Sunday, 27 April 2014

Celebrating Great Writing 2: Dallas Buyers’ Club and Showing, Not Telling a Character’s Change of Heart

Ron Woodroof's diagnosis with AIDS, thanks to

Too often when a character in a drama has a big change of heart, it is writ large in ‘I’m not going to take it any more!’ type declarations. What I really appreciated when I saw Dallas Buyer’s Club recently, was how the character arc of hero Ron Woodroof is developed in a way that is subtly shown, not shouted from the rooftops. Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack seem to have trusted the viewer to understand the character’s transformation without him bursting out with ‘I’ve changed, I’m not like that any more!’ lines, or demonstrating the change in obvious, dramatic set pieces.

At the start of the action, in 1985, Ron Woodroof is a heavy-drinking rodeo cowboy, enthusiastically heterosexual and ‘backs against the wall’ homophobic. After an accident, he is told he has AIDS at a time when, with this diagnosis, if you weren’t an intravenous drug user, it was assumed you were gay. Woodroof goes through a phase of furious, raging denial until research reveals that unprotected sex has infected him. Having been given thirty days to live, he discovers that the drugs being trialled in the US are not as effective as those available for a price in Mexico, and so he begins to import unlicensed drugs and sell them on the streets to AIDS victims.

Thanks to

It is the change in Ron’s attitude to the gay community that is so impressively portrayed. To begin with, any approach by a gay man is met with disgust and angry rejection. Next, Ron is sent packing by his own former community, the rodeo crowd, who assume he is secretly gay and are terrified of catching AIDS. As he sets up the Mexico trail of experimental drug importation, it is subtly shown, though never laboured, that Ron is isolated at this most vulnerable time of his life. Visiting gay bars in order to sell his product, his physical demeanour and facial expressions reveal the change, as revulsion and fear turn gradually to bemused acceptance.  Rarely has an actor’s face shown a transformation so effectively. Great acting helps, of course, and Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ron. However, great writing must also be credited, and what’s refreshing about Dallas Buyers’ Club is the way the writers trust not only the actor to deliver the character’s change, but the viewers to understand it, without Ron needing to say, ‘I’m lonely! Everyone else has rejected me. These guys are weird, but they accept me. We’re in the same boat. Why shouldn’t I accept them..?’
Thanks to

I have often felt slightly confused by the advice to writers to ‘show, not tell’, but here’s a superb example of the craft well executed, to instruct us all.

Have you been blown away by the writing of a film or TV character? Have you had any ‘light-bulb’ moments when you realised what showing, not telling really means? Any film recommendations for me? Leave a comment or a line on Facebook!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Celebrating great writing 1: Breaking Bad’s bright sparks

Thanks to

I love to celebrate good writing and so I can no longer hold back from having a word or two about Breaking Bad, the extraordinary Netflix sensation that everyone is telling you you have to watch. You may have noticed that lately, some of the very best writing is coming from US television rather than films, and this is a case in point. If you haven’t seen it, I will warn you that you have to get through the pain barrier of the first two episodes that, although brilliant, are incredibly gruesome; I have a strong stomach but wasn’t sure I could go on. However, do go on; this is one of the most compelling dramas you will see and before you know it, you will be nagging everyone you know to watch it too.

There are all kinds of things to applaud in the writing of Breaking Bad: the strong characters; the double-jointed, oft-twisting plot, and most strikingly of all, the uneasy moral position standpoint we as viewers find ourselves in as we watch a hero become an anti-hero and, as incredible events unfold, our allegiances don’t quite know who to cling to.

If I had to choose one thing that makes the writing stand out, though, it is the intelligence of many of the characters. Often in drama, the plot relies on some of the characters not understanding what is going on, and we as viewers get way ahead of them, guessing and second-guessing until the (fictional) truth finally dawns on them, or, in thrillers, more likely explodes in their faces. For a while, Breaking Bad too relies on protagonist Walt’s wife Skyler not knowing what is going on, and there is some delicious dramatic irony as this happy, conventional all-American family gets together: Walt playing the innocent cancer victim but in fact funding his treatment by manufacturing crystal meth, right under the nose of his drug enforcement cop brother-in-law.

Thanks to

To start with, Skyler is so very straight, wide-eyed and innocent, that we underestimate her. However, Skyler has hidden depths. Skyler, it turns out, is fiercely intelligent, and at times she comes out as more than a match for the brilliant chemist and life-long under-achiever, Walt. Now things get really interesting. Skyler begins to make her own guesses about what Walt is up to. She begins to make her own strategies to cope. As the plot twists and turns, Walt uses his razor-sharp mind to stay on top in the terrifyingly perilous business of playing drug cartels at their own game, and all the time he seeks to keep Skyler in the dark. In a series packed full of delicious surprises, Skyler’s own machinations stand out as subverting the genre. This is not a story about one hyper-intelligent man and his nemesis, trading brilliant ploys while the others involved struggle to work out what is going on. Most unusually, as viewers, we can never assume that we are one step ahead of the characters, however much we guess and second-guess and speculate. In terms of intelligence, Walt surprises us, Skyler surprises us, Gus becomes a force we hadn’t reckoned with, Hank’s mind turns out to be sharper than we thought possible, and even the innocent-faced, often hapless Jesse at times exceeds our expectations.

This brilliant writing strategy is what keep us, as viewers, on our toes; it is what makes the series a cut above most thrillers. This is no lazy viewing experience; it puts us intellectually through hoops and more hoops, in fact, watching all five seasons (we are currently on season four) must be like putting your thriller-brain through the ultimate obstacle course. If you don’t watch it, do what you can to obtain it. If you have watched it all, no spoilers please – I don’t yet know the ending, and I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll guess.

Join in, thriller fans – if you love Breaking Bad, what makes it stand out for you?
If not, what other thrillers in books, films or series have you on the edge of your seat, and what makes the writing stand out? I’d love to hear from you – use Facebook if you can’t make my comments widget work!