Simplicity is so much harder than complexity

Here’s Steven Moffat in today’s Guardian on some of the kerfuffle surrounding the last rather controversial episode of Sherlock. 

It is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective … It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.

Each to their own. I’d no more tell another writer what I think he or she should write than I’d tell a reader what he or she ought to read. None of my business.

But I do have quite strong views on complexity when it comes to my own work, formed through experience over the years. In short they’re summed up by the headline. It usually is much, much harder to write successful simplicity than to rely on the prolix to carry you through.

Let me explain.

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Things telly can do that books can’t

Well, lots of things obviously. But the biggest difference between the screen and the page is this: with the first the media is the king, and with the second the reader rules.

Television (and films and the stage) are narratives that run at their pace, not yours. They expect an audience to sit down, behave, watch dutifully for ninety minutes so and then shuffle politely from their seats.

Questions are not allowed. Or at least… if you have them you probably won’t have time to wait around for them to be answered. Modern narrative TV moves very swiftly. Before you can scratch your head and reach for the pause button thinking ‘Hang about…’ something else shiny and interesting should have come along to grab your attention.

So if you’ve got a niggling doubt it’s probably going to disappear under the next flash bang wallop scene.

Let me give you some recent examples…

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Breaking the fourth wall

One of the things I’ve gathered from The Killing books is that novelists have something to learn from television drama. A few things not  to do, and perhaps I’ll write more about that another day. But a few techniques worth thinking about too.

There was one quite visible last night on the return of Sherlock Holmes on TV last night. It was a variation on a long-standing dramatic technique known as Breaking the Fourth Wall.

You can can read a lengthy description of this in the Wikipedia link above. The term comes from the theatre where the stage is confined by three walls of the standard box set. The fourth wall is the proscenium which separates cast from the stage.

As long as the fourth wall is invisible both audience and cast adhere to the myth that neither can see the other. So the audience is viewing a ‘real’ happening on the stage and the actors behave as if no one is watching them. In other words this is a kind of naturalistic performance. A pretence that what we are seeing is part of life.

What happens if you break the fourth wall?

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