The Questions You Always Get Asked

There are certain questions writers always get asked. Live events, blogs, AMAs, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. And we grit our teeth and answer them, and then someone else asks them (or increasingly, through electronic forums, the same person asks them again in five slightly different ways!)

A lot of these endlessly-occurring questions are obvious stature bait – someone wants to know what’s going to happen next series, or who’ll be in the cast, before their friends do, so they can feel special. Others are clearly designed to start fights, like a bunch of recent questions asking whether there was rivalry or competition between Wolfblood and a number of other named shows.

Others are unanswerable, apparently pointless, or just slightly baffling!  But I decided to ask myself – what are these people really asking, and how can you answer the question they’re really trying to ask you? Are there lessons to be learned about how we present what we do to the public?

Some of the perennial favourite questions I get asked:

How can I get an agent/manager?  Sometimes this means “will you introduce me to yours?” which is always awkward. After all, you wouldn’t arrange a marriage for a total stranger, so why would you try to match them with an agent? It’s a relationship every bit as long-lasting and difficult to arrange from the outside…

But quite often this question means the same as the next question –

How do I become a successful writer?  In fact, they don’t want practical advice. What these people are really asking is  “Will everything be all right? Will I get discovered? Does talent always win out?” This is about reassurance, not facts.

Which is your favourite character/episode in your series? I get asked this about once every forty-eight hours, and it puzzled me for ages. I’m the series creator – I love every character and every episode, all for different reasons. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t be there. Then it occurred to me that what these people are looking for is affirmation. If the character you quote as your favourite is their favourite too, they feel they’ve got your show “right” somehow. Not noticing, it seems, that there’s no right choice…

Have the characters in your TV show changed during the series?  This probably seems like a good question to a non-writer, but to a writer, it’s baffling. Of course they’ve changed. Change is the whole purpose of drama. It’s what we think about every series, every episode, every scene we write. So for this question, we have to remind ourselves that non-writers don’t appreciate the role of change in drama, and do our best to educate the public that change is what it’s all about.

Why don’t you write all thirteen episodes yourself? is another popular perennial, but I don’t mind that so much. Because (along with it’s sister question How can it possibly take eight months to make a new series?) it’s basically a lack of understanding of the writing and production process, and you can’t blame the general public for that.

(One of my all-time favourite tweets was one child fan solemnly informing another than there are only two Wolfblood episodes a week because we need the other five days to write and film next week’s two episodes…)

And last but not least –

Where do you get your ideas from?  Arrgghh! Yes, that one! My standard answer is along the lines of  “I don’t know, but if you have ideas at least occasionally, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you’re probably not.”  Again, I think what people are asking a lot of the time is  “Am I doing this right? What do you do, so I can copy it and be ‘professional’?”

So many questions from fellow writers boil down to “Tell me it’s going to be okay…”

So, if you’re a writer, what’s the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked?

Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

Yesterday I was at a BBC Writersroom event for action-adventure writers, listening to Adrian Hodges speaking about the BBC’s upcoming show The Musketeers. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reinventing familiar characters, about establishing the tone and world of a story, and about creating stories from a book with surprisingly little plot.

However, the thing I found most interesting was what he called ‘Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome’ – the way some shows trot out their supposedly all-powerful and scary villain every week, only to have him roundly defeated by the hero yet again.

The way I see it, there’s an understandable tension here. For your major villain, you cast the best actor available. You want to use him as much as possible. He wants to actually have something to do – something interesting, inventive, something that stretches him. The audience think they want to see him as much as possible –

But the more often they see him, the less effective he is. Because every time your supposedly all-powerful and terrifying villain is defeated by the hero, he becomes less scary. Eventually he becomes a buffoon, a figure of figure who the hero runs rings around, as the Sheriff becomes in many Robin Hood stories. Now you’ve got a dissatisfied actor, a bored audience, and all you ever did was give the public what they said they wanted…

Is there an answer to this? I think it might lie in something I’ve alluded to before – one of the show rules on Leverage, which co-creator John Rogers calls “Sterling Never Loses”.

Recurring villain Jim Sterling is used sparingly, which helps avoid Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome – but more importantly, he’s used cleverly. Whenever he appears, he wants something specific that runs counter to what our heroes want – and he always gets it.

Our heroes don’t go to jail, and they get what they want too, or some of it – but not by defeating Sterling. Though they may start the episode in opposition to his wants and needs, they end up working alongside him, or around where he isn’t looking, not directly against him. This allows both sides to walk away with what they want, each having benefitted from the other’s involvement: honour is satisfied, and the simmering conflict between them is saved for another day.

It’s an elegant solution to a perennial problem. And not a bumbling Sheriff in sight…

Theft Ain’t What It Used To Be

As many of you have probably already seen in the news, there was an audacious heist this weekend. But it wasn’t gold, or diamonds, or even drugs, and it wasn’t pulled off by masked men with guns or cat burglars.

Instead, someone sat at their computer and hacked a trading site called The Sheep Market, stealing the entire trading balance of Bitcoins, with a real-world market value that has been estimated anywhere between $5m and $100m. Since a lot of the trade on The Sheep Market – now bankrupt and closed down – seems to have been in illegal drugs, it may well serve their customers right. But the story does raise an interesting issue for screenwriters, which can best be summed up by asking a question –

How would you turn this theft into a heist movie?

Sounds promising. Clever thief, potentially shady targets, the victims tracking their attempts to launder the money across the web in real time… Until you try to dramatise the story into scenes – and realise every scene is going to be people staring at computer screens and hammering at their keyboards. (Which, I’m told, is not hacking actually works, but anyway…)

Theft used to be entirely personal. When Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, he actually went into their houses or waylaid them as they rode through the forest. Then wealth accumulated in banks, and both in real life and in the movies, we moved to the Bonnie & Clyde model of bank robbery – and simultaneously branched out into the clever heist, as in Rififi and Ocean’s 11.

But we’re rapidly moving towards a world where money won’t be physical at all. So how are we going to write crime movies when there’s nothing to be stolen but zeros and ones in a secure computer file somewhere?

Art theft movies have been been out of fashion for a while now. I can see them making a comeback – but art and other object of value actually exist and can be physically taken, making for a dynamic and tension-filled story that’s easier to follow than the movement of theoretical numbers from account to account.

And of course, one of these days, someone will actually work out how to make a hacker-heist movie that actually works…