In the past, I’ve been pretty discerning in my viewing. There was the occasional yawn-fest when someone else picked the film, or if I watched TV when staying with someone else. But, generally, I’ve a pretty good idea of what type of thing I enjoy, and I’ve stuck to it.
Then my partner moved in with me and so naturally we watch a mix of what he likes and what I like. He likes action – high speed affairs with fights and stunts, and less attention to character development and storyline. That’s not all he watches – but it is what he watches at the end of a hard week when he simply wants to switch off and be diverted. As a result, in the past few years, I’ve watched a fair bit of – if not bad – then certainly not especially good stuff.
For I like films (and TV programmes) with well-crafted stories, with characters who are well-drawn and have depth, where there’s quality dialogue, not too many tropes, and a plot without a telegraphed outcome. The actors don’t have to provide award-winning performances, but must be believable in the role.
What I am not is a fan of films (and TV programmes) which are all action, horror or gore-fests, where the acting is one-dimensional or completely wooden, where there are glaring inaccuracies or plot holes, and where the plot follows a same-old same-old scenario. And so we come to…
Lesson 1: Humour can rescue those genres which are not my preferred – by which I mean wit, not macho banter (I have a strong aversion to macho banter). Macho banter is all about trying to be top dog, whereas wit doesn’t care, because it knows it’s clever.
To demonstrate this point I give you the action franchises Fast & Furious and Red. Both are headlined by action stars, both have action sequences and big stunts which require me to suspend disbelief. But the former takes itself terribly seriously, while the latter sends up the genre, albeit with affection. The former I find as dull as ditch water, while the latter proved pleasantly entertaining (if far from award-worthy). The quality of acting in the former runs from a to b, while that in the latter uses the full spectrum of the alphabet. The former is played for the ego stroking of the cast, the latter strictly for laughs. And with that we move on to…
Lesson 2: When you’re not playing it for laughs, you really must get the details right.
Professionals in the personal protection business absolutely trashed the BBC series The Bodyguard because the central character was running around not fulfilling his primary role – that of guarding his charge – but frankly, you didn’t need to be in the industry to notice, for it was the first question I asked. another BBC drama Vigil struck an immediate duff note in the characterisation of the captain. The action, which largely takes place upon a British nuclear deterrent submarine, is somewhere lead officers have to pass the notoriously unforgiving training programme before even being considered for service. Only the cream of the cream make it through, so depicting a weak captain in this key role, even hinting at his being a positive discrimination appointee by casting a black actor, is as unlikely to happen as a bodyguard with PTSD being selected to safeguard a key government minister. It was a shame for in both dramas, there was good tension, unexpected plot twists, and a quality cast. While there were other issues which caused a raised eyebrow or two, it was the sloppiness with characterisation which undermined their quality and made it impossible for me to take them seriously. While still on the subject of getting the details right, let’s move on to…
Lesson 3: while not Chekhov’s Gun Principle, if you’re going to name a weapon in your story, make sure it’s apt and historically accurate (surely a requirement for any named prop).
While I’ve blithely paid not a bit of attention to weapons used on screen, for my partner (whose great passion is military history) it’s the first thing he notices. Let’s compare and contrast The Battle of the Bulge and Fury. In the former, the easily available US Patton tank was used to depict German Tiger tanks. While entirely common at the time for German WW2 hardware has always been extremely rare), they also used post-war US Jeeps, despite earlier models being in plentiful supply. But in the latter film, accurate replicas were used throughout, and the producers also engaged with a British museum to use two fully restored WW2 tanks – one US, one German – for certain key scenes. Although there’s a certain amount of leeway assumed in film, you cannot get away with the same when writing your story. So, knowing that WW2 Soviet tanks are so small you’ll find no six footers in a T34, indeed knowing that they’re likely to be no taller than 5ft 6in, could not only help you avoid a distracting mistake but also contribute to your choosing to craft a character of Tartar, Turkic or Mongolian origin.
Lesson 4: when writing fiction in a historical setting, the bits which actually happened have to be correctly reported.
Let’s look at the bad and the good in a few TV series. In the hugely successful TV series Peaky Blinders, we see lead character Thomas Shelby meeting with Home Secretary, Winston Churchill in 1919 – except that Winston Churchill wasn’t Home Secretary in 1919. A similar error occurred in Leonardo, where da Vinci is shown being best friends with Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1467 – a full two years before Machiavelli was born. On the flip side, I offer Downton Abbey, where the writers demonstrate how to get it right by their successful depiction of the Grantham family living their lives weaved around the major historical events of the period, such as the sinking of the Titanic and WW1. With my second example of getting it right, I offer Band of Brothers. Based on a non-fiction book, it enhanced its accuracy by including clips from interviews with the surviving real life members of the cast of characters.
Have bad films/TV provided you with useful writing lessons? Where else have you discovered unexpectedly useful lessons in writing?
© Debra Carey, 2021