Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.
But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser. I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.
If you read crime novels, why do you love them?
Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.
So what’s interesting and why?
Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation. Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.
Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.
The reader/listener as helpless friend
Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?
Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?
And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.
Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap
But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?
Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?
Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?
Not only that.
Because I know what they don’t know: the background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.
A practical lesson in writing
The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.
The impact of characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…
May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!
It is also a warning
This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.
Celebrate books and reading:
It will soon be time for the second Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting