If you’re going to try to write for a living you need to be a manipulator. Get the readers thinking you’re going one way, surprise them by pulling the rug out. Make readers care about a character, and then do something horrible to them. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods etc etc.
Back in my previous life as a journalist I interviewed Hans Zimmer. I asked him if, were he tasked with making an audience cry, could he sit down and be confident he could achieve that with a particular piece of music? He sounded almost insulted: “Of course”. I mean, that’s the job. That’s what he’s paid for.
I was watching the latest episode of The Deuce this morning. And it’s masterful writing inasmuch as it knows exactly what it wants you to feel and achieves it perfectly. The Deuce is David Simon and George Pelecanos’ defacto sequel to The Wire. Not in characters or era – this is all about prostitution and the porn trade in 1970s Manhattan – but Simon, Pelecanos and collaborators such as Richard Price have, like they did in The Wire, created a vast army of cast, given them all distinct personalities with often little screen time, and they somehow make you care about ALL of them. Dark alchemy.
When you see affecting writing you kind of want to take it apart like the workings of a clock and try and work out why it works. And in the case of The Deuce it’s partly a case of having an environment where there are sharks – pimps, gangsters, violent random ‘johns’ – so a sense if danger is always present. Any of these characters could get theirs at any time. But more than that, the writers’ most deadly weapon is kindness.
If you want to get an audience to like a character, just have them do an unprompted act of kindness for another. Nothing works better and is a more obvious writing trump card. We’re hard-wired to immediately like anyone who does this, no matter if we’ve seen them doing something horrendous the prior episode.
Writing ‘rules’ kind of say a lot about who we are as a species. There can be a thousand terrible things on the news, but we’re all pretty helpless before an act of generosity. It’s desensitised audience kryptonite.
Writing – good writing – is usually either about people doing good things, or doing bad things.
<SPOILERS FOR THE DEUCE ep 7, ‘Au Reservoir’, story by David Simon, Megan Abbott, teleplay by Megan Abbott’>.
The red herring here, and one of the episode’s A plots, is Ashley, a prostitute who is run with cruel nonchelance by a pimp, C.C. In a prior episode, we saw C.C. keep Ashley in line by slitting her armpit with a cut-throat razor. C.C. has also killed a ‘john’ previously. He’s scary. Ashley’s hurt towards his lack of interest in her has been building all series. There will be blood. We know it.
Ashley finally has had enough and goes into hiding. C.C. is looking for her. The episode makes us care about Ashley via small unexpected things – she’s reading psychology textbooks and shows more depth than we previously knew she had. She’s a real person, it turns out. She cleans the apartment of the girl who’s hiding her rather than – the obvious beat to hit – ripping her off.
Small kindnesses. Unexpected kindnesses. We’re invested. And we know the writers are making us care about Ashley because she’s going to get it at the end from C.C. If you make an audience care for a character you then create genuine tension by threatening them. “No, don’t!” – If you’re thinking that, the writers have done their job really well.
And here’s the genius of The Deuce. A very brief vignette shows another prostitute, Melissa, who is talking to the large black guy who runs the diner and who has had very minor screen time the whole series, but seems a decent soul. The diner chef tells Melissa about a way he used to cook potato ‘in the joint.’
Three words, and suddenly this guy is a character we care about. He’s showing a small kindness to Melissa, and now we know he was once in prison. And thankfully his backstory is terse. Three words: “… in the joint.” God forbid he was given a speech here: “you know, back in prison I often used to dream of… etc etc” Now that would be horrible writing. Fine lines.
Melissa’s pimp, Reggie Love, comes in and verbally abuses her. Melissa has to go. The diner chef looks at this scene and how Reggie Love is a bully, doesn’t like it.
FINAL ACT: Back to our A-plot. Ashley, enexpectedly, gets to the coach station, escapes her life of prostitution, heads for Buffalo to live with her sister with money Abby gave her (small kindnesses). The showdown with C.C. that has built tension all episode does not occur. Ashley, at least temporarily, wins.
So where does the tension build pay off? It’s got to go somewhere. And it does, just not where we expected.
We go back to Melissa and the diner chef. She is wearing sunglasses and looking sad. The diner chef lifts her sunglasses and sees she has two black eyes. His jaw tightens.
Reggie Love comes into the diner, angrily berates Melissa for not being out working. Aggressively grabs her. The diner chef tells Reggie Love to leave Melissa alone. Reggie Love tells the diner chef to go f*ck himself and mind his own business.
The diner chef pulls a revolver from under the counter and shoots Reggie Love dead.
It’s an act of heroic decency while also being another reminder that this place is very dangerous. Sharks are everywhere. Even the decent souls who stand up for others have been ‘in the joint’ and keep a pistol to hand.
Writing’s an odd thing in what is says about human nature, and what innately pushes our buttons. There’s something kind of warming about the fact that kindness has such an effect on people. We love it.
But good writers plant it as a seed to manipulate us, so they can make us react the way they want.
Enought writing tips. Now some brief plugs, with digital comic shop linkage:
Comixology currently has a digital Black Friday sale where you can get my Suicide Squad trade paperbacks, Unfollow and my Martian Manhunter trades for £2.99 each:
ACTION COMICS 992 came out yesterday. I’ve scripted this from a plot by Dan Jurgens. Superman, doesn’t get more kind than that…
SUICIDE SQUAD 30 also came out yesterday, and continues the Squad’s battle on the moon against The Red Wave Monster.
And KAMANDI CHALLENGE 11, where I get teamed up with comics legend-whose-Thor-I-read-as-a-teenager Walter Simonson.
Be kind and buy! Or Dredd’ll hit you.
Oh, the header image (below) is Deadshot and Batman by Ken Marion and co and is from our upcoming TRINITY #16, a New Year’s Ever one off story which I’m really pleased with.