Writing Right with Dmitri: Broad-Spectrum Writing
For the last several weeks, I've been discovering a gem of a television series I'd never seen before. Oh, I'd heard of it, but it ran in the days when I was far too busy to watch television. I'm still too busy to watch television, but I can manage Netflix, with its 'no commercials, and watch when you like' approach. The series I'm watching is called NYPD Blue, and it's a police procedural. At least, on the surface.
Underneath the surface, of course, the series is a free-range probe into Life, the Universe, and Everything. Themes emerge: the struggle of families to love and nurture one another, the legacy of hurt that gets passed from parent to child, the human condition as mirrored in the stories of old people and young children, and, most surprisingly, the search for God in modern life. The series won a lot of awards, both for the writers and the actors, and they deserved every one of them. Some critics have called the episode involving the hospital death of Bobby Simone, one of the detectives, the best hour of television in history. I concur.
I shouldn't have been so surprised. The series was created and run by Steven Bochco, a native New Yorker who got his education at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), which is renowned for producing great theatre and film people. Bochco and his co-creator, the insanely talented writer David Milch, sustained a twelve-season journey into what it means to be human. I don't care for cop shows, as a rule, but I am in love with their dialogue.
Sylvia: I was just seeing Abruzzo. Is that the new detective?
Andy: [nods] Simone, what kind of name is that?
Sylvia: First or last?
Andy: If it was his first, he'd be a girl.
Sylvia: Last name... Simone, sounds French to me.
Andy: Yeah, maybe.
Bobby: [into a phone] Hey, I went through a lot of trouble getting that red cock. I don't want to argue with you! You tell Billy that he can't come around my place anymore with his blue-barred cock! Okay... thanks.
[Simone hangs up and sees everyone in the station looking at him]
Bobby: I breed birds. Racing pigeons.
Sylvia: [to Sipowicz] Tell him you keep fish.
This show has its own language: a sort of updated Damon Runyonese. It's witty. It's down-to-earth. Sometimes, it's heart-breaking. It's also honest in the way great art is honest. The church people never found out how Christian it was. They were too busy boycotting it because of the nudity.
The nudity is rather a wonderful joke. While some of the actors with brief nude scenes were naturally attractive, others weren't. A shower scene involving middle-aged, bald Dennis Franz is not likely to be mistaken for pornography except by the terminally clueless.
So where am I going with this, other than to tout my latest entertainment discovery which, as usual, is decades out of date? I'd like us to consider what we're writing about, no matter what kind of story we're writing. I'd like us to consider how we could broaden our spectrum when it comes to our fiction.
Most of you within the sound of my virtual voice have a favourite subject. You may not realise it, but you do. You may write, more or less consistently, about middle-class family life. Or about fantasy/adventure. Or about the supernatural, or ageing, or politics, or whatever. That's fine: write what you know, and what you're passionate about. Sometimes – let's face it, often – you become frustrated around here because not everybody's interested in what you're writing about. Think about it: maybe the subject you choose to write about isn't the one they're most interested in. But also think: if I wrote about this subject, but went deeper, it might speak to more people. That's what I mean by broadening the spectrum.
I've been talking about NYPD Blue, and you probably weren't interested. After all, it's a cop show. A US cop show. About New York City. You don't live there, why should you care?
What if I told you that this show, 20 years ago, introduced one of the first openly gay characters on regular television? That the character is depicted as accepted at his workplace? That this was a big deal at the time? Would you be more interested?
What about the fact that women in this show are strong characters who feature largely in the action, both professionally and personally? That the characters in the show have personal issues with alcohol and substance abuse, family problems, health issues? There's something in this story for everyone, including the linguistically challenged.
Where's the super from?
It turns out 'Addis Ababa' wasn't his name.
What can we do to deepen our writing? Include more varied interests and backgrounds in our characters? Make sure the characters have mundane concerns in addition to the big-ticket items in our plots? Take the time to examine emotional states more closely? There's a lot that can be worked on here.
How do we learn these things? Not by reading a 'how-to' book. Certainly not by reading yet another interview with some famous author. They're as embarrassed by those questions as we are by their facile answers. No, the best way to figure out how to supply the missing qualities in our stories is by reading the kind of fiction we want to write. By 'reading', I also mean 'watching', if what you're interested in improving is plot subtlety and strong dialogue. The better your taste in fiction, the better your models will be. Go watch a really good writer at work. Learn a few tricks. Practise them at home. You'll soon find your own voice in there.
Katie Sipowicz: I heard something in your voice, Andy, when you called me.
Andy: I guess what you heard didn't include the words coming out of my mouth.
Katie Sipowicz: I heard something and I checked my intuition, afterwards by prayer.
Andy: Katie, this has gotta stop. After God tells you what to do, if I'm involved in the message, you check back with me.