I listen to the BBC radio series “The Archers”. (Yes, I heard that groan!) It is the only soap I follow, mainly because it fits in well with doing the evening meal.
I am also revising and fixing a long manuscript right now , which means that - while listening to the Archers - I look out for lessons for my own writing.
There is a lot to dismiss or dislike in the Archers, which makes the listening easy when you need to concentrate on cooking. I am not at all fond of those notoriously awful romantic scenes (complete with ghastly squelchy radio sound effects) or some of the characters (back when the series did offer a range of characters) or the fact that I share a birthday with Linda Snell.
Nevertheless, for those fifteen minutes, veg-peeler in hand, I take weird pleasure from playing at script writing. I stand there, predicting lines before they are spoken, watching out for the foreshadowing moments (or the now thumping great clues) and pondering on potential plot options and development.
Sometimes (or once upon a time, as it now seems) the long- running threads could be poignant, especially if the subject echoed something you were dealing with in your own life too (and I don’t mean sheep) just because the thread developed over real time too.
But something odd has been happening to the Archers. I have heard rumours of a new Big Editor imported from East Enders, who is trying to “take the show back to its roots”. Maybe (or “mebbe” as Ruth would say) the differences between a “heard” script and a “watched” script aren’t totally appreciated, especially as far as characters go, and there are no visuals to back a radio story up.
All the big books on plotting, like Robert McKee’s Story, say that it is the balance between the character roles that holds a story together and, although these underlying mythic roles may overlap, each character should be fundamentally consistent.
Not so in this rural soapland. One central “grumpy character” role – Tony - has been taken over by a new and reputable actor who sounds even grumpier and nastier. He does it very well. (Has he been asked to go for the maximum moan?)
However – and suddenly - this “weak” character is coming over as far stronger character dramatically, which is unbalancing all sorts of other relationships in the storyline. Unsatisfying. Confusing.
Recently, a long-awaited joyous wedding ended in wailing when Tom the groom backed out. Hidden behind his seemingly stone heart was the realisation that he could not carry on trying to replace his older dead brother. However, the vital scene that would give full dramatic coherence to this strand just never took place. We got quick glimpses. One liners and that was about all.
It did not feel like a big tragedy. It felt odd and strange, or a too-hurried exit for the actor or character in question. Who? Why? What? (And is it still impossible to contact people in Canada if you put your mind to it?) I wasn’t involved or moved. I was just wondering what the behind-the-scenes real-life reasons or reasoning were and I was cross, because the scripts hadn’t had the courage to explore that. They also assumed that all listeners really knew the “dead John” story but it was long ago The story concept was big in the scriptwriters heads, but did the readers/listeners accept and understand? I don't think so.
The range of characters has disappeared. People are referred to but don't speak. The women seem to have become sillier and pettier. The male characters have turned into dim hunks, untrustworthy fools or moany oldies. Even the best in the Archers are suspicious or seem condemned to the long silence of the budget-cuts.
Then last week came another drastic character change. Loyal, hardworking conference-organiser Roy and snobby Lady of the Manor Lizzie had the worst-scripted “I’m at a music festival” fling imaginable. We all know that Roy is the kind of honest fool who will blab. Oh no. Too, too wearying a plot and too miserable the consequences. (Tempted to write “If I wanted to watch East Enders . . .”)
Right now, I’m barely listening to the show when it airs. I am imagining the script meetings where all the “possibilities” are loudly brainstormed, scenes where all the writers are so entranced by all the twists and options that they forget that their story-world has to feel credible. Have the once-many characters been written out because of budget cuts or did the actors walk? I am sure that I glimpsed an item on BBC Writers Room inviting new writers to submit their thoughts. Are we now listening to someone's mish-mash of all the ideas sent in? It's a mystery.
As I said earlier, I doing my own manuscript-wrangling right now and taking sideways note from what I hear and don’t hear on the Archers. Right now, the writing lessons I’m learning are:
Who are your rocks? Some characters are there to act as rocks. They need to be fairly stable all the way through the story, because if there are too many “out-of character” character changes, the reader does not know who to attach themselves, emotionally.
Watch the “volume” of your characters. When you revise, beware of characters that, emotionally & dramatically, dominate or fade when that’s not what you or your story need.
Watch your plot. The logic of the plot underpins the pact with the reader/listener. So don’t annoy with over-long diversions, such as the Jennifer’s kitchen aga-saga or unbelievable occupations such as Helen’s “successful” organic shop that closes on a whim.
What was it that you didn’t write? Don’t assume, just because you as writer know a character’s problems and what happens etc. etc. that readers/listeners do. A lot of small hints don’t offer the full blown emotional impact of a good big scene that makes everything clear. Make sure that you write all the scenes that matter.
Lastly, A is for Attachment. If your reader is no longer attached to a character – the person acts out of character with not enough explanation, alters at a basic level, or does unexplained things that lose sympathy, - they will get angry. And angry readers will close the pages, because you have broken the story contract.
Are you taking all this on board, Penny?
Yes, I am.
Good! And get back to revising that work-in-progress. Now!
ps. I’m also rather annoyed by the thought that this “Archer” tag could register on some media scanning device, and therefore add another tick to the “attention & controversy equals success for the new Archers”. ‘Cos it ain’t so. Grrr!