Writing Right with Dmitri: Droning On and On
The other night, we had fun watching the BBC miniseries version of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. By 'fun', I mean that it was so dreadful, we enjoyed making mock as we watched it.
'I never managed to read that book,' complained Elektra. 'It was so boring.' I'd never even tried. I did a bit of research and found that it was considered 'the first English detective story', not like that trash by Edgar Allen Poe. Yep, I thought as the plot unraveled. It certainly has it all, does The Moonstone: snobbery, violence, a house (Thornton Watlass Hall in North Yorkshire), colonialism, a lost McGuffin, etc. The McGuffin was your standard-issue glass paperweight, I noticed. I was very pleased that the Indians managed to reinstall it in the statue of Vishnu at the end. That's where all good McGuffin-paperweights belong.
The production was well-made and the acting spot-on. By the end of the first episode, you truly despised all of these people. By the end of the second episode, you wondered how they managed to survive. They were that clueless.
Somewhere in the last episode, I stopped the film and laughed. I'd wondered why these period-perfect houses had suspiciously-located framed miniatures next to the doorframes. Aha! I thought. They're covering the light switches! I pointed this out to Elektra as a clever dodge by the prop department. Good to know when using a bed-and-breakfast for your historical setting.
I also appreciated the bravery of the actresses in dealing with those mid-19th-century hairdos. They never made anybody look good, not even Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Kudos to the heroine for coping with those sidecurls.
Now to the writing, which is the point. After a couple of episodes, I stopped to do some looking up. Yep, I guessed right: this monster was a serial. You could tell: clue, follow-up, dead end, exciting event. Next week: another clue, turns out to be a red herring again, another 'thrilling' scene. Lather, rinse, repeat.
What was good about the story was the use of multiple points of view. 'This is turning into Rashomon,' I observed. Aha! It was an epistolary novel. That means it was written in the form of letters. Not emails, unfortunately, which would have been pithier and saved us all a lot of headache. I'm sure someone has already written the first Twitter novel, but I'd encourage you to try your hand at this new genre whose time has obviously come. Anything would be better than The Moonstone.
I'm not joking: as a deadpan comedy, this miniseries was highly entertaining – but only because, as with Mrs Christie's outpourings, we didn't care what happened, who got bumped off by whom, or whether they ever found the blasted McGuffin or not. Mostly, we just giggled at the period acting and kept a sharp eye out for scene-stealing horses. The horses in BBC period dramas always steal the scenes. They're the prettiest things in the frame, and they know it.
Dramas like The Moonstone serve a number of important functions:
- They keep British actors gainfully employed.
- They help schoolkids with their homework.
- They boost National Trust support by featuring their buildings.
- They give the general public a glimpse into past ways of life, and make them appreciate their modern conveniences.
- They keep people from trying to read the likes of Wilkie Collins.
Watching these series can also be good brain exercise for writers who themselves are interested in period pieces, but dread 'all that research'. For one thing, you can see how the professionals do it. Notice all the paper, memoranda, letters, etc, in this series? See what's different about them. Now go googling to see how the mail worked in 1849, and you're ready to go. Ditto for the clothes, hairstyles, types of vehicle, and so on. There's a big plot point about nightgowns. If, like most of the audience, you didn't realise men wore nightgowns, too, you'd be in for a bigger surprise with the next plot reveal.
Another form of writer brain research with these series is to learn to listen critically to dialogue. I am fairly sure that the concept of 'framing' someone for a crime using false evidence is an old idea, but I'm also fairly sure that the terminology dates from the 20th Century, and a search of The Moonstone online, courtesy of Gutenberg.org, yields no such usage. Worse, much worse, was the introduction of the word 'subconscious' into a story written decades before Freud. Indeed, Collins writes of 'consciousness' and of 'unconsciously' doing something. That should have been enough. Don't confuse the audience, please. They'll be so busy thinking, 'What the – ?' that they'll miss the fun of the guy groping around in the dark in his nightgown. They might also miss the unintentional humour of the anti-smoking and anti-drug message. (Yes, I checked. Wilkie Collins had a substance abuse problem. What's it to you?)
About prose style: This is not how to build up reader interest, friends:
How the interval of suspense in which I was now condemned might have affected other men in my position, I cannot pretend to say. The influence of the two hours’ probation upon my temperament was simply this. I felt physically incapable of remaining still in any one place, and morally incapable of speaking to any one human being, until I had first heard all that Ezra Jennings had to say to me.
Gag me with a spoon, as we said about 30 years ago. Do not do this. Fines should be levied.
Anyway, on a winter evening, even if you think you're too tired to work on your writing, you can benefit from a little tv watching. Especially the BBC. Those historical dramas are pure gold, no matter how bad they are. Just take notes, mental or scribbled. Do the research during snack-fixing breaks. Just don't drive everyone else nuts by pointing out all the holes in the drama. Nobody likes a smart aleck1.