Writing Right with Dmitri: Show your Work
Back when I was in school, our mathematics textbooks had a peculiarity: they gave the answers to the problems at the back of the book. But only the even-numbered ones. So our teacher would assign us the odd-numbered ones, darn it. And then he or she would say, 'Remember to show your work.'
Now, I soon understood that giving the answers to all the problems would have been counterproductive. We would have lacked incentive to try for the answers. And 'showing your work' was important. The point of mathematics lessons is to teach process, not answer-finding.
All too often, the human tendency is to skip the process and get 'the answer'. And once we have the answer, we stop trying to understand how we got there. We just take it for granted. When you teach, you discover that this tendency is one of the hardest nuts to crack when you're trying to get through to learners, from 5 to 75. Everybody memorises the answers 'at the back of the book'.
Which is one reason Einstein was so clever. When asked what he did for a hobby, the physicist replied that he went over old proofs in his mind. That way, the process stayed fresh.
How can we do this in writing? For one thing, we can stop thinking that the clichéd version of a story is the definitive one. We can stop taking the process of any action 'as read'. We can take our stories through the process, just as if we hadn't seen this a million times before. Let me show you an example.
The other night, I was watching an episode of the BBC series Torchwood entitled 'Captain Jack Harkness'. As fans will know, Captain Jack is a time traveller from the 51st Century, when humans have become more mature about their sexual attitudes. Jack is well-known for his romances with both human genders and any number of interesting aliens.
In this episode, Jack is temporarily trapped in 1941. He's in Cardiff, in a night club frequented by RAF aircrew. Jack has been trapped in this time before: in fact, he spent World War II fighting with the RAF under the assumed name of 'Jack Harkness' – a name he took from another officer who'd been killed.
The trick in this story comes when Jack actually meets the real Jack Harkness. Jack realises that this is the other man's last night on earth. Jack encourages the pilot to live for the moment – specifically, to make sure he spends this precious night with his girlfriend. Somewhat to Jack's shock, it turns out that Captain Harkness' desires run in a different direction.
What? It surprises someone from the 51st Century (or the 21st) that there were actually gay men in the RAF in 1941?
This is where it gets interesting. The story ends with Jack taking the bold move of dancing with Harkness in the night club. Their kiss, just before the time connection breaks, has become legendary in some audience quarters. But it was a brilliant writing move.
Look at what this story accomplishes:
- It takes a tired old romantic cliché about 'love against the backdrop of war' and turns it on its head.
- It renders a new interpretation of the song 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square'. Angels dancing at the Ritz, indeed1. The SOE agent/BBC writer who composed that song in 1939 might have been surprised.
- It contextualises gay romance in a way that invites understanding rather than sociological analysis. You do not have to be gay to find that scene touching, or to understand its significance.
- It sharpens audience perceptions by using a challenging science fiction plot to introduce the theme of relationships.
Did you find the kiss disturbing? If so, I recommend cognitive therapy. You'll need it to get along in the 21st Century. The young people are growing up tolerant, get over it. Did you find it moving? You should, because it is. In case you're curious, I did a bit of research. One of the actors involved in that kiss is gay, one isn't. Does that make a difference? Not really, other than what you're seeing is genuine acting. Respect for the craft, it's called.
As a writer, do you respect your craft enough to avoid the clichéd response? Are you willing to force yourself to honour the process, retrace the steps, and above all, show your work? If you do, who knows what you might find?
There might be angels dancing at the Ritz.