Listening to the news about the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing made me think about dramatic story-telling and took me back to some of the TV crime and legal dramas that I’ve worked on as script editor – shows like Waking The Dead, Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC.
If we’re being somewhat cold-hearted about this case and treating it as ‘story material’ (and I am, so forgive me) I find it really striking just how much drama comes out of this one, awful – but superficially quite simple – incident. It’s interesting to me to see how you could quite easily construct a big 2 hour TV crime show – and the mass of complex plotting and story development that entails – from this one shooting incident.
It reminds me that, however simple your jumping-off point for a story, if you have created complex, interesting characters, and a fascinating story-world, then it’s often a question of just remorselessly following though the story logic of cause-and-effect.
First of all you have the two characters involved – and you couldn’t create two more colourful, interesting characters if they were fictional – and then see what develops from these two characters’ ‘back-stories’.
So, for instance, you have SABC broadcasting the game show that Reeva Steenkamp had recently filmed on the evening of her death – a sure ratings winner. How cynical is that?! But then we learn that her family had given their permission. And suddenly you see it from her parents’ POV and stop to think about that decision from their perspective, what they hope to gain from it, and you have another character \ characters – her parents.
And then you have Oscar Pistorius’ perspective – as outlined by his legal team in the defence case.
On Wednesday, his legal team was said to have made the police \ prosecution case look very silly – and so, for the sake of argument, you introduce more characters – the brilliant, over-paid lawyer; and the underpaid over-worked police officer and state-hired prosecution lawyer – trying their best but without the training, education or intellectual acumen of their opponents.
(But the replacement of the lead detective on the team because he himself is under investigation for murder, feels like a story-beat too far – it may be true – but in fiction it wouldn’t feel credible!)
And then there’s Oscar himself – and what an endlessly fascinating and flawed character he is – even before we know the full truth about what happened (will we ever?). The champion athlete, a worldwide role model, who turns out to be very different to his public persona. It’s this sort of gap – between public persona and private reality – that is at the heart of so much good drama.
There’s a moment I remember from last summer’s Olympics, the semi-final of the 400m. After the race the eventual Olympic Champion, 19 year old Grenadian Kirani James, makes a beeline for the defeated Pistorius so that he can shake his hand and swap numbers with him. At the time this act of respect and humility towards a fellow competitor seemed to sum up the public and media attitude towards OP – here was someone who had achieved extraordinary things against the odds, and demanded our utmost respect and affection.
CUT to 6 months later and he’s a murderer who’s put a bullet through the head of his defenceless girlfriend. Not only this but apparently he regularly yelled at \ intimidated her; he was obsessed with firearms, and had discharged one accidentally in a restaurant only a week before the murder; and he was a sporting cheat – steroids and needles having been found in his home(or was it a ‘herbal remedy’?).
His mother died when he was in his teens and he had \ has a distant relationship with his father. What a rich, hugely intriguing characterisation!
And then there are the circumstances of the murder – shrouded in enough mystery to prop up a two hour Kavanagh QC story.
Was the shooting deliberate and pre-mediated or a tragic accident? Are the witnesses who heard arguing for an hour before the shooting reliable? Was it in fact Pistorius and Steenkamp they heard arguing, or someone else? If Pistorius thought that the person he shot was a burglar, what did he think they were doing in the bathroom? If this was the act of a man in a state of terror and panic, why did he take the time to attach his prosthetic legs before shooting?
If, as is claimed, Steenkamp cried out after the first shot, why did he shoot three more times? Why didn’t he call the emergency services immediately after the shooting?
And so on and so forth, the questions keep coming. And as the truth of every question (will) come out, so each action the characters took in this story will reveal a new truth about each of them, and will open the door on the reality of who these people are – because, as in the best fictional drama – it’s the way characters ACT under stress that reveals who they really are (rather than what they say).
Drama is about what characters DO. The truth about OP is not revealed by the countless media interviews he has given – all these do is provide a fascinating glimpse into the contrast between him in public and private.
Which is why thoroughly nice, straightforward people don’t tend to make for the most interesting drama – because their text is the same as their sub-text.
This all goes back to one of the most frequent notes I give screenwriters – which is – really MINE your material. Go deep into the story, and work on a cause and effect progression. One scene should naturally and inevitably lead to another to another to another – this is what story-telling should be about.
I suppose one of my thoughts about this case is – why aren’t more fictional crime dramas this fascinating?
It also reminds me of what the best Scandanavian crime dramas do so well – shows like The Bridge (in particular) and The Killing – they take a single criminal or incident (several incidents in the case of The Bridge) and examine them in huge detail over many episodes – so that we inevitably come to know the investigators and the investigated in real depth over the course of the whole series, and consequently invest in them in a way we don’t with more superficial (and shorter) crime stories. This is the huge virtue of serial television drama at its best.
(And don’t even get me started on the Chris Huhne \ Vicky Price case – which is going to a replay! – I strongly suggest you follow this retrial and see the drama \ story-telling lessons that come out of it)
I’ve read a lot of interesting and varied scripts this week. The most memorable character I’ve read this week was a lead character who didn’t utter a single word of dialogue throughout the whole 65 minute film. A troubled, 6 year old boy with learning difficulties who turns out to have an instinctive musical genius. There are lessons for us all as screenwriters there!
Phil Gladwin and I are now gearing up for three more 2 day weekend screenwriting courses in London – in March, May and July. Full details on my website here –
Or on our new dedicated courses website – www.thetwophils.co.uk
We are also sending out a new fortnightly newsletter to our subscribers on the new website – and it’s only available to subscribers – so make sure you go to the site to sign up.
Special guests in March are Channel 4 Drama commissioning editor, Ben Stoll and Producer Matt Bouch (My Mad Fat Diary). Channel 4 Drama is on something of a roll at the moment with shows like Utopia, Complicit and My Mad Fat Diary (not to mention Black Mirror – although that show in fact comes out of C4’s comedy department) – so this will be a great opportunity to get an insight into how Channel 4 commission and develop new drama, and into screenwriting opportunities in general. Both Ben and Matt have great experience in TV and film and will be able to answer all your questions about screenwriting opportunities in the UK.
In May we are joined by BBC script editor Esther Springer, who has worked on a lot of great shows, and with many wonderful writers. She has a real passion for screenwriting and the writers’ craft, which will be both entertaining and instructive.
Until next week,
All the best
Feb 22nd 2013