Tuesday, 24 February 2015

What Broadchurch Can Teach Us About Story Telling (**Spoiler Alert**)


(If you don’t want mild spoilers for Series 2 of Broadchurch, don’t read ahead)


Series 2 of Broadchurch came to an end last night. As I didn’t watch it then, I spent all morning avoiding Social Network in case it was spoiled for me (hence my warning to others above). I think it might have been hard to spoil it really, because the ending was so complex it could not really be condensed into a click-bait headline.

It’s been a patchy series, and I think most of us agree it didn’t have the bite of Series 1. On the other hand, I could not stop watching, thanks to compelling performances by David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, and their polar opposites, the toxic couple, Claire and Lee played by Eve Myles and James D’arcy (who, along with his vest and fence mending skills, is definitely going in one of my novels as a hero one day).

Whilst I haven’t always agreed with some of the more obvious gimmicks of Series 2, it has taught me how one might play around with story-telling and, if the viewing figures are anything to go by, get away with it. It’s also taught me a bit about what not to do. I’m sure you have your own ideas, but this is what I’ve learned:

You don’t always have to do things ‘by the book’

By this I mean that even if you know how a court case is supposed to proceed, it doesn’t really hurt if you play with that a bit for the sake of drama. I’m sure in real life people blurt things out in court cases that they should not, and witnesses don’t always turn out to be perfectly behaved. That’s one of the reasons court cases fall through in real life, or someone who should have been guilty gets off – or vice versa. I’m reminded of a teenage girl who had to give evidence during a real life court case (I think it was the case of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence), who ended her testimony by asking (I’m paraphrasing) ‘Do I get my reward money now?’ It begged the question of whether her evidence was what she thought they wanted to hear, rather than the truth, because she all she could see was the money she’d get.

The lies characters tell don’t always have to make sense to the story

Usually in a murder mystery, the actions of the innocent are linked in some way to the murder, so that they’re afraid of being implicated in the crime. Maybe they happened upon the body then ran away, afraid. Or they lie because the truth will make them look bad (for example, Mark Latimer having an affair). There was a good deal of that in this series, but there were also some lies that didn’t make sense to the story yet added to the drama. I’m thinking of Susan Wright (played brilliantly by Pauline Quirke), who was determined that, Nige, the son she gave birth to was cut from the same cloth as her murderous, paedophile husband and therefore she was determined to implicate him. That had nothing to do with how or why Danny died, but everything to do with her not being able to let go of the past. Her lies (or mistaken belief) added well to the drama, helping to put doubt into the viewer’s mind. Similarly Mark spending time with Tom in Susan’s caravan was made out to be sinister, yet it wasn’t.  He was just trying to reach out to his dead son through Danny’s best friend.

I used to work in the Citizens Advice Bureau and before that as an employment advisor in a law centre. I was often shocked to find that the people I advised lied to me about the most stupid things, in order to cast themselves in a better light. And this was even if they had a solid case. It was a matter, I think, of over-egging the pudding. Susan, and others, over-egged the pudding because they were determined to see justice done in the way they deemed fit.

The story doesn’t always have to make sense

There’s a saying that real life doesn’t have to make sense, but fiction does. Well the writers certainly played around with that idea in series 2 of Broadchurch. A lot of things happened that didn’t make sense, and the viewers did moan about it. But on the whole, few of us could stop watching as we really wanted to know what happened. So whilst your story might need a satisfying ending, the road there doesn’t necessarily have to make sense (though don’t go too mad on the side roads or you’ll lose your readers).

It’s good to have lots of suspects

This was something Agatha Christie knew, hence the plethora of suspects in her stories. It helped to keep the reader guessing. Broadchurch had so many suspects, that at one time I even suspected Hardy (of Pippa and Lisa’s death) and Ellie Miller (of Danny’s death) because I’d run out of other characters to suspect (this was after I’d discounted Claire and Lee for being too obvious).

It doesn’t do to pinpoint your main suspects too soon

I think one of the main problems of Broadchurch is that Claire was too quickly revealed to be completely toxic. Whilst she and Lee might not have turned out to be the Fred and Rose West of Sandbrook (though the jury is still out on Claire), they were involved in the murders. I think that if they’d let Claire seem vulnerable and afraid of Lee for a bit longer (letting her have sex with him so soon into the series was a bit revealing of their relationship – though if James D’arcy turned up at my house – and with chips – I’m not sure I could resist), we might have suspected her, but it wouldn’t have been so obvious that she knew what happened to the girls. You could argue that she was so obviously a suspect that she must turn out to be innocent, but I don’t think it quite worked that way.

It doesn’t hurt to have characters whose story isn’t necessarily related to the main story

I’m thinking of the two barristers. Yes their rivalry impacted on the court case, but there were parts of their story that had nothing to do with the case. For example, Jocelyn’s eye problems, and Sharon’s problems with her son, along with whatever had happened with those two before. Normally in crime shows involving courtroom scenes as an aside, we know very little of those prosecuting and defending (I’m talking traditional crime stories and not series based around courtrooms like Silks). It added a richness to the story, though some might argue that it was just filler to get through the eight weeks. Still, by the end, I found myself intrigued by both women and I’ve got a funny feeling that between them, they’re going to bring Broadchurch to its knees as the real truth behind Danny’s death is revealed not just to involve Joe but others. Because I think that’s where the Sandbrook case is leading. As there was more to that than they originally believed, then there’s probably more to Danny’s death than we know yet.

The ending doesn’t have to be tied up in a neat bow

Normally in crime stories, the ending is neat and tidy. The bad guy/girl is caught, immediately confesses and is then locked up. We may not see the court case, but we know it’s going to happen. The innocent are rewarded in some way, and justice is seen to be done. This is satisfying for readers/viewers.

That might be how it appeared in series 1 of Broadchurch, but series 2 blew that out of the water. It went much deeper, into the anguish of a court case on a family who has already lost so much, and I include both the Latimers and the Millers in that. It showed that it isn’t over when the killer confesses all, and also that a confession does not necessarily lead to a conviction.

There were a lot of questions left unanswered in the end of series 2 (no doubt to be answered in series 3), but the ending was satisfying anyway. Because at the end, the townspeople faced Joe Miller and made it clear that the verdict of the court meant nothing to them (and for that I’m adding Arthur Darvill to my list, along with James D’arcy).

It’s okay to play with storytelling

There may be some things that have made me groan in series 2 of Broadchurch. Some things I’ve loved. The acting cannot be faulted in any way, and the ensemble cast played a blinder.  What it did teach me is that it’s okay to play with storytelling a bit. As long as the story is still enjoyable, and compelling, you can get away with it. Not everyone enjoyed this series, and I was on the fence for some of it, until what I thought was a brilliant last episode that made up for much of what went before.

I’ve learned so much about what I want to do with my writing, and what I never want to do, from watching Broadchurch series 2, that I can’t help but raise a glass and say ‘Thanks, Chris Chibnall, for making me think about what works and what doesn’t.

7 comments:

  1. The only issue I had with the ending was that Joe was a paedophile and was being sent off to potentially abuse a child somewhere else. This kind of thing messes with my head a little,maybe I think too much! I would have prefered a clean ending such as him killing himself.

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    1. I honestly thought that's what he would do. But I still think he's covering for someone else (Tom maybe?) and he believes, in some ridiculous way, that he can be exonerated without implicating the real culprit.

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  2. Yu make some good points. I've been an avid watcher of both series.

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    1. I have to say that I think the series survived because of excellent actors, who believed in what they were doing. It might be harder to pull off in print, where the reader fills in many of the gaps left by the visuals. If that makes sense.

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  3. I've not seen it - and if it doesn't always make sense and some of the action is stuff you know would be unlikely to happen for real then I think I mafe the right choice in doing something else instead.

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    1. It's hard to explain, Patsy, but somehow it kept you watching. I think the excellent acting had a lot to do with it. Along with really wanting to know what the outcome was.

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