Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ten Minute Warning

Just under two weeks ago I went to a BBC Writersroom event in Middlesbrough. It was all structured around the 'Short Fuse' competition that Live Theatre in Newcastle is running with the BBC, which is basically asking for ten minute 2-5 person theatre/radio/tv plays. The ten minute thing did bring up some issues - not least because, let's face it, brevity is not one of my strong points - but mainly because the requirements of a ten minute piece are radically different from the demands of a full length one. How much character development are you going to get in ten minutes? Very little, even if you only use two characters. So you're looking for story with a little bit of character development thrown in. And I'm not sure how much that plays to my strengths. As a writer, as a reader, as a viewer, I prefer the journey to the arrival. Don't get me wrong I'm all for twists and turns and a plot that can hit you in stomach - it's probably one of the reasons that I'm currently obsessed with Lost (the bit when you saw that Locke had been in a wheelchair prior to the crash? I actually squealed with delight)* - but the fact remains that I'd take a Ginny Woolf novel over pretty much anything else. And let's have no bones about this, Ginny constructs an entire novel around a trip to a lighthouse. If you're looking for twists and turns, mad passions and painting the sky red events then you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Conversely, if I look to Ginny for some of the problems I have in my head with writing a ten minute piece, then I have to concede that Ginny wrote some great short stories. She wrote some crap ones too, but I wouldn't like her as much if she didn't get things wrong some of the time (as one of my other great female writers once wrote 'perfection is sterile'). But her good stories, the ones that can stand on their own feet away from the novels, they're interesting and just as 'Woolfian' as any of her other writing. And even in those, the stories that cover maybe five or six pages of my non-Penguin edition, Ginny cares more about the journey than the destination. It's not what the mark on the wall actually is, but what the narrator thinks it might be; not the reality of the woman on the train but what can be conjured up about her. Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw', which may or may not be about supernatural happenings, equally stands as much on the character of its rather odd narrator than what happens within it. There has to be a premise, a story arc of some sort, but not one that has to overide everything else. And I suspect - and indeed hope that the writers don't bow down to any sort of pressure - that my new tv obsession will prove to be equally about the journey. I don't want to know ultimately what the island is - real or not - or what's in the bushes. I love it that Lost's writers are playing with my head regarding it, but I don't want there to be an answer or resolution. It would only dissapoint.

I suspect my own dissapointment of too neat endings means that I'll never be able to write one. I had it voiced to me on a few occassions that the ending of SSoB wasn't conclusive enough. But equally I had several different opinions voiced to me on what happens to the characters afterwards. And I liked that. The writer isn't God. They don't - and shouldn't - have all the answers.

Which is all probably a very long winded way - I did mention brevity not being a strong point - of saying that I've come to terms with the ten minute thing. My piece - which I'm not sure yet whether it's for radio or the stage as it stands half written, half in my head - doesn't have some neat, head in hands twist. It has a question. The end is simply the beginning.

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself...

*I'd apologise for people who haven't been sucked into Lost and therefore don't know what I'm going on about, but I shan't because it's such a brilliant programme that no apologies are necessary.

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