Guest Blog by David Allison - Yes, But what are you trying to say?

As a deeply immature, incredibly provincial teenager, I’d imagine myself as a ‘serious’ writer. It would involve me sitting in a café wearing a polo neck and smoking Gauloises, staring into middle distance wracked with ennui and occasionally scribbling furious thoughts, possessed by the need to say something important.

Happily, the smoking ban and a modicum of self-respect have stopped me from pursuing this image, though I do own a couple of quite nifty polo necks. And of course, as it turned out, writing was nothing like this. It was both more mundane and much, much harder work than my silly, pretentious teenage notions would have had me believe.

There is one thing I got right, though, was that part about saying something. We don’t like to admit it because, in all honesty, it sounds laughably pompous. But there are already so many words, so many stories out there. Why would any of us bother if we didn’t think we had something to say?

My first original TV series, Boy Meets Girl, premiered 1st May on ITV. It was an incredibly exciting moment and the culmination of many years’ sweat and anguish. Watching it go out live, I was trying to work out how it came about, why it worked when other ideas hadn’t, all that kind of stuff.

What dawned on me is that I think that, in many of the scripts I’ve had in development that never made the grade, I was trying too hard to ‘say something’, to hammer home a point of view. But the thing is, your beliefs, your values, the things that anger or amuse or disappoint you – they all come out in your writing anyway. For me, Boy Meets Girl isn’t really about a daft idea about a man and woman swapping bodies. It’s about the growing class divide. But that wasn’t necessarily what I set out to write – it’s just what it ended up being.

Boy Meets Girl was initially an exercise in developing an idea just to see what happened. I wanted to see if I could have a crack at a rather pat, Hollywood genre but write it in a way that wasn’t just a host of the usual clichés. I didn’t think about what I was trying to ‘say’, but once the characters of Danny and Veronica came to life, it became clear that this was going to be less about gender than class – because their status in life was at least as different as their sex. And I suppose that class is just something I’m interested in and it was therefore natural it would come to the fore when I was developing the idea.

If I’d sat down and started to think about trying to develop an idea about class divisions, you bet I’d have come up with something dry, boring and impossible to pitch to commissioning executives! So I guess what I’m saying is – don’t worry about what you’re trying to say. Worry about the ideas, worry about your characters. Make your ideas bold and brave. Ensure your characters are real, live people not a mere mouthpiece for your opinions. The rest will follow, because it’s being written by you, and only you believe what you believe; only you look at the world through your eyes. And only you can say what you want to say. That’s why you became a writer, right?

David Allison wrote and staged his first play in 1992. He started writing professionally for television in 1999. His first gig was on Hollyoaks where his finest achievement was undoubtedly creating a character called Bombhead. Boy Meets Girl is his first produced original drama. He is married with two children and lives in Leeds.


Administrator said...

First of all, David, my husband and i LOVE Boy Meets Girl - it's just what Friday night tv needed.

And i can so relate to those Gauloises preconceptions you had about writing!

My novels always tend to evolve from some initial idea of a theme, so it's interesting to me that you try not to do this and just see what happens, more of an organic process.

Fionnuala said...

It's interesting isn't it, this yearning to 'say something'. I've found as a writer that, yes, I know I want to do that but I rarely set out to do it from the beginning. For me it comes from the characters I draw. As soon as they start to speak and evolve, they ultimately end up revealing what it was I wanted to say. Sometimes they run off on their own tangents and they need reining back in or putting on the naughty step for a while!
Will tune into BMG tonight and thanks for a fab post.

Caroline Green said...

Haven;t seen BMG but it sounds brill and I will definitely check it out now. I think that's very true about finding your story first and allowing 'what you want to say' to filter through once everything is in place. Thanks for a great post.

Anne Brooke said...

I must say I really do love Boy Meets Girl - great stuff! Though I really don't think it's much about class at all ... For me, it's much more interesting for what it says about gender, and more importantly about relationships.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

David, that is brilliant advice. I often want to hammer home a 'message' in my writing. And when I do, it gets very pompous/dry/bombastic. I think it's good to let your 'theme'/what you want to say run underneath your writing like a constant stream you can fish from. If you see what I mean.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Fabulous post, David. I think I only started to get confident about my writing once I stuck to my "world view" - those beliefs and even misconceptions that will probably run in my veins till the day I die.

When I started out writing it took me a while to find a way of expressing my world view in a readable fashion and the stories I wrote didn't ring true. I think I was starting from the wrong end.

Watching "Boy Meets Girl" is a fine example of plot growing from character and not vice versa. I really hope this series leads to even bigger things!

David Allison said...

Hello all. Thanks for comments and glad some of you are enjoying BMG. I guess I'm not saying I deliberately avoid themes or meaning, but these days my starting points are always characters. And certainly with BMG, what emerged was the result of those two specific characters clashing with one another.

Fionnuala, I love the idea of a naughty step for characters! Does that also mean they get rewards for good behaviour?

Deb said...

Hi David,
First of all, congratulations on the success of BMG. I'm a big fan. I just wondered; when you wrote the series, in your mind did the characters look anything like the brilliant Martin Freeman and Rachael Stirling?

Administrator said...

I have to say, David, it was hard - yet hilarious - to watch when *Veronica* finally slept with her partner. She is a wonderful actress (Diana Rigg's daughter, i believe).

I have to say for me, more often than not, it's theme that comes before characters when i'm starting a novel. Maybe this is where i'm going wrong...!

Fionnuala said...

David, my naughty step gets very busy in the early stages of a novel! Generally though, the longer I know the characters the less they misbehave, and yes I reward them (using myself as the tool obviously) with regular glasses of crisp NZ sauvignon.

David Allison said...

Deb - funnily enough, Martin and Rachael were uncannily as I'd imagined them. Danny's described in the script as 'shifty and intense' and Veronica 'poised and womanly', so they fitted them perfectly. Everyone knows Martin of course, but Rachael is incredible and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves. Without a performance of that magnitude, we'd have been in serious trouble.

Samantha - you know what, every heterosexual man who came across that scene winced. There was a discussion early on at the channel if it was a bit much. Personally, I think it might be my favourite scene!

Fionnuala. My extensive research into drinking wine while writing has thrown up the following conclusion - up to 2 glasses fine, after then SERIOUS deterioration in quality!

Fionnuala said...

Ah, I only ever reward my characters when the laptop's been put to bed for the evening. A couple of glasses of wine and they feel better in the next room -it happens by osmosis you know?!

Administrator said...

Yeah, when i realized what was happening, David, my first thought was Gawd, surely not?

But, actually, i did watch through one open eye and chuckled. Then the first thing i said to my husband - who was yelling in horror - was that clearly, because of this, Veronica's partner would never find out what happened. That really would be too much:)

Gillian McDade said...

Interesting to read, David - many thanks. I'll definitely check out Boy Meets Girl.

Derek Thompson said...

David, congratulations on your recent success and thanks for the thought-provoking blog. I think sometimes the right characters say things we haven't even thought of or didn't know we wanted to say at all!

When do you feel you crossed the line from aspiring to professional writer and what brought that about for you?

David Allison said...

Hi Derek,
The honest truth is that I probably didn't see myself as professional until it became my main income. I used to work as a waiter and everyone in the restaurant was a wannabe writer, artist or actor. But I always felt like a fraud telling customers I was a writer, because, as they could plainly see, I was in fact serving them pizza and tiramisu.

In the end, though, what got me a writing job on a TV series was the work I'd been toiling away on when I'd been serving tables. I sent two plays to Hollyoaks, and badgered them for about a year, and eventually got offered a chance to write a spec episode. And that's how I got a foot in the door.

There is a peculiar and complex relationship between money and creativity and I think we'd all like to believe that if you call yourself a writer and you write, then you are one. But there is something about being rewarded financially for your efforts that gives you a status and I was surprised by how different and how satisfying it felt to be paid to write.

That still happens now. I have a play that I've been working on for a year or two, but because it's not a paid job with a strict deadline, the poor thing always falls to the bottom of the pile. I'm actually desperate to write the damn thing, but 'work' i.e. paid work always seems to get in the way. I suppose if I want to do it that badly, it'll happen. But there's nothing like the incentive of a contract, a deadline and a cheque to focus the mind...

Deb said...

This is so true, David. My 'proper' job is as a freelance journalist and non-fic author and I still get a huge buzz knowing that someone wants to pay me for something I've written. However, I also have three part-written novels on the go which always seem to get put on hold because there is no deal or deadline for them at the moment. Maybe if I could work out how to clone myself I would have the time to do it all!

SallyR said...

Cracking final episode last night. Great script and really strong acting. We need more dramas of this quality.

David, I'm really interested to know how long the project took you - from first draft to production. Oh - and how many drafts??

I've recorded it all so will be watching again. Wishing you well as you move onwards and upwards - I'll be keeping an eye out for your name.