Tag Archives: Writer’s Craft

Writing Creepie Stool

Yes, it’s that time of year already… The Fringe is poised and ready to pounce, snapping us up in its five star fangs yet again. It’s no secret that I have a love/hate relationship (weighted in favour of love, but the hate can’t be ignored) with the theatrical behemoth that takes up residence on the Royal Mile every August. As it gets closer, no doubt there’ll be posts from me about its irritations and imperfections. However, at present I have reason to love it and to celebrate.

This year I wrote my first commissioned piece for the Fringe. It’s called Creepie Stool, and it’s part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. They commissioned two new plays from Edinburgh writers on the theme of sectarianism. I was one of those writers, Jen Adam was the other – her play is called Kiss, Cuddle, Torture. It’s a lovely feeling, being asked to write a play rather than starting by writing one and then shopping it around in the hope that you’ll find someone who wants to stage it, or producing it yourself. However, it’s really weird writing a play to a specific brief.

I’m used to writing to a brief in other styles. When I ghostwrite fiction, the briefs are often very specific. There are particular formulae I’m usually asked to use within the genres in which I specialise. They’re not the same stories that I choose to write when I have no-one to answer to but myself, and the characters don’t make the same choices that they would if their fictional world was governed only by me. My job is to put flesh on pre-existing bones.

When I write plays, on the other hand, there are no pre-existing bones. I create the skeleton myself. Plays happen when I have an idea that rattles around in my head for long enough that I can’t ignore it. I start writing for the same reason that oysters start coating bits of grit in mucus – not with the intention of creating a pearl that someone might someday value, but simply to get this fucking sharp thing to stop irritating me. I don’t go looking for bits of grit. They just find their way in.

Starting work on a play without the bit of grit was a strange experience. I knew I had to write a play, I knew it had to be about sectarianism and I knew I had to deliver it by a particular date. You would think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering that I was brought up by a Glaswegian Protestant and a Glaswegian Catholic. But there are two problems with that. First, Singing I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim has already been written. Second, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my Mum’s death and the ninth anniversary of my Dad’s. Anything that takes me too close to the world they grew up in… no. Not just now. That way madness lies.

I considered various other options. There’s sectarian violence and discrimination all over the world. You’d think that it would be easy to find some where other than Scotland and write about the situation there. I didn’t, because sectarian issues tend to be incredibly complex and I would need more than a couple of months to do sufficient research to write anything that did justice to the places and people involved. The best I could have done would have been something trite, shallow and general, the kind of play that can do nothing more than reassure my fellow Guardian-reading lefties that we all know that sectarian violence is A Bad Thing. I needed to start from a position of actually knowing something.

So I looked to history. I’ve been an amateur history nut for most of my life. I can date it back to my first trip to Linlithgow Palace, when my dad started telling me stories about Mary, Queen of Scots and I realised that “the past” was a massive repository of my favourite thing: stories.  As I grew up and began to think critically I realised that history was not something fixed and known, it was open to interpretation and revision. It wasn’t pretty and orderly, and it certainly wasn’t some kind of golden age where everyone was better behaved than they are now.

The “golden age” attitude to the past came to annoy me more and more. When I worked as a tour guide I began to see how many people thought that anything that happened before 1960 was a BBC costume drama, the kind where the good end happily and the bad unhappily (give or take the occasional tragedy, where the unhappy demise of someone good is ultimately redeemed by the dignity and beauty of their death). I listened to people bemoaning the stupidity and selfishness of people in the present with increasing vexation. You think that people were more intelligent, more faithful, more honourable a hundred years ago, or a thousand? READ MORE. THINK MORE. Check out the Greeks moaning about how stupid and selfish people had become. I came to the conclusion that people, collectively, remain more or less the same. Values and influences change, but I think we remain more or less the same bundles of chemicals and impulses no matter when or where we live. (Then again, most of the confusion in my life has been caused by thinking – hoping – that other people are more or less similar to me, so what do I know? Still, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that people living centuries ago were fundamentally different to people today, so I stand by it.)

So how did this generate an idea for the play? Well, I am particularly interested in people’s need for a common enemy. Some years ago I did a Lifelong Learning course studying witchcraft in early modern Scotland, where I learned how little the persecution of “witches” had to do with witchcraft and how much it had to do with anti-Catholic sentiments and tension between the old faith and the comparatively recent adoption of Calvinism. I found it interesting, but I didn’t dig into the details too deeply at that point.

When I went looking for the Sectarian conflict that would prompt the play, I began thinking about how little I knew about  Calvinism. It’s a religion that had a profound influence on the country I grew up in, and yet I couldn’t have explained its basic beliefs.  I knew far more about the Church of England than the Church of Scotland – score one for Religious Education in Scottish schools! I knew a little about the Covenanters’ War, enough to understand that 17th century Scottish people had issues with Charles I and it was something to do with religious strife,  but I couldn’t have told you how the whole thing got started. I wondered whether the play might be lurking somewhere in the depths of that conflict, so I started digging.

That’s what led me to Jenny Geddes. In 1637 she got quite upset at the introduction of a new Book of Common Prayer. Charles I had been advised that the Scots weren’t going to like it, but he wasn’t a great one for listening to advice. Jenny thought it sounded a bit too much like Mass, so she picked up the stool she was sitting on and threw it at the minister of St Giles. A three-day riot ensued. Shortly afterwards, the National Covenant was created and signed, and the Coventanters’ War began.I started exploring Jenny’s motives. What got her so angry that day? What was she afraid of? What were the influences that got her to the point where she felt so strongly about what she was hearing?

Then I needed to find some other characters for her to interact with. There’s not a lot to go on, historically. Jenny Geddes didn’t have a well documented life. So I imagined her employer, the woman whose seat Jenny was being paid to keep in church that day. And I gave her a maidservant, because I wanted three women with different social status. I made a few basic decisions about what they would be, engineering their characteristics to allow for conflicts of interest and personality, and off I went.

In terms of research, this was a very difficult play to write. Even now that it’s written, I still don’t feel like I’ve completely got my head round it. If I hadn’t had a deadline, it would probably have become one of those plays that I rework for years and never show to anyone because it’s not exactly right yet. I’ve done my damnedest to get the historical context right, but I know I set myself an impossible task. Which makes me quite glad that I didn’t try to write a play about a present day culture that I don’t understand from the inside. At least I know that I won’t accidentally make things worse for Jenny Geddes, upset 17th century Scots by misrepresenting them, or trivialise an ongoing conflict.

Does that mean the play isn’t relevant? I don’t think so. We have a hell of a lot to learn from history. We don’t, as a society, because we reduce history to a Sunday teatime drama or a narrowly focused and horribly dry subject at school. I’m well aware that some people will come to see this play, take one look at the costumes and decide that it can’t possibly have anything to say about the world we live in today. All I can do is hope they’ll spot the similarities between 17th century people attacking a church because they considered Catholics a threat and 21st century people attacking mosques because they consider Muslims a threat.

The play is being directed by Jasmin Egner and has a fantastic cast; Angela Milton, Debbie Cannon and Belle Jones. I can’t wait to see what they’ll make of it. They’re intelligent, sensitive people and I trust them, which is great because now I have to leave it in their hands. My only involvement now is to throw research resources their way and try not to pester them. In the meantime, I am off to write a play that no-one asked me to write, with no brief at all, about what will happen when social media eventually turns on us all…


A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?