13 Hour Drama


Kevin Spacey has suggested we might be seeing the production of 13-hour dramas, due to the change in viewing habits:


We ‘gorge’ on series these days, for all that the BBC reported today that most people still sit down in front of the telly and watch what’s on right now.  I was chatting to one of my clients this week, who said he felt his brain would have exploded if he couldn’t watch Breaking Bad as back-to-back episodes.

Right now, writers have to put in cliff-hangers at precise moments – just before the commercial break – to hook viewers into staying with the programme.  It’s noticeable when the plot beats come too slowly (filling time) or a twist seems manufactured.  A bit like a body wearing a wrongly-shaped corset.

This way, the story can be paced in a much more organic way – and even take the time it needs, whether it’s an hour and five minutes, or 13 hours.

But a story still needs to keep the viewer’s attention. The Victorians feared that – without a corset – a woman’s vital organs would slosh about dangerously.  In storytelling terms, we don’t want 13 hours of formless tale.  Our forebears knew it – Homer kept us going in The Odyssey. Cliff-hangers and reversals are a couple of standard devices for this, as are changes in tone or genre.

As Chris Fowler puts it, a story is like a pudding and, every little while, there should be a nice plum.  I’m looking forward to 13 hours of these storytelling rewards.



I’ve just finished writing an appreciation for the Boucheron programme guide about Anne Perry, who’s International Guest of Honour there next month.  I don’t know whether it’s the heat in London that’s so exhausting, or the effort of coming up with 1600 words.

Describing a 30-year writing career is hard.  Partly it’s the agent’s paradox: the client comes first, so everything we say or do has to be about them, when it’s usually easier to talk about yourself.  Partly it’s repressing the things I think are interesting about Anne’s career – things that wouldn’t be an asset in a programme book.

I started researching in parallel with Anne, so I could be useful to her.  The more you know about a time or event, the more interesting things you can find to say about it.  If we hadn’t gone to the museum of Paris, we wouldn’t have seen hastily-made Revolutionary dishes – which resulted in a heartbreaking scene in The One Thing More.  This was the point where, after a childhood of resisting History, even though it was taught by the wonderful Miss Lanthier, I realised painfully that history is interesting.

Another low point in my own career with Anne has been the travel.  I loathe travel, although I do it a lot.  I ought to be grateful to have seen the golden light of the Bosphoros, and the WWI trenches that survive at Ypres, but I’m An Idiot Abroad. 

The great thing is that working with Anne has been my education as an agent.  I’ve learned (sometimes, unfortunately, by making big mistakes at Anne’s expense) a lot about editing effectively and sensitively.  A big part of it is how to be encouraging (although Anne now sees through me when I say ‘You’ve given yourself a great opportunity to do X’ when this could also be expressed as ‘You idiot!  You forgot to do X!’)  A lot about how to give good news (use the phone, let the happiness in your voice ring out, celebrate with the client) and how to give bad news (use the phone, tell it straight, figure out beforehand what to do about it so you can discuss with the client how to make things better).

Mutual forbearance over a long working partnership is also important.  Anne has no flaws, but she tolerates my tendency to tell the big news last, my inability to remember numbers accurately, and my liking for drawing a skull and crossbones on her manuscript if I find she’s lapsed into a neologism.

Whew, it’s still hot.  I’m going to go and soak my feet in a nice cool thriller.