Monday, 11 August 2008

The Bit in the Middle

Having dealt with the beginning and end of a story, now I’ll talk a bit about the middle.

DWM in the early eighties was obsessed with something called ‘the dramatic W’. The articles that mentioned this mystical sigil seemed to think it meant that a series could veer wildly from something undramatic to something that was. Or something rubbish to something good. Which was actually quite a handy way of discussing Doctor Who in the early eighties, of course.

But I, and I’m sure a lot of other people reading, sensed that ideally writers should probably not alternate between great, exciting things and rubbish, dull ones. They should stick to ‘great and exciting’. So what is the ‘dramatic W’ and, more to the point, how can it help perk up your writing?

An example. Imagine a Doctor Who scene which starts with the Doctor exploring a lovely, happy garden and discovering the monster. The scene ends with the monster chasing him. Things go downhill, and so let’s represent that with this symbol: \ .

Or the opposite: the Doctor’s being chased by a horde of monsters, it ends with him getting out of danger, closing and locking the door behind him. Starts off bad, ends up good. Or, / if we felt the need to represent it visually.

Now that’s good for the Doctor, but bad for the monsters – but, remember, the Doctor is the protagonist, we’re charting his progress. His ‘desire’ in those scenes is that classic Shakespearean theme ‘not wanting to be eaten by a monster’.

Let’s imagine a couple of scenes between those first two.

So … after the scene where the Doctor finds the monster, we have a new scene which starts with him being chased. He dodges around, finds a safe cave. The monster doesn’t follow him in. Things are looking up for the Doctor. So: / .

But wait … in the next scene, the Doctor realises that the monster didn’t follow him in because it knew there was a horde of monsters in here. Run, Doctor, run! And things have gone downhill, so let’s represent that as \ .

Then we get the final scene where the Doctor escapes.

OK … what was all that forward-slash, backslash nonsense about? Well, if I put those four symbols in order:


… and that’s the ‘dramatic W’. At the end of each scene, the Doctor is manifestly either better or worse off than he was at the beginning of the scene.

That movement is pretty much the definition of drama, and it’s often called a ‘reversal of fortune’.

‘Hang on’, you’re saying, ‘drama doesn’t just alternate wildly from scenes with characters doing well to scenes with characters doing badly’. And, of course, you’re right. ‘Reversal’ is a little bit of a misnomer.

Sticking with Doctor Who style action-adventure for a moment (just because what happens is usually nice and visible), you could imagine a sequence of scenes where the Doctor has to escape the monster which goes:

1. The Doctor is running from a monster and runs straight into the path of another monster.
2. The Doctor is now being trapped between two monsters. He leaps for safety … and finds himself in a nest of monsters. He is now being chased by four monsters.
3. The Doctor is now being chased by four monsters. He reaches a dead end.

The Doctor’s situation goes from bad to worse to even worse … but the point is that there’s progression. The alterative would be four very similar scenes where the Doctor’s just being chased by a monster.

The Empire Strikes Back is a movie where virtually every scene ends with the good guys worse off than they were at the beginning of the scene. Even when, say, Luke escapes the Wampa’s cave, the scene ends with him injured and in the middle of a deadly blizzard. There are slight upturns and good luck – but they’re often undercut. The Falcon escapes the Star Destroyers … but Boba Fett is following them. Luke finds Yoda … who refuses to teach him.

If you’ve ever written something that just seems to noodle along aimlessly, it’s probably because you’ve got scenes with no reversal of fortune. Things just sort of happen, characters just sit there, or are going around in circles. The story doesn’t progress. The telltale sign is that you’ve written something (either in the synopsis or the story itself) that says something like ‘after a day or so exploring, they still hadn’t got anywhere’ or which has characters sitting around waiting for something to happen to them.

Gareth Roberts once told me that he’d read a Coronation Street script with two scenes that started with the direction ‘Deirdre is still bored’, which is pretty much a textbook way to not go about things.

Now, you can do great things with boredom – the best episodes of One Foot in the Grave, for example, were often based around being stuck in one place. But things happened. Part of the joke is that even the tiniest things happening seem like epic victories and defeats. The post comes … but Victor discovers it’s a bunch of bills and junk mail.

Most writing – even with Doctor Who stories – is more subtle and small scale than the first example I gave. But it tends to work with reversals of fortune.

An important thing to note: 'good' here isn't an complex ethical question, it's simply defined as 'gets the protagonist closer to his goals'. You could have a movie with a murderer as a protagonist, and it would be 'good' if he evaded the security to get closer to his innocent victim. It would be 'bad' if the police brought him in for questioning.

The protagonist in Doctor Who is the Doctor. His ‘desire’ is, broadly, to find out what is really going on and put a stop to it with the minimum of casualties. If there’s a scene where he finds a book in a library that mentions that there were mysterious lights in the sky one night in 1737 and after that the moor got a reputation for being haunted it means he’s a step closer to that goal. Even though he's not in any immediate danger, even though it's a quiet, quite passive scene.

The character doesn’t need to know the exact significance at that moment, but it’s always best if the audience gets some kind of clue. The best moments are often the ones where fortune swings the wrong way: the last cliffhanger of The Horror of Fang Rock, for example, which has the Doctor declaring ‘we’ve not locked the beast out, we’ve locked it in’.

The reality is that writers don’t sit around drawing slashes to work out where they are on the dramatic W. They don’t usually sit around going ‘my Protagonist is’. Nor should writers do that – it sounds ghastly and mechanical. And the sad truth is that writing isn't as simple as knowing this stuff. I know the gymnast who just fell off the parallel bars in the Olympics shouldn't have, but that doesn't make me an Olympic gymnast.

But thinking about your existing story in those terms can often (not always) be a useful way of figuring out what’s not working.

What I hope the people who tried the Synopsis Challenge can do now is look at the last three posts here and go back to their synopsis. Is the Protagonist and what they want clearly defined? Do events happen because of the choices the Protagonist makes? Does each section have clear reversals of fortune?

If so, then I can pretty much guarantee that your story is going to be better than if not.


Eric said...

Can I add an interpretation of the "dramatic W"? First off, I believe it was first attributed to Terrance Dicks. And he wasn't talking about quality or anything like that, but level of action -- and only in a classic-style twenty-five minute episode, not necessarily over a whole story. The top left is the resolution of the cliffhanger, but after that, things calm down a bit for a bit of character development or exposition to move the story forward. But then things ratchet up again to something exciting happening in the middle of the episode, to keep everyone's interest (and prevent turning over to ITV). Once that bit's over, however, then it's time for a little more downtime to advance the story again, such as the Doctor answering the perpetual companion question, "But what does it all mean, Doctor?" Then, as the episode comes to an end, it's time to line things up for the cliffhanger! If you kept the action level high the whole time, nobody -- characters or audience -- would get much if a chance to catch their breath and figure out what's actually going on. It may not quite fit every episode, but from a television production viewpoint, it sure makes sense to me.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the phrase crop up a number of times and a number of places. I'm not sure where it was used first.

Terrance Dicks' point about pacing is a very good one, for a number of reasons. As well as giving the audience time to breathe, it's just a more practical way of making television - it's easier to shoot 'sitting around' scenes, after all.

It's interesting that the 'quieter moments' are far less common in Doctor Who, now. You still get scenes where the Doctor explains to the companion where they are and what's going on - but they tend to be much more dynamic. Think of the street scenes at the start of The Shakespeare Code or Fires of Pompeii.

Some of that is budget - a lot of it is technology. Video cameras are just a lot more flexible now than they used to be. In the seventies, even in a simple, fixed shot you had to focus on the foreground, middle distance or background (or switch between them). Now you can show everything all at once. Cameras are lighter and more mobile.

Something like that has huge implications for how you can tell a TV story. You can take a video camera out and quickly shoot a street scene ... back in the day, it would mean dozens of people, with some guys paid just to lug canisters of film around.

The other thing is that we're all just more visually literate. When Return of the Jedi came out, some reviewers complained that it was cut so fast that no-one could possibly interpret what was going on. Now it looks almost leisurely.

One consequence of that is that I don't think there's such a clear divide between 'action' and 'exposition' as there used to be. You don't have to choose between eye candy and furthering the story.

Lance Parkin said...

Um ... that Anonymous was me. Oops.

Justin Brown said...

I guessed it was you... recognised the blog style.

And of course, using Return of the Jedi as an example of your point was the clincher.

gervase_fen said...

IIRC the first mention of the dramatic W in DWM is in the interview with Dennis Spooner in DWM 56.

Kate Orman said...

I can pretty much guarantee that your story is going to be better than if not.

Here you have captured the magnificent bathos that is writing.

Knife and Spoon said...

I'm sure that this thing by Kurt Vonnegut you reminded me of DOESN'T end like this:

But it's still interesting and entertaining, and my memory is - well, sketchy. Etch-a-sketchy, to be brutally frank.