Monthly Archives: August 2012

Books as Plays

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the National Theatre, London

A couple of days a go I went to see a production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the National Theatre in London. I loved this book and I was really excited to see how the company were going to handle performing it live. Which raised a question: why is it that I was excited to see a play but I worry about seeing film adaptations of books I like?

It’s an interesting question and one reason I can come up with is that I’ve seen so many bad film adaptations but plays and musicals have been more successful. I’m thinking mostly of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, another National Theatre production, which was an excellent working of the story using life-size puppets to play the horses that are so central to the story. War Horse has of course recently spawned a film version which I also thought was brilliant so maybe it’s not the best example. One thing that constantly confused me about the publicity surrounding the film is that it was constantly referred to as the film of the musical and the book seemed almost forgotten but that’s another issue.

Theatre vs film. Pictures: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times and Andrew Cooper, SMPSP

Perhaps another reason is that presenting a story on stage presents a different set of challenges to filming a book. All the action has to be live and a lot of the tricks used in films just won’t work on the stage. For example a voice-over in a film is fine but try the same thing in the theatre and you’ll find your audience looking round for the speaker.

Having said that there are a lot of things you can do in the theatre which enliven a performance. Curious was performed in  theatre which has seats right around the small stage meaning that the set could only be very minimal to avoid obscuring the view. In fact there was no set used at all, clever use of lighting and physical performance allowed for the representation of household objects, trains and a whole street of houses without any need for large physical items. this is exactly the sot of performance which would not work on film but which draws you into a play and captures your imagination.

I think another important aspect is that stage actors tend to be less well-known than screen actors. So often people respond badly to casting choices for a film because that person isn’t who you picture playing a role. A lot of this is based on

Sorry Thandie.

physical characteristics which can be just as wrong in a theatre setting but a large part of it is also because having seen an actor in one role it is then hard to change our conceptions of who that person is. For example I’m afraid I have an abiding dislike of Thandie Newton for no reason other than I hated her character in ER. Since theatre actors are less likely to be as famous it is easier to accept them as just the character they are playing at the time.

Whatever the reason, I am enduringly sceptical of book to film adaptations whereas going to the theatre fills me with nothing but excitement in anticipation of seeing my favourite characters brought to life. Perhaps there’s another reason and that’s just that I love the theatre so much that I’m entirely biased and always will be. I think I can live with that.

53. The Stand – Stephen King

53. The Stand by Stephen King

Finally I’m writing a post about a book on The List!

And it’s been a long time coming; at 1,325 pages The Stand is definitely not the shortest book I’ve ever read. It is a titan of a book with a vast host of characters and a myriad of plotlines which all weave together to form one of the most gripping novels of the 20th century.

The story begins with a plague which wipes out approximately 99% of America and leaves a chosen few to deal not only with rebuilding the world as they knew it but also with a mysterious figure in the west who threatens to destroy everything. Those who survive the plague are not necessarily the archetypal hero types but are brought together by the power of some prophecy-like dreams which eventually unite them all in a small town in Colorado and lead them to the greatest fight of their lives.

There are no words to describe just how much I enjoyed this book. The characters are so well developed and three-dimensional that I frequently found myself thinking about them when I allowed my mind to wander through the day. The book begins pre-plague and develops slowly (although the plague claims all its victims in a 19-day period the action develops slowly and seems to take much longer) so that we get a good look at their lives and this forms a solid foundation for what follows. I grew to really care about many of these characters and the peril in which they all spent the most part of the novel kept my heart in my mouth the whole way through.

Captain Trips?

The plague itself, or ‘Captain Trips’ as it is often referred to, is allowed to gather momentum gradually and is often only mentioned at the end of a chapter when someone begins to cough innocuously. This device is so powerful that several times I found myself glaring suspiciously at a fellow tube passenger who happened to cough while they were standing near me. This is a testament to the power of King’s writing and probably the highest compliment I can pay him.

Post-plague the survivors begin to make cross-country pilgrimages guided by prophetic dreams. But despite having survived Captain Trips their lives are far from safe and King kept me on the edge of my seat by constantly throwing in new dangers and occasionally mowing down a character or two. This is one of his main strengths, he isn’t afraid to kill his main characters. So often when reading thrillers you find that only the token, background characters are ever in any real danger of dying but not so when reading Stephen King. I won’t ruin anything by naming names but suffice to say that more than once I was so stunned by a development I stared open-mouthed at the page.

Our heroes gather in Boulder, Colorado. If like me you’re a non-American you may want to have a map handy while reading. I recommend this one.

But even though I was enjoying the story immensely I couldn’t help but worry about the ending as I could see the number of pages left diminishing. Time and again I have been disappointed by a book which has built up to a climactic ending only to let me down at the last moment by failing to rise to its own challenge. As the book started to wear down I feared the same was going to happen here. It’s hard to say too much without giving anything away but although it was over in a flash and I did feel he could have done more with the big good vs evil showdown there was a very satisfactory ending to what had been a momentous journey.

Overall The Stand is an emotional rollercoaster and a fantastic read which well deserves its place on The List but at position 53 is underrated. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

How to be a crime writer

I’m a great fan of detective dramas: Waking the Dead, Silent Witness, Bones, Without A Trace, the Law & Order franchise, I love them all. Yet for some reason when it comes to crime fiction on paper I really struggle. I’ve tried again and again and not once have I come across a novel which makes me yearn to read more.

The characters tend to be one-dimensional, carbon copies of each other with plots full of telegraphed red herrings and a number of strands which realistically will only ever tie up one way. The vast majority of these books are so similar that even I can see the big reveal winging its way towards me. And I’m M. Night Shyamalan’s dream audience; I never see the twist coming. Hell half the time I don’t even know there’s going to be a twist.

So here are my 10 basic rules for writing a crime story:

  1. Your detective must, I repeat, must have a tragic back story. A missing or murdered parent/sibling/child that’s the reason for their chosen profession. Ideally the case should be unsolved giving plenty of room for angst. This way the character can over-identify with every victim by remembering “that balmy day in August” or the “frosty winter’s morning” which changed their lives forever.
  2. Whether or not you decide to go with the tragic back story another good idea is to give the protagonist a complicated family life. Obviously no detectives are happily married with a supportive partner and loving children. No. They are all divorced, embittered, crippled by maintenance payments for the children they never see because of the evil machinations of their former partner. But they must have a child so they can muse at least once about how they would feel if it was little Timmy or dear Jessica lying there instead of the current vic.
  3. Which brings me neatly to my next rule: use copspeak.  I don’t know anyone in or even associated with the police so I don’t know if they actually talk the way they do in novels but it jars on me and I suspect there may be discrepancies between fact and fiction. Either way copspeak such as the use of the word “vic” for victim grates on me and has me reaching for a blackboard to run my nails down in a soothing manner.
  4. Don’t be afraid of stereotypes. They’re there for a reason and that reason is to make your life easier by taking the effort out of characterisation. By that I mean it’s fine to use the fat, smelly,

    A perfect example.

    doughnut eating, coffee drinking cop who’s so sure he’s right that he won’t listen to a word anyone else says. And sure that Lebanese family would beat their daughter and forbid her from leaving the house unchaperoned so why not make them suspects of an honour killing? Hell they’re ten a penny these days.

  5. Many writers have a female protagonist. This is good because as we all know men and women are not equal so your character will likely be the only one in her field and will constantly struggle to prove herself in the man’s world she inhabits. This will enable you to use a wealth of stereotypes: the piggish cop who belittles her and ignores her opinion, the radical professor who admires her effort in a tone

    Dr Temperance Brennan. See points 1 (TV series) or 2 (books) and also points 5 and 6.

    laced with patronising niceties. Then of course there’s the suave gentlemen who seems to really value her input, appreciates her intellect and is undoubtedly Bad News.

  6. Your character will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of criminal law, past cases (by which I mean all someone has to do is mention a name and they will instantly reel off all the relevant facts however old the case) and in case of the science based protagonist, the entire field of medical, forensic and theoretical science. All of it. They will have no area of expertise because their area is all encompassing.
  7. Red Herrings. Don’t go crazy with these but have at least one big break through which leads your detectives running off in the wrong direction waving their hands and popping champagne corks. Your main character will of course realise their terrible mistake in the last ten pages and just in time to save the latest victim.
  8. About that latest victim, don’t make it just another random person off the street. Much better is to use the protagonist’s child/partner/best friend/cat or for those of you who are serious about this business, the protagonist themselves. No one will ever see it coming. Honest.
  9. The actual ending itself is always the tricky bit of course. One really effective way of getting round the sticky issue of writing that final confrontation and your hero’s clever take down of the antagonist is to write them out of it. A blow to the head/swift acting poison or any other method of incapacitation (be as creative as you like) should be enough to take them out of the action and thus allow the rest of the team (who followed your main man’s cleverly encrypted clues to the scene of the action) to save the day. Then when they wake up in hospital a couple of days later everyone else can fill them in on how they managed to get there in the nick of time and just how long the bad man is going to serve in jail. Don’t think of it as a cop-out (pun intended); just think of it as a really neat way to tie everything up without having to do any really hard thinking.
  10. This is the big one. No one will ever believe your central character. Their theory as to who/how/why will be so far-fetched that colleagues, friends and family will be convinced that our hero has finally lost it only to be proved wrong at the 11th hour and turn up at his or her bedside (see point 9) with their tails between their legs and a look of awe in their eyes.

Repeat this format as many times as your publisher will allow changing names and stereotypes sparingly and you have yourself a bestselling series on your hands. No need to thank me, but if you do play this right and get a TV series commissioned I am available for all roles, big or small.

Disclaimer: many of these points were inspired by the two detective stories I’ve read recently which are Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox and Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs. Any similarity to their characters and plotlines is entirely intentional.