I’ve been meeting with Dr Fantasy a lot lately. He and I are writing a TV show together and we have a lot to talk about: the plot, the characters, the arcs, the tone, the mood, the aesthetics. Number one, of course, is the plot and working out what happens in each episode. We have completed six so far, all of which have been the result of a process of lengthy discussion. Dr Fantasy makes his suggestions, and Mr Plausibility makes his. Oh yeah, that’s me, Mr Plausibility.
Workshopping is a common enough approach in writing. Many writers use their friends as sounding boards – simply beginning to discuss something can highlight issues of story or character. It works rather in the same way that tossing a coin does. It comes up heads, but then you know you wanted tails. It’s not the result that matters, it’s just that tossing makes you feel the right answer in your gut. I don’t want to draw too many parallels between talking and tossing, but there you go.
I have a lot of experience in workshopping from doing a Masters in Creative Writing along with many hours spent discussing work with other writers outside of university. It’s also fair to say that I learned a very great deal about process and structure through discussions with my PhD supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, irrespective of the fact that my PhD was in late Roman / early medieval Italian history. She deserves credit as my first real editor. Dr Fantasy too has a great deal of experience in workshopping through his studies in communications and later drama at NIDA. No longer precious about our work or ideas, we can make all manner of bold suggestions for our characters, reject them, pick them up again, rework them, and perhaps discard them altogether, or in they go.
Dr Fantasy, whose show it is, and who has kindly taken me on as co-writer, is fond of the expression “It’s television!” I’m fond of it too, for it allows for all manner of melodramatic situations.
“Why not? Who cares? It’s TV, that shit happens on TV.”
And, indeed it does.
Dr Fantasy, like a sorcerer, conjures scenes from the great miasma of television and Mr Plausibility refines them, within the bounds of reason. Now I don’t mean to suggest that Dr Fantasy isn’t also a realist. His concern for plausibility, for characters to remain true to their personalities, goals and motivations is no less strong than mine. Yet, Mr Plausibility’s job is, like the devil’s advocate, to ask every question there is to be asked about why a person would say a particular line, take a certain course of action, do one thing and not another.
The process always starts with a question. Sometimes as big as: “What’s going to happen in Episode 6?” A blank canvas can be daunting, but two people can circle this very effectively if they’re thinking clearly. I like to lie down, Dr Fantasy loves his notepad, but either way, we make ourselves comfortable and just talk. The important thing is to keep talking. Thinking too much can be detrimental – you can get bogged down. Pause, certainly, but keep talking about ideas. What’s good about them, what’s bad about them. Even seemingly irrelevant tangents can flavour the vision of the characters, so it’s worthwhile voicing some of the more peculiar ideas which seem initially unworkable.
“How about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “Let’s take it out of Sydney – focus on Frederic (our main character). Get some different settings. Like a country house or a big mansion somewhere.”
“The Blue Mountains could be the go,” I suggest. “It’s misty, cold, winter. There’s a big wedding he’s shooting and someone goes missing.”
“Yeah, I like that. Maybe Bowral or something, you know, southern tablelands. It’s a big wedding, like some media mogul or something – his daughter is getting married.”
“She looks like Miranda Kerr.”
“Tasty. She’s marrying a guy called Brady.”
“How about this. The old media guy is like Citizen Kane. He calls his elderly wife Rosebud. He’s a bit of a Murdoch figure, but perhaps less, I dunno, sinister.”
“Good, good. But how does Frederic get to the wedding? Who gives him the job?”
“I dunno. Maybe he meets some old cougar in a bar. Hell knows.”
“Ok, how about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “An old friend of Frederic’s is in town. A real heroic, Hansel-type dude. He’s American, called something like Cory McFlynn, or something.”
“I like it.”
“The opening scene is him and Frederic, paintballing. They’re chasing each other, maybe a montage over the intro. Then in the cafeteria – Cory invites Frederic to the wedding. He knows the daughter. Maybe he’s been banging her on the sly.”
“Or maybe he knows the dad, the old media mogul. Roland. Roland Chandler. Maybe Cory worked for him for years. When he was starting out he was a rising star of a photographer, Roland was still hands on, editing the newspaper or whatever. He was a bit of a maverick like Rupert, and then he sold out. Cody’s an old family friend, he’s the best in the business.”
“Cody? or Cory?”
“Hey, Cody, why not? They want him to shoot the wedding.”
“Maybe,” says Dr Fantasy, “he likes to suck a dick here and there and he’s Roland’s old bum- chum.”
“It got him that feature.”
“Moved him up the ranks.”
“Maybe Roland’s a bit of a media guru, when he was younger, he lectured in journalism. Cody was one of his students.”
“His wife is very sophisticated. She’s French, she doesn’t care that he likes boys on the side.”
The above is a pastiche of a considerably longer conversation held only recently during which the plot of episode 6 was taking shape. It’s always a genuinely collaborative process with each of us refining each other’s ideas as they emerge, taking them to extremes and then trimming them into plausibility. Once a pool of information has been put together, such as that contained in the above exchange, we filter it for clichés and give people names that sound less like they derive from cheesy sitcoms or Restoration dramas.
Once we had developed a working framework for the episode, the debate found its biggest point of contention: the timing of a blow-job.
“Look,” said Mr Plausibility, “if Miranda’s going to catch this chap Cody giving her dad a BJ and then go riding off on her horse at dawn, only to get lost in the heavy fog of the southern tablelands, then surely we have to ask the question of why in hell has this old chap stayed up all night only to have a fire-side brandy-fuelled blow-job from his sycophantic former bumchum at five thirty AM on the morning before his daughter’s wedding?”
“Hey, who cares,” says Dr Fantasy. “Does it matter? They’ve been talking all night, sitting by the fire – maybe a little saucy line of coke or two. They’re hardcore night owls with plenty to talk about. Maybe all the men were sitting up late, playing cards, smoking cigars, the odd game of chess. Then, just after everyone goes to bed, down comes Miranda, all bleary-eyed, on her way to get a restless snack from the kitchen, when bingo – she sees Cody crouched over her dad’s lap working his magic for that next promotion.”
“But, dude, the guy’s like sixty. Is he really going to be up that late? Wouldn’t the saucy old fruit retire a good deal earlier, say one o’clock, which would still constitute a pretty late night? He’s got a wedding on the next day.”
“Maybe it’s not dawn then. Why does it have to be dawn anyway?”
“Because we want Miranda riding off at dawn – it’s a visual thing, we want that silver grey morning light through the fog, so we need to have moment of shock in the morning. You know that’s how you want it.”
“Of course. But why can’t she ride off in the middle of the night, and then Frederic and others go looking for her in the morning?”
“But, that’d be crazy. I mean, who would go off on a horse in the middle of the night in winter in a nightie when it’s freezing cold and dark out in the country? She’s a sensible girl. Yes, she’s in shock, but at one or two in the morning, she’s far more likely to go flop on her sister than hop on her horse.”
“Why not? She’s upset, she’s crazy. She’s not thinking. It’s a brain-snap. Hey, come on, it’s television!”
Anyway, you get the drift. The debate continued over two further sessions. How could we make the timing work? How could one event lead to another in a smooth and ultimately plausible transition? Often it seems as though one is patching over things, looking for any means of bridging the distance, of establishing a suitable flow. Timing has always been one of the biggest issues with writing, especially when all the events of a story or show are stuck within the tight constraints of a weekend or even a single day. There is always the option of a complete overhaul of events, but having seen the dramatic possibilities of one course of events and having already worked characters and situations to fit around these, it seems as though finding a way through is the first priority.
Dr Fantasy certainly recognises the need for tight scheduling, but he is perhaps more willing to use larger bandaids than Mr Plausibility.
“Sometimes, you take this plausibility thing too far, you know,” said Dr Fantasy. “Sometimes you’ve gotta let it go.”
“Well, they don’t call me-
“Mr Plausibility –
“Mr Plausibility for nothing.”
Either way, we got there in the end, and of course, I have no intention of revealing further details of the plot – not to suggest that the above is especially accurate. What’s important here is the process. Talking, putting out feelers, wrestling with possibilities, asking questions of all the characters, from their point of view. Dr Fantasy is a master of the raw materials, and I’d like to think that in my small way, Mr Plausibility is something of a craftsman.