Things I Learned From… Hannibal

I’m a late arrival to Team Murder Husbands. Trust me to get into a show just as it’s cancelled! In fairness, I did watch half of season one, before getting bored with the detective procedural stuff and giving up. It’s only thanks to persistent fans on Twitter that I went back to the show, and I’m very glad I did. It’s a whole different animal from season two onwards. So there’s a lesson there…

But the aspect of Hannibal that I really want to talk about is how it sustains such a theatrical, exaggerated story world, and makes it not only believable, but actually normal.

Operatically-pitched story worlds are quite the thing in American television at the moment. The final season of Sons Of Anarchy definitely tipped over into grand guignol, but the best example is probably True Detective. Massively exaggerating the tropes of Southern Gothic, it creates a fantastical world where men are monsters, but literal monsters also wouldn’t seem out of the question.

But the thing is, I didn’t believe a word of True Detective. In fact, I found a lot of the supposedly deep and meaningful moments laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Whereas I believe absolutely in the world that Hannibal creates.

So, why is that? I have a few thoughts…

Narrow focus. Hannibal takes place in a very streamlined, narrow-focused world. Apart from some scenes with Jack’s wife, which have a darkness of their own, we rarely see a domestic situation or a glimpse of ‘everyday’ life. Our characters live entirely within this theatrical, heightened world. The music we hear, the way characters dress and live and eat (!), even the places that crimes take place, are all carefully selected to reinforce this elaborate and claustrophobic story world. And since reality never intrudes, this becomes our reality.

The fresher your premise, the more exaggeration it will take. True Detective is essentially yet another treatise on the pressures society exerts on ‘traditional’ masculinity. But we’ve seen this a thousand times – and familiarity is what causes a story to tip over from stereotype to parody.

The twisted polysexuality and intellectual mind-games of Hannibal, however, are something we’ve seen far less of on television. We don’t have the afterimages in our head from all the million other times we’ve seen this situation – and that helps keep parody at bay.

Everyone has a goal. The characters of True Detective may be investigating a crime, but from scene to scene, they frequently seem to be drifting around in a haze of self-obsession and indolence. The characters in Hannibal are probably equally self-obsessed, but they all have clear, quantifiable goals.

Hannibal initially wants to frame Will for his own crimes, but his goal shifts into an elaborate scheme to release Will’s ‘true potential’. Will’s goal remains remarkably solid across three seasons: bring down the Chesapeake Ripper, whoever it is, and somehow retain his sanity. Jack Crawford’s goal shifts from Will to Hannibal and back, but he essentially wants to save whichever of them is sane and take down whichever of them is not…

And everything everyone does, however elaborate, twisted and bizarre, is clearly designed to take them another step closer to their goal. There’s no moustache-twirling evil for evil’s sake. This gives a solidity, a believability to their actions that grounds them emotionally.

Of course, we all have our own breaking point. Undoubtedly there are viewers who have the exact opposite reaction – who think True Detective thoroughly believable and Hannibal too far-fetched. But for us as writers, the lesson remains: if you’re writing a heightened version of reality, you can ground it using focus, a fresh emotional premise, and strong character goals…

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What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”

The First Scene

I don’t know about you, but in the planning stage of a new project, I often find myself having ideas for potential scenes. I tend to scribble them on pieces of paper and pop them in the project file box with all the research and outlines etc. Sometimes they end up in the finished script, sometimes they don’t, but they’re useful to establish character, try out pairings and relationships, and think about location and dialogue.
And, I’ve just realised, the first scene that comes into my head often summarises the tone that I’m trying to create for the whole script.
This afternoon, I scribbled a very brief scene for a new TV project. The scene was funny, intimate, all about unconventional relationships, and full of nerdy fangirl jokes – and that’s pretty much how I want the project to feel.
Another project, an action-adventure feature, started off with a scene where the rule-breaking Victorian heroine goes in search of her errant sidekick in a Turkish bath. Again, the movie in microcosm: adventurous woman kicks against society, glamorous period locations, long-suffering male sidekick. (Hopefully he won’t be naked for the whole movie, though. Mind you, might increase ticket sales!)
So next time a scene for a new project occurs to you, don’t just write it down – keep it to compare the rest of the project to as you plan, outline and write. Does your project still feel like that initial scene? Are you capturing the feel of the project you initially imagined?
If not, you may feel your project has evolved into something better, which is fine. But if you’re still trying for the original feel of that first scene, at least you have concrete evidence of what you’re trying to capture…

What Next?

I’m just coming to the end of a new feature project, so it’s time to consider the question that every writer must face… What next?
Writers are rarely short of ideas. Usually we’re waist deep in half-formed thoughts, seductive characters and fascinating fictional worlds. If we’ve been stacking projects – rewriting one project while writing a first draft of another and planning a third  – many of those projects will be temptingly close to ‘ready to write’.  (And if you want to know more about the merits of project stacking, Scott Myers has an excellent article on it here: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2010/12/business-of-screenwriting-art-of.html )

But that just makes the question more confusing. Which of these glorious masterpieces should you write next? Well, you have a few options.

The one that will sell. Not just for the money, but because a project in development is better for your career than something no one has ever heard of. What’s selling at the moment? What do your contacts say they’re looking for? Are female protagonists in or out? Does the industry love sci-fi this month, or hate it? Look through your ideas, and pick the one most likely to go into development in the next few months.

The one that will make a statement. Do you want to prove you can write in a new genre? Are you looking to attract attention to yourself as a new writer? Have you just overcome a weakness in your writing style and want to show off your new skills? Then pick the project that will make a statement about you.

The one that consolidates who you are as a writer. Perhaps you’re not looking to change genre or style, but to establish yourself as a safe pair of hands in a particular field. Or you need another piece in the same genre so you can present a coherent body of work to an agent or manager. So pick the project that tones with your existing scripts.

The one you love. In the end, the idea you love most is the one that will attract the most attention, because a writer’s love for their world and characters shines through. So if none of the other considerations apply, ask yourself which idea you just have to write…