Liz Nugent: five crime dramas that inspired my writing
I cannot recall when I last went to the cinema, but I can definitely tell you the name of the last TV drama series I watched (Jessica Jones). I have always preferred the pacing of story development in a drama series rather than the quick fix buzz you get from a film.
Television drama is getting increasingly better as the viewing audience is changing its habits. With the arrival of Netflix and online streaming, we can watch what we want when we want – and there is a healthy competition among viewers to see who can be first to discover the latest must-see series. Production values and budgets are higher and big name actors are now being lured to the small screen where they can often make a bigger impact.
Crime dramas are at the forefront of this revolution and regardless of the budgets and the actors and exotic locations available, good old-fashioned story telling remains at the core of the best productions. There are five principals of story that apply to every form of fiction writing whether you are writing a screenplay, a radio drama or a novel: dialogue, plot, structure, characterisation and awareness of the medium in which you are writing.
All of the dramas I mention below excel in each of these areas and as I am particularly interested in character, here are the lessons I learned from each one, mostly about that aspect:
For six seasons across eight years, we were glued to our screens for the latest episode of this New Jersey mobster and entranced by the relationships with his mother, his wife, his children, his Mafia family, his friends, enemies and psychiatrist. A violent, philandering, sociopathic thug wormed his way into our hearts by showing us his vulnerability.
Lesson 1: If you want to gain sympathy for a character, show us his weak side. In the case of Tony Soprano, he wanted his mother to love him. It is the most simple but effective trope of them all. The little boy wants his mommy. Our heartstrings are pulled.
For five years, we watched the utter transformation of Walter White from a downtrodden, bullied schoolteacher into a drug kingpin in charge of a billion dollar empire. There were many wonderful things about this series – did you notice that not one married male character ever cheated on his wife? How refreshing! – but the most notable thing for me is that you could never predict how an episode would end.
Lesson 2: Defy expectations. When you think you know what a character is going to do next, find a reason for that not to be possible and go another route. Surprise yourself and your audience. Who could predict that Todd would kill the child on the bicycle or that Walt would stand up to Tucco by blowing up his office using explosives disguised as crystal meth.
David Simon’s absorbing drama demonstrated the breakdown of American society and the corruption endemic in every level of it from the police, to the education system, the media and politics. The drug dealers who were at the core of the first series were, in fact, doing the least damage.
Lesson 3: Even the bad guys have a moral code and can rationalize their behaviour. In the first season, we saw the ‘war on drugs’, but in some respects, the drug dealers were victims of bigger criminals. Similarly, the cops were just as flawed. The only difference between the two sides was the law was only on the side of one of them. For me, there is nothing duller than a goody two shoes character.
Notwithstanding the undeniable acting talents of Sarah Lancashire, writer Sally Wainwright gave our female detective excellent motivation with a backstory that is revealed brilliantly in the opening scene. When dealing with a man threatening to set himself on fire, she reveals her own circumstances: divorced, a dead child, estranged from her other child and raising her grandson with her recovering heroin addict sister. Pow!
Lesson 4: Let your reader/viewer know what type of person the protagonist is as early as possible. Are they kind, tough, struggling, winning, broken, successful? It’s really important that you set up the world of the book/play/film/TV drama through the eyes of the protagonist. We need to know what they think of themselves.
Was there ever as compellingly quirky a character as Saga Norén? Somewhere on the autism spectrum, Saga is neurologically atypical and sees the world as black and white, right and wrong. She therefore had no qualms about reporting her partner and (only) friend Martin when he crossed the line.
Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid of diversity in your characters. Your cop does not have to be a straight white man. Your romantic lead does not have to be a straight cheerful pretty woman. Your hero does not have to be a good looking well built male. Diversity is interesting not just for the characters themselves, but in other characters’ reactions to them.
Liz Nugent’s Lying in Wait is out now.