One of the issues that can crop up in writing a story is what the characters would or should actually be likely to do versus what will help the plot move along conveniently. There was an example in the first episode of legal drama Silk last week. A man with the mind of a child has been used by a criminal gang to do violence on those they have taken a dislike to. In the process, they have tortured him physically as well as manipulating him emotionally. Our heroine manages to get him off the charge that he’s on, and then she and her colleagues are surprised when soon after the trial the guy is found dead, his body horribly mutilated.
As a way to end an episode, and provide a bitter contrast with the heroine’s ascent to barrister status, it kind of worked. But only if you didn’t actually think about it for more than a few seconds. Barristers are very bright people, and they deal with criminals. In this case, they let a man who did the bidding of a criminal family back on the streets, and didn’t stop to think that maybe the criminal family would do something, as a reprisal against the man himself, and a statement to the legal professionals who freed him.
So, for the sake of a neatly tied-up ending, the script’s IQ dropped a few points. And with it, I lost some respect for the show. I now know that somewhere in the writing process, one or more people are not doing their job as well as they could. By which I mean that either the writer is making things neat and tidy and hoping the audience will not notice the things I mention. Or that a script editor or someone else involved in looking at the writer’s work valued an easy way out and their concept of a dramatically satisfying end over the knottier business of applying grey matter to a more credible solution.
I don’t know what that solution is. A good writer, and a team committed to following the logic of the story through, could have come up with several. And it’s that kind of commitment that makes the difference between well-crafted drama and writing that grabs you by the throat, heart, or balls at key moments. Writing to fit a show template, or a perceived story archetype, can work well a lot of the time. It’ll get you professional gigs, for sure, if you can do it reliably and repeatedly. But there are times when you need to aim for something else. Somewhere that real matters less than true.
Huh? A lot of scripts have some kind of basis in reality. With Silk, appropriate attention is rightly paid to how a legal chambers functions, for instance. In the second episode, as well as that kind of reality, the mechanics of a court-martial were important. All good stuff, that comes under the heading of giving audiences an insight into a world they’ve heard of but probably know little about in practice.
Truth is a different matter. And it’s by aiming for truth that a story transcends genre tropes and becomes something more than a piece of entertainment. Michael Connelly does this supremely well in his thrillers, which tick all the boxes for insider knowledge about what cops and journalists do, and build all that on a rich seam of darkness that is inescapably part of the fabric of his stories. That darkness might not be part of your life, but there’s no denying the power it has in Connelly’s work.
Truth is what allows us to connect with fictions that go beyond conventional reality to encompass vampires and superheroes, spaceships and witches. For all the excitement and paraphernalia of a Superman story, the best comics featuring the character provide insight into what it is to be a stranger and protect those who have welcomed you into their family. Philip K Dick’s writing continues to connect not because of his semi-satiric musings on consumer culture – entertaining though they are. Beyond those, there is achingly true stuff about what it is to be sentient, whether or not you believe you were born or know you were made. Truth has a stink, and when you smell it in your own work, do everything you can to keep it there, whatever an editor or producer or director has to say.