X, they’ll probably go in search of more of it. That’s why a successful drama series gets re-commissioned, why Agatha Christie wrote so many Poirot novels, and why we can’t get enough of Scandi-noir.

We all love a good novel, movie or TV show. My aim as a writer is to create something that delivers narrative pleasure and satisfaction, and part of pleasure and satisfaction is surprise, is about pushing boundaries and deepening insight. And, if I were about to chuck £100m at a TV series, I might welcome a steer in terms of my initial creative choices.

There are script gurus who can reduce story structure to a Powerpoint presentation. And, like a Delia Smith recipe, that’s great if you’re not very confident about what you’re doing, or you’re writing in a very prescriptive or over-controlled environment. We all have to eat, and of course there are rules: the cake won’t rise if you use plain flour. But the joy of cooking is adding a bit more, leaving something out, throwing in a dash of something unexpected at the last moment, tasting as you go along – subverting the recipe. I don’t see Peter Morgan taking orders from an algorithm.

But you do have to start with some kind of recipe, even if it’s just the aim of recreating that dish you ate in some little place up in the hills on holiday. And it’s far more fun to cook for other people. So if an algorithm will tell me what my guests would really enjoy (and what they’re frankly indifferent to), that’s the right sort of information.

After all, Netflix made ‘House of Cards’, which is pretty nourishing drama.

In book terms, Amazon holds the same kind of data, but won’t share. While digital platforms like Netflix and HBO are using data to drive up the perceived value of scripted content because prestigious drama IS their brand, Amazon is minimising the value of fiction by driving down the price of books. [Full disclosure: they’ve sold shedloads of e-books for me at knock-down prices, and I’m certainly not ungrateful for all the new readers that’s brought me.] All the same, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ seems to be their brand motto. And that’s a real shame when the data is something we could all feast on.

Can creative writing be taught?

Novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is Professor of creative writing at Kingston University. This is what he said recently at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I have recently stepped down as Writing Tutor on a screenwriting MA at Central St Martin’s (part of the University of the Arts, London), and totally disagree with him.

How to tell a story is the one thing that can be taught. Kureishi‘s right, it is difficult, but it is a craft skill and, especially for a screenwriter, one that can be passed along.

What can’t be taught is how to become a writer – the individual texture of a sentence, the truth of a character, the veracity of dialogue, how to make us care about a story, all that has to come from who the writer is and what they have to say about the world.

And then it takes hard work. Learning how to write is a process, which is what makes teaching it a skill in itself.

I have learnt more from my students over the past five years than they have from me because I have had to articulate my own process. No craftswoman is going to make a beautiful chest of drawers the first time she picks up a piece of wood and a saw – let alone turn out a Stradivarius. It takes years and years of honing one’s craft skills. Writing is no different.

But a good teacher can aim to lay down the right process on which to build – to show why that’s the best piece of wood to choose, which saw will be right, which smoothing plane, what sort of joint will be strong and tensile enough. Narrative drive, suspense, dramatic questions, set-ups and pay-offs, hooks – all these things “make a story go from there all the way through to the end”, and they can all be taught.

After that, as golf champion Gary Player said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Hashtag drama

I wrote earlier about how subscription channels such as Netflix are changing the  game in terms of how we consume drama. This week, as the final episode of ITV’s Broadchurch generated 260,000 Twitter messages, a record amount of traffic for a UK drama, I wonder how soon tweetability will become an essential element in the drama commissioning process. Certainly, a second series was announced quickly enough to cash in on the Twitter love.

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The first UK drama to create a perfect storm of device ownership (aired the year the iPad was launched), demographic (Twitter users are known to be older and literate), and genre was BBC’s Sherlock. As with US Twitter-hit Homeland, a combination of tense plot and intriguing, ambivalent characters led to passionate conversations where people would tweet more than once as they debated each episode, leading up to the series denouement.

Unlike reality shows, drama audiences tend to tweet in the commercial breaks so as not to miss the action, perhaps putting BBC dramas at a slight disadvantage over commercial rivals such as Downton Abbey – another Twitter favourite. But I wonder how long it will be before writers (especially in continuing dramas) begin to factor in Tweet-points as well as end-of-part hooks. (Which may explain the squashed slug? ♯Broadchurch)

Given that Twitter’s respect for non-spoiler etiquette means that writers can safely aim for big endings with plenty of twists and double-bluffs, I predict a surfeit of cliff-hangers in 2014!

Re-inventing TV crime drama

Last Saturday I took part in a panel event at the London Screenwriters’ Festival on Writing Detectives for Film and Television alongside some incredibly creative and original TV writers and producers – Barbara Machin, Tony Garnett, Tony McHale and Matthew Graham. The subject was how new writers can come up with something that hasn’t been done before.

We all agreed that – in Tony Garnett’s phrase – crime drama is a Trojan Horse for any kind of story you want to tell.

While technology may provide new opportunities to commit or detect crime, crime itself rarely changes. My baseline has always been that it’s emotions that kill, and Shakespeare already has them all covered. What constantly changes is our attitude to crime and justice, and what those shifts in attitude tell us about prevailing social and personal anxieties. Crime drama has always reflected changing trends in what concerns us – for example, child abuse, identity theft, recovered memory, immigration and cultural difference – and also delivered the kind of hero – or anti-hero – we need for a particular moment in history.

Tom Hanks once said, “At the crossroads, the important questions do not concern the road not taken, or the road ahead, but who else is in the car.” Our detective, or investigator, is the person we most want in the car with us when society faces some kind of crossroad. And among a great detective’s skills are close observation, intuition, instinct, the ability to notice and pick out details about our current predicament, to use them to make sense for us of our world view, and perhaps also to restore order.

A series episode has to have a repeatable structure that allows the story of the week to explore and reveal the values of the main character and his or her world. Over a season, the needs of the main character will drive an exploration of a larger overall theme. If shifts in genre, structure, subject matter, and the mythic qualities of our protagonists (both hero and villain) all reflect us back to ourselves, then crime drama will always remain familiar and satisfying yet also be fresh and original.