In my last blog I talked about what novel writers can learn from screenwriters. Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments. One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing. The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark. (Thanks, Mark Hunter!)
This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category. And they are legion. Let me name a few you might be familiar with: Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist. Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title: Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer. (Really?)
So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect. When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up. And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.
Don’t get me wrong. The villains in novels can be just as rotten. However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced. Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller. Excellent series. The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series. Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.
But back to point. There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark. See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.) The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category.
To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia? Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
I read a lot. I also watch movies and occasional television series. Recently I got to thinking about how novel writers and screenwriters differ.
In some ways a screenwriter has an easier job than an author. Take, for instance, “painting a picture of the scene.” When describing a scene, the screenwriter essentially “takes a snapshot,” something like: “you are looking down the beach, with huge cliffs off to the left, surf to the right, and a body down at the far end.”
He/she does not use too many adjectives such as azure sea, turquoise ocean, foamy waves, or 60-ft cliffs, ragged rocks, sandstone hills. No need. The snapshot, the images on camera of the actual place, capture all that for the viewer.
The scene I’m describing, by the way, is from a BBC Series called Broadchurch, one of the most well-done, intriguing and dark stories I’ve seen. Instead of spending myriad words to let the reader “see” the image, the stage is, essentially, pre-set by reality.
Rather. the screenwriter spends considerable time on the characters and, probably to a lesser extent, on the plot. In Broadchurch, the plot is riveting, starting with the murder of a young boy. And it twists and turns its way through the episodes with skill and bravery, to end with a, pardon the expression here, a cliffhanger.
You always want to return to the next episode. You always want to turn the page.
Chris Chibnell is the screenwriter of Broadchurch, and no, the book (written by Erin Kelly, along with Chibnell) came after the screenplay–isn’t that interesting? Chibnell’s past credits include Doctor Who and Torchwood, but Broadchurch catapulted him to screenplay stardom.
What Chibnell does so masterfully, and we authors need to take a lesson, is character development, growth and change. The Broadchurch characters start out one way, they grow through the series and, somehow, almost magically, are transformed by their experiences. They have learned and matured; they have gained strength and resilience. And they continue to change, giving the viewer hope they will survive no matter what the future holds.
This is a concept we novel writers need to infuse in our own work. Character development, however little, is BIG. Don’t minimize it and its effects on the audience (reader.) Without being a spoiler, I suggest you watch Broadchurch, and, in particular, the character of Ellie Miller.
See if you don’t agree that this device can make you a much better writer.