Thoughts on TV Drama: Unforgiven

Brief outline A three part ITV drama focusing on central character Ruth Slater who has recently come out of prison after murdering two policemen sixteen years earlier. Unfortunately for Ruth, the son of one of those policemen plans his revenge. Ruth has a younger sister who was fostered out, then adopted after the trial, and Ruth is keen to find her now. The sister, present at the murder scene, has blocked out all memories of the event.

I found the first two parts of the story fascinating, even scary at times, particularly when lawyer’s wife Izzy goes up the stairs to investigate a possible disturbance that she believes is poltergeist activity – a really creepy moment that’s unfortunately never developed. The tension builds up steadily in the first two parts. I kept expecting the policeman’s son to jump out at Ruth when she was alone in her flat. It was impossible to relax, as the menace was always buzzing in the background. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t wait for the final part, Part Three.

And yet, I found the final part disappointing. The backstory just didn’t seem scary or realistic enough – for instance, one gunshot, two bodies, the whole question of angle. Izzy’s character suddenly changed in a way I couldn’t relate to (I hadn’t realised that she herself was a lawyer as well) and I thought it odd that no one challenged Ruth’s behaviour as she wandered around the university departments and cafeteria area sitting and watching her sister. Also, I feel the sister would have had a much stronger reaction when she first saw Ruth a few yards away, regardless of whether she knew who the stranger was.

The ending, too, felt incomplete – given the disclosure at the beginning of Part Three and the events at the warehouse, it’s obvious that no real closure can ever take place for either sister or the families of the two policemen.

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Characters and Quest

I had a mammouth session at the local novelist group on Wednesday and the question of plot structure came up in relation to a crime incident that occured twenty-six years ago when the male character was ten. In the draft, the central character accepts the official version of events, but his sister is suspicious and launches her own investigation that never really gets off the ground. The problem with this is it made the sister appear unreasonable and the brother slightly stupid. So, I’ve reversed the roles and it is now the brother who starts digging around in the past, bringing danger into his life. I’ve also revised the back story plot, making it more menacing and disturbing. An added bonus – the brother has no recollection of the original crime or how he escaped.

Carl Czerny & Technique

I’ve found the 160 8-bar exercises by Czerny (op 821) extremely helpful for improving piano technique. The exercises cover most aspects of technique and are tuneful, despite their length. Unlike with lengthy Hannon practice, people can select individual Czerny exercises to suit their needs.

Writer’s Block

Most writers reach that dreadful moment when they have nothing left to say. The computer screen or sheet of paper remains blank. Endless cups of coffee make no difference. Hopefully, the moment doesn’t last for long – a day, maybe two at the most – but occasionally, writer’s block doesn’t shift.

Writer’s block has several causes:

Physical. For instance, the writer’s tired, under stress or drained from the emotional nature of the story
Lack of confidence in the project
Structural problems in the writing

The first is the easiest to solve. Tired? Stressed? Worn out from the writing? Take a break for a day or two. Do something different. On those few occasions when I can’t face writing, I watch television (which I hardly ever do), play computer games or go out.

The second cause is slightly trickier to deal with. A lack of confidence prevents people from doing things, including getting writing done. You could spend the time researching your project or getting feedback from other writers. You could hand your work to a friend whose judgement you trust or study similar pieces of writing to gain a feel for what’s out there. If you’re writing fiction, distance yourself from the main character. Let the character develop in her own distinct ways.

Structural problems in the writing tend to occur when one or more of the basic arguments are faulty. The argument might lack credibility, for example. Or arguments might clash with each other, especially if you’ve introduced new material in a rewrite. I find scene of crime sections and mystery plots the hardest to pull off, often because I fail to take into account the motives of each person involved. Usually, I have to go back over the relevant points, simplifying some and developing others. In my latest draft of a psychological thriller, for instance, I got writer’s draft at the epilogue. Not a good place to get stuck.

When tackling structural problems, go through the manuscript with a pen. I prefer to work with groups of fifty pages, jotting down essential story questions as I read. If a section still doesn’t work after extensive revision, consider ditching it for, but keep a copy in case you wish to reintroduce it again.

Finally, resist the urge to go back to the beginning and rework the story word for word. Adding to what’s already there sometimes lessens the impact of the good.

Creative Writing Headaches

You come up with an idea. You sit down to write. An hour or two later, you scrunch up the paper or switch off the computer in disgust. Or you’re already halfway through a story and don’t know where to go next. When I first sat at the computer to begin a psychological thriller, I had no idea of the difficulties in store.

Choosing an Opening

I began with a repetitive dream, perhaps one of the most difficult starters because of the tendency to overdo things by pumping up the fear factor. Not only was the dream untypical of repetitive dreams, it didn’t actually tell the reader much. When I took the work to a novelist group, a member suggested opening with the first inciting incident where a young married couple return from a New Year’s party and the wife, an artist, thinks someone has tampered with her painting. The wife is correct, of course, but her husband thinks she’s overreacting. The rationale and back story took a long time to sort out and I ended up with an entirely different story. I experimented with a number of openings, finally settling for a short dream in present tense – an option I wouldn’t normally recommend. I settled for this option because I believe it’s the best way of beginning this particular story.

Openings are a real headache. In my opinion, people shouldn’t worry too much about the opening sentences at first. It’s better to continue writing until you have a basic draft to work with. Then, you can go back over the draft and select a few possible starters.

Dialogue

My least favourite part of the process. In writing dialogue, the writer has to give the impression of real speech without recording it word for word. Each speaker also needs to be distinct. I try to hear the characters’ voices and accents when I read back over the manuscript. At some point, I made the decision not to print off large sections of dialogue until I’d had the chance to read the sections again a day or two later. It’s amazing how muddled dialogue can get on a first attempt. Not to mention, all the shrugging, smiling, grinning and laughing people can do in one chapter. Generally, writers should stick to “he said/she said” and avoid the use of other attributive verbs because these distract the reader from the purpose of the speech. Also to be avoided are unnecessary adjectives – for instance, he said quietly, she said angrily. The speech itself should reveal how the character speaks.

Dialogue has to travel from an opening point to a finish through a process of development – again, difficult to pull off. Making a few notes away from the computer helps keep dialogue focused. In particular, you should ask yourself what you are hoping to convey in the section you’re working on.

Loss of focus after a few chapters

When I first started, the story soon became chaotic and unbelievable. Add to this, the overwriting and clumsy punctuation. Nowadays, I jot down the relevant story questions after every fifty pages of work and I constantly refer back to the notes.

Many stories pass through eight stages:
The starting point (“stasis”).
An inciting event (“trigger”).
The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”).
A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”).
Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”).
The consequences of the choices (“climax”).
Consequences of climax (“reversal”).
Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”).

In thrillers and crime, the central characters should be driven by conflict, both external and internal.

In my earlier drafts, the main character went to the police when she suspected someone was coming into her home – a course of action most people would take in real life. As I reworked the back story, I realised the character couldn’t go to the police because of a secret in her past. Instead, she is forced to turn to an elderly family friend, someone she doesn’t fully trust. Here, we have three sources of conflict – the disturbances in her home, her past secret and her distrust of the elderly friend.

To discover sources of internal conflict, write biographical notes for each of your main characters in first person, paying close attention to areas of their lives that draw a blank or produce a particularly strong emotion. Mark these areas and go through each one separately, making further notes. You now have your sources of conflict to work with.

RSI

RSI ( Repetitive Strain Injury) is a real nuisance.  I’ve had problems on and off with it for years.  Last summer, a physiotherapist gave me a set of exercises designed to stretch muscles in the neck and shoulder. I did these exercises several times a day, but I think I may have overdone things. Anyway, I stopped the stretches and the discomfort stopped as well.  Now the dull ache is back.   The cold weather doesn’t help much. 

In the past, I tried Ibuprofen, various hot and cold treatments, ice, physically pummelling the area, but the problem remains ongoing. Too much of the heat treatment tends to make the muscles worse.  

 So its back to the stretches.

Hello world!

Lancashire born and bred.  I moved to Devon to study piano at Dartington College of Arts, Totnes, and then to London where I have performed in the City of London lunchtime concert events. I also write and am working on two psychological thrillers set in the countryside.

I grew up with classical and rock music, but I particularly enjoy playing piano works by Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and Beethoven.   I’m currently working on the 5th and 12th Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt, along with some of the early Chopin preludes, Mozart’s “Simple sonata” in C and a Beethoven Rondo (in C).   I also enjoy playing the Chopin studies, especially the C minor arpeggio study from the second set, along with Beethoven sonatas (“Moonlight”, “Appassionata,” “Waldstein”).

I suffer from RSI in the shoulders, but the playing really helps (even those mad Lisztian sections)!