defensive postures

Plot is a list of boxes you tick in case the customer notices you haven’t. You wouldn’t want to be caught out. It would be awful to hear a single below-the-liner say, voice rank with sarcasm & faked-up outrage, “In this day? Surely not that, in this day & age of CCTV? & didn’t she have a mobile? & sober on a Saturday night, I don’t think so, do you?” So there’s always a smartphone, some emails, some binge drinking & a security camera the data from which is available or not available. All you need is, “Apparently there’s just the one tape & they record over it,” & the box is ticked. Plot-patches–responses to some change in the culture at large, applied years ago to make the latest crock seem up-to-date–have become the plot. The story is constrained by fixes applied in advance; it lurches from one defensive posture to the next. “Wait a minute! Surely, in this day & age, she’d call him out on that broody bullshit schtick of his? Better get that into dialogue!” “Have we covered the religious aspect? Better get a vicar in. Better make him posh.” If the world portrayed seems mad, awkward, oblique to the one it’s supposed to be set in (ie, ours), that’s because it was constructed by a professional’s view not of what the world is, but of what a script is: every character, every scene, every piece of dialogue has been decided not by appeal to the world outside but to the requirements & anxieties of the medium itself. (“What’s her motive here? Better get it into dialogue!”) I wouldn’t even call it lazy: talented, well-paid, energetic people have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it so formally rigid & so irrelevant to anything but the terraced awareness of professionals. Their mounting panic is codified. The stories themselves become a cry for help, which can be heard in every twist & turn, every shred of dialogue: Let us out of the editorial suite & into somewhere real!

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7 responses to “defensive postures

  1. The rage of Caliban not seeing his own image in CCTV. . . .

  2. narmitaj

    I read a script a couple of weeks ago in which the heroine first suffered a car breakdown (a planted possibility) and then immediately had her phone battery run out too (out of the blue) leaving her unable to call or be called. I complained that this was an unlikely coincidence for the benefit of the writer. Then that very Saturday afternoon I got in my car to drive home from a trip out and it was dead, drained battery. But also my phone battery had drained too, so I couldn’t call a friend for jump leads, and three phone boxes in the area were emergency calls only. (In the end a friendly bar-person from a local pub let me use her phone).

    In the script the phone ran out a second time, even though we had seen it being recharged, this time so someone else could not contact our heroine and reveal a key plot point too early. I still think this was a step too far!

  3. uzwi

    I love a day like that, don’t you? Reaffirms my faith that I’m not central to the operations of the universe.

    We’re taught to believe that there’s no such thing as a coincidence because this would subvert the architectonics of plot, undermining our entitlement to control, order and explicability. It would be nice to see a script in which no event was connected to any other except by random clumping, no suspect was more suspect than any other suspect, and the murderer, if there was one, was never discovered. (The detective, unable to find and engage his antagonist, gives up the job to retrain as zoo keeper only to discover–on his last day before retirement–the name of the perpetrator of a completely unrelated crime on a piece of undigested paper in a ball of animal faeces.)

    To equate realism with the erasure of “unlikeliness” is to make the same mistake that people made about randomness on iTunes: true randomness will produce clumping, and to get rid of that–to satisfy peoples’ intuitive idea of what randomness is–the system had to be made less random, not more.

    But the above post wasn’t really about consistency, continuity or suspension of disbelief: it was about the nausea I feel in the face of stories which have been put together from continuity patches, consistency patches and suspension of disbelief patches–in which management of the narrative has replaced the vitality of story, and bolt-on fixes to typical “plot holes” have become plot points in themselves. To change this would require a change in the culture of drama, perhaps via a focus on the actual humanity of the events presented. I enjoyed the first series of The Killing not for its detective plot, its strong female investigator or its knitwear, but for its balancing picture of grief and the puzzled dissolution of the grieving family. In a UK detective plot, events like these become tokens, to be exchanged in a controlled, consistent system of faked-up causalities; in life they are all we have. I believed in the family in The Killing, because their grief wrecked them and took over their lives and destroyed their sense of continuity, exposing them to the terror of their own emotions. I don’t believe in anyone in Broadchurch, because they are so obviously a suite of smugly-constructed actants who engage one another only so a plot can work.

  4. I hope this won’t annoy or depress you all, but this post, for some reason, reminded me of the BBC’s class quiz that is currently causing so much upset. Do you go to the opera? Do you prefer gin & tonic or a plastic one litre of White Ice? Do you have a friend who works as a shop assistant (although they don’t differentiate between whether that’s for a bit of fun for a lay-dee in Barnes or a behind the check-out second-job in Canning Town) etc etc. No offence meant. I love nearly every single one of the posts. It just got me. Now, could someone write a short story about AN Wilson? And pref kill him before the end?

  5. uzwi

    Hi L: point taken. But I’m not sure the fictional killing of AN Wilson would help much, either. Just another fantasy of control. It still seems important to understand how those fantasies are sold to us–& how we’re sold those fantasies as a substitute not just for political agency but for an actual life. Although I agree that once you’ve bought the story that everything’s story, you’ve given up on the idea of actually changing the world…

  6. martm

    “You want some real cuts?” A Precariat single mum wields the scissors over A.N. Wilson’s favourite woolly jumper, and holds it to ransom until he proves that he actually buys the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, Keith Joseph has risen from the grave, and North Korea announces “plans” for Mr. W. Detective Inspector Lund gets on with it, as usual.

  7. Narmitaj

    @uzwi: “It would be nice to see a script in which no event was connected to any other except by random clumping” – the nearest you’re likely to get on TV, I suppose, is the adaptation of Dirk Gently, who “operates his Holistic Detective Agency based on the ‘fundamental interconnectedness of all things’, which relies on random chance methods to uncover connections between seemingly-unrelated cases”, according to the Wikipedia article on it. But even he gets results.

    Only so a plot can work” is a problem at both ends – one end where writers stick in implausibly helpful coincidences purely for their own benefit instead of working in plot developments more subtly (Agatha Christie is full of people conveniently overhearing important things), the other end where the real randomness of life is smoothed away by a story being constructed entirely of a series plot-hole fixer modules bolted on like so many interconnected logic black boxes.