You need a destination when you’re writing, even if you’re not physically travelling. Whatever it is, book, play, short story or film, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a place you never intended with your protagonist not achieving their goal or overcoming the obstacles you’ve placed in their way.
But that’s not going to happen to you. You’ve planned it all out. You’ve got the chapter breakdown, you’ve written the detailed treatment – nothing can go wrong yet somewhere along the writing road, you lose your way and the ending’s muddled.
Here are three pieces of advice to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac.
My first writing tutor told me to write down in one sentence what the main character’s aim was and to pin this on the wall in front of my keyboard.
Tony Jordan, gave me the second piece of advice, when I wrote for “Eastenders”. Always know what the end of the scene will be.
And the third piece was from a tutor on a screenwriting course, visualise what will be on the cinema billboard advertising your film. This last one will leave you in no doubt who the most important characters are and breathe colour, atmosphere and life into your story.
What would you do if one of your kids came home from school with a picture they’d drawn of themselves and it didn’t look anything like them because the drawing was of a child who was white and your child was black? You’d be worried about why they saw themselves like that but the answer wouldn’t be difficult to find. The overwhelming majority of characters in the media that surrounds us are white.
How many of us use characters from other cultures or ethnic minorities within our own country or do we stick to people with the same ethnicity as our own? Do we think about characters from other cultures only when a story might be racially based? As writers we use our imaginations and our life experiences to create worlds to which we can relate and if there are more writers from the larger racial group, then the characters created will mirror this, which is why society tries wherever possible to encourage diversity with box ticking.
Recently Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Producer from EastEnders, refused to support this practice. He ‘has rejected the idea of diversity targets on the show, adding that he has no intention of including ethnic minority characters just for their own sake.’ as doing this and then ‘defining them by story lines around ethnicity, sexuality or disability, would leave viewers with ”a blancmange”. The Guardian.
But why would he have to define them? Are the white characters in EastEnders defined in a similar way?
It was recently pointed out that fictional Walford is twice as white as the real East London but this is where market forces come into play. It’s not just East London that’s watching EastEnders; it’s the whole of the UK. When we watch drama, we’re in a make-believe world that won’t be a mirror image of the one on which it’s based. But do characters have to be defined by the story lines that Treadwell-Collins mentions?
I remember seeing the original Star Wars movie. It was in a small town cinema somewhere in the States and I apologise for not remembering exactly where as I was travelling around a lot then but the scene that stands out most in my mind is when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker go into the bar which is full of aliens and virtually every alien is different and speaks a different language. And nobody bats an eyelid. How’s that for diversity? How interesting, funny, engaging and downright entertaining that scene was. Now imagine what it would have been like if it had been full of characters from just one culture, the typical kind of character who featured in, say, a science fiction movie of the fifties or early sixties. You know the sort, where the men are all white and there’s a token female for the love interest and there to be rescued from the alien. Not half as interesting. And not one of those characters had story lines defining them. And yes, it was a feature film and not a continuing drama series but why should that matter?
Have we come very far along the road towards diversity? If we look back on say children’s books – I can’t remember any books from when I was growing up that had children from different ethnicities but then I can’t remember any books about kids from working class areas either. My favourite books as a child were fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm and the book that I will return to read over and over again, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You could say that when it came to diversity, Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time. Look at his characters, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and he even had a female as his protagonist. And when it comes to being completely inclusive, the Mad Hatter, who, after Shakespeare’s Richard III, must be one of the oldest disabled characters in history.
It was at a Commonword workshop on writing for children that I heard about the little boy and his picture. Commonword in Manchester champions diversity and encourages new writers. If you want to write for children, their annual competition is worth a look – http://www.cultureword.org.uk And if we want to achieve greater diversity in our writing, it’s up to us all to think outside the boxes that constrain us as well as the box ticking ones – that way we can be better writers and reach a wider audience.