Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Stating the bleedin' obvious, and how to avoid it

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I gave up broadcast TV at the end of last year because I decided I loathed funding the BBC more than I liked TV shows, so I invested in Prime, Netflix, and catch-up TV. courtesy of a Fire Stick. The unexpected consequence has been that I’ve lost interest in most programmes, I rarely switch on the telly at all, and I have to remind myself to keep up with the few series (mostly cop shows) that I used to regard as unmissable.

Inevitably, it’s made me even more nitpicky (yes, it’s possible, I was only 95% tedious pedant before) about screenplays. Things that used to get on my nerves now drive me to full-blown frothing. But there are lessons to be learned from that are as useful for novelists as they are for TV writers.

This week I settled down to catch up with a British detective series I normally enjoy. But you know how it is: something that doesn’t fit reality jerks you out of the story. It doesn’t have to be anything major, either. The bar for police procedurals is set high because there are any number of experts and retired officers available to production companies to advise on the law and how police officers operate.

This time it was the way the show handled exposition that made me roll my eyes. In every story, in any medium, the writer has to tell the audience something that the characters probably wouldn’t discuss among themselves because it’s such an obvious part of their job. It can be done well or badly. At its worst, it’s CSI, where alleged scientists tell each other bleedin’ obvious technical stuff that they’d all have to know to get the job in the first place. At its least annoying, it’s the stuff that stops you in your tracks a couple of scenes later and makes you think, “Hang on a minute...”

In the show I was watching, the information to be imparted to the audience was a drug connection. A body had been found with a quantity of heroin. Two detectives – one very senior and nearing retirement, the other junior but still pretty experienced – had this conversation, which I’ll paraphrase.

Senior detective: “What’s that on the wrapper?”
Junior detective: “It’s a dealer’s mark so that customers know it’s good stuff.”

The script was asking us to believe that a veteran cop, a senior detective with decades of service, didn’t know that drugs are often marked by dealers or labs. It was sloppy writing. It was perfectly possible to impart that information to the viewer without asking us to believe a senior officer wouldn’t know the basics. It could have gone something like this:

Senior detective: “There’s a dealer’s mark on it. He must be confident it’s good stuff. Have you seen this one before?”
Junior detective, studying packet: “No, it’s a new one on me, Boss. I’ll have to run it past the drug squad.”

It took two lines, just like the original. It didn’t lose any of the drama. It didn’t cost any more in production terms. It just required awareness of the job and what the person doing it would know.

As an example of how to get forensics information into a script in a natural way, check out an excellent cold case series called Unforgotten. It uses the device of the knowledgeable person giving information to someone not expected to know it, in this case the scientist explaining the latest techniique for recovering evdience so that the officers know the chances of getting anything useful out of a forty-year-old wallet. Okay, it required a sequence with an additonal cast member, albeit one who played a significant role in the series because it was forensics-heavy, but verisimilitude needs to be built into any work from the foundations.

It all comes down to one thing. What does your character know? What should they know? Write with that in mind, and pedantic viewers (or readers) like me will thank you for it.