Jumping the shark is a funny phrase. Ostensibly it refers to the tipping point in the life cycle of any ongoing series where it goes from quality to terrible. It’s like the moment milk turns bad or meat goes off; something has been left too long and is now past the point of no return. I agree with all of that, but to add my two cents, I actually think jumping the shark refers to something a little deeper and sadder than that. To me, the moment a story jumps the shark is the moment you lose faith in the storyteller.
I’ve been re-watching a lot of Scrubs lately, as I usually like to chuck on something that doesn’t require thought over breakfast. I’ve been jumping pretty erratically between seasons and it’s striking how clearly this illustrates a decline in quality; early episodes are clever, well written and occasionally raw and wrenching. Later episodes are overblown cartoons that swing for the fences in every joke and more often than not miss the mark significantly. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between what I love about the show and what its detractors hate. The DNA of what Scrubs became may have been present from the beginning, but in the early days the balancing act was a lot defter. At a certain point the writing just got sloppy.
Season one features an episode where all the characters talk to a shrink while a microscope is put over JD and Elliot’s brief relationship, jumping back and forwards in time. It’s barely funny, but it rings true and feels, at times, uncomfortable for just that reason. Moments and episodes like this abound early on. Season five features an episode where the main concept is that every joke is one we’ve already heard. Season six goes a step further with a risible clip show episode. It also features a fantasy sequence where Turk holds in a fart so long he flies.
The thing about stories is that they need to end, because eventually the ideas and characters just don’t have much left to them. The reason the Scrubs characters became cartoons is because the early years were so packed with development and real emotion that eventually, there just wasn’t anywhere new to take them and so they stagnated. Likewise Dexter, which was a top tier TV show, give or take a couple of hiccups, until a creative nosedive in season six that it never recovered from because the show had just run out of anything new to say and would not be allowed to die due to its success. And hey, if one writer washes their hands of a TV show that they’re done with, you can always hire another, right?
But what about in the case of a series with only one creator? Recently I’ve started re-reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, one of my all-time favourites. The early Tomorrow books are still brilliant for all the right reasons. The characters are vivid and feel real. The action is pulse pounding, the themes are haunting, the twists shocking and the writing excellent. By the time we reach the ninth book, however, we’re treated to interminable scenes of cattle farming and a moment where the protagonist climbs to the bottom of a cliff and up again with a kid hanging from her back, using her bare hands.
This is different because, in theory, John Marsden could have stopped writing Tomorrow books whenever he wanted. He had a bunch of other bestsellers to his name and could comfortably assume that any new book he released would do well. It’s not like he needed the money or anybody was forcing him to continue. So why did he keep going? And in the end, what did that mean for the legacy of his series?
In my own pretty humble experience, it can be hard to let go of a character that means a lot to you. You tend to only write a story because it’s important to you and if you stumble on one of those special characters, you find yourself looking for any excuse to spend more time with them, even if ultimately that is to their detriment.
When I was fifteen I wrote a story about a kid called Chris Hawkins, a thinly veiled analogue of myself grappling with extremely dramatized versions of retrospectively mild situations I’d been in. Maybe by merit of being the first thing I’d written that really came from a personal place, I kept writing about Chris, encouraged by friends who seemed to like the stories, until there were about eight different novellas of increasing ridiculousness. In one Chris became a drug dealer. In another he fought his evil alter ego in a strange dreamscape while in a coma after being thrown in front of a speeding car. Eventually, I ran out of anything real to say about him but, not wanting to let go, I continued until the stories descended into absurdity and everybody stopped caring.
I wouldn’t presume to say this was what happened with John Marsden; the guy is a better writer than I will ever be and has affected more lives with his work than I could dream of, but it’s inarguable that there was a clear point at which the Tomorrow books and their sequel series The Ellie Chronicles stopped being essential or special and just kept going past the point where anybody really cared. And once you’ve lost that investment, it’s very hard to get it back.
The creative nadir of Marsden’s series was Incurable, the aforementioned ninth book. When the tenth (and final) book came out I thought it was a comparative return to form, but the damage had been done. I just didn’t feel the same way about Ellie and her friends. I didn’t care where they ended up. Likewise when Dexter had a brief resurgence of creative energy in season seven; it was nice to enjoy Dexter again, but it was no longer my Dexter. The feeling of betrayal that came from the shark jumping was, in the end, too much. The story was just too tainted.
Scrubs, for my money, won back a lot of goodwill in its eighth and final season (the garbage spin off marketed as season nine does not and will never count), partly because it was clearly moving towards a definitive end and did all the things the final season of a well-loved sitcom should. Season eight had great moments and a pitch perfect finale, but if you put any of those episodes against one from the early years the comparison is not flattering. Scrubs was forgivable not because it returned to early heights, but rather because it knew it was time to end, it knew people cared and so it did what it could to make its last run at least decent. In the end, that effort was enough for me to remember Scrubs far more fondly than I do Dexter.
Shark jumping comes in many forms. In Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones it was a slow process, an incremental decline in quality until the point where you realise that you’re just not enjoying yourself anymore. In other cases it’s instantaneous, one bad episode or book enough to destroy a series. But in almost all cases, the turned milk analogy is apt; once it’s off, it’s off.
Can you regain trust? Yeah, but it’s hard, and even if achieved a legacy is almost always tarnished. Breaking Bad and Mad Men don’t have any unfortunate asterisks hanging over them because they ended at the right point and were never less than excellent. Star Wars or X-Men might still have a great movie here and there, but nobody will ever again tell you that every instalment is an essential masterpiece. Basically, trust is hard to win and harder to get back, which means that nine times out of ten it’s better to quit while you’re ahead and leave people wanting more, because even a late in the day return to form is scarcely enough to regain what was lost, and even if it does things can never be the same.
And for the record, I did eventually revisit Chris Hawkins in a new play that I think is my best yet, so I guess you can’t really quantify these things. But it’s definitely easier if you don’t have the pressure of a multi-million strong fanbase being disappointed in you.
I love Boone Shepard. Of all my characters, he’s the one I most enjoy returning to because it always feels a little like coming home. Boone, unlike the vast majority of other protagonists I’ve written, is also a good person and an outright hero which, y’know, makes him a bit more palatable to revisit than some of the murderers, manipulators or worse who head up other stories.
The other great thing about Boone is that his stories are almost endlessly flexible. He travels the world and occasionally through time in pursuit of adventure, and this means that any time I settle in to write a new Boone yarn I can go just about anywhere. There also an inherent tonal elasticity built into the fabric of the series; the first novel, after all, goes from a vastly improbable fight on a train to relentless jokes about manatees to an overall plot about oppression and human experimentation. American Adventure features a scene where Elvis Presley appears speaking only in quotes from Elvis songs, most of the third act takes place aboard a literal flying casino, but at its heart it’s about what being a good person really means. Boone Shepard, to me, is able to be both meaningful and absurd (and scarcely anything in between), and so it stands to reason that different stories about him will lean more towards either extreme.
Boone’s adventures fall into a few categories. There are the three novels, which comprise the most consequential events and adventures in his life, there are the ongoing short stories, most of which take place in the months before the first novel and are, by and large, fun little jaunts. And as of yesterday there’s a new category that I’m not yet sure how to define.
I’ve been careful not to be too specific with Boone’s backstory prior to the first novel. The reason for this is that I like having big gaps in his life in which anything could have happened; the only rock solid canon for him is what you see in the books. I’ve never, for example, stated what countries Boone has been to or which famous figures he’s met or what kind of monsters he’s been up against. This flexibility leaves so much territory to be explored and very few moments where anything can be contradicted. That said, I’ve got a reasonable grasp on the timelines and various key events of his life, but there is period I’ve never given that much focus; that period being the time right after Marbier died. For those who have read the first novel, it’s the time immediately following the extended flashback sequence in the middle of the book.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I like Boone’s short adventures to be fun, and two is that, as this was a period of confusion and pain for him, we would be dealing with a Boone Shepard who is not fully formed and potentially a little unstable. Dramatically fertile territory, sure, but not the kind of thing a kid can read and enjoy.
But when a story comes it comes and the other day, listening to the song “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” by Dave Rawlings Machine, I had the beginnings of an idea, a melancholic tale about an aging gunslinger facing his last stand. It’s similar territory to Below Babylon, but that play never really worked on the level I wanted it to work, and furthermore I had much clearer ideas for this new one. And beyond even that, it took about five minutes from conception of the idea to realise that it was a Boone Shepard story.
When I realised how dark it was going to go I toyed with swapping Boone for a new character, but the more it developed the more I realised only he made sense. The play, weirdly, isn’t about him; the main character is very much Emery Quinn, the gunslinger, but a Boone Shepard nearing the tail end of his darkest hour was the foil Emery’s story needed.
And so I got to work and what I ended up with was something I’m not sure how to feel about. Boone Shepard and the Last Gunslinger is not a children’s story. I mean, there’s nothing overtly inappropriate in it, but it’s got a far bleaker tone than any of Boone’s other adventures and spends a lot of time exploring the kinds of themes that kids would probably find super dull. And that’s not even touching on where it takes Boone’s character, to a place that even I’m a little torn about.
But those concerns kind of dissipate in the face of how much I enjoyed writing it, or how proud I am of it. Whether it gets produced and whether said production paves the way for more Boone stage shows, some of which go to similar dark places, remains to be seen. I personally think it fits the Booniverse, but anybody who mainly enjoys the swashbuckling adventure parts of Boone’s stories probably isn’t going to get much out of this particular tale.
If nothing else it consolidates what I love about writing Boone Shepard; it’s hard to get bored of a character who in one story can muse on existentialism while trying to stop an old gunslinger committing one last murder, and in the next ride away from a gang of crossbow wielding skiers on the back of a moose.
Thinking about it earlier today, I’ve come to realise that a huge amount of my work either has a twist or at least a shock ending (the two are different, bear with me). Working backwards, Stars, Khancoban, The Commune, Heroes, Sunburnt Country, The Critic, Regression, The Lucas Conundrum, We Can Work It Out, The Last Supper, Windmills and Beyond Babylon all had something that could fairly be considered a twist. The only recent works of mine that didn’t were Springsteen and Moonlite, and that’s only because you’re a little bit limited when writing about actual people. Beyond this, and I could be wrong, I think that almost every one of my Movie Maintenance pitches has a twist at one moment or other. I can’t help myself. I love hearing the gasps of an audience. I love feeling like I’m a puppeteer leading people in one direction without them ever being aware of the piano I’m about to drop on their heads.
To me a twist, no matter what point it comes in the narrative, is a subversion of expectations, a moment where the story reveals something that completely changes what you thought was happening. One of the most famous examples is the ending of Fight Club, where we learn that the two central characters have been the same person the whole time. It’s a great reveal, rightly lauded and there’s a reason for it; it’s very, very obvious.
A good twist should not, by definition, be unpredictable. A twist must be inevitable, and to achieve that you have to make sure there are seeds planted all the way through the story so that when the big moment comes your audience isn’t saying “wait what?” but instead are slapping their heads and yelling “how did I not see that coming?” A good twist is the “of course!” moment where you realise that there was literally no other way this could have gone and that you were the idiot for not noticing all along.
Consider Life on Mars, one of my all-time favourite TV shows. Life on Mars follows a cop who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. In the finale of its sequel series Ashes to Ashes it’s revealed that the world is a purgatory for dead policemen with unfinished business. In the American remake it’s revealed that the characters have been in a simulation during a literal flight to Mars.
Far more people guessed the ending of the British show, but that’s because it made sense and was in line with the themes of the story we had been told. Literally nobody guessed the American ending because it was fucking stupid. Which would you prefer? The nonsense ending nobody could predict, or the satisfying ending that somebody can probably guess? Obviously you go for the latter because even if your twist is spoiled, at least the integrity of your story remains. A twist for the sake of it is almost always an embarrassment. Not every surprise is a good one.
The master of twists in modern storytelling, to me, is JK Rowling. Even in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them she delivered two moments that made me gasp, because when the reveals came they made sense. Each of her Cormoran Strike novels has the same effect. What Rowling does so brilliantly is plant the seeds at moments where she’s directing your attention elsewhere. When the twist comes enough seeds have been planted for you to buy it, but you almost never see it coming. There are so many clues that Quirrell is working with Voldemort, but they never happen in isolation. For example, Hermione knocking over Quirrell when she’s rushing to stop Snape apparently cursing Harry. In the moment it reads as a detail explaining how fixated Hermione is on her goal, in retrospect it clearly lines up with the moment the curse on Harry’s broom stops. Rowling is masterful at giving her clues multiple purposes – Sirius Black’s ramblings about Pettigrew read to us as proof of his insanity and fixation on Harry, Mad Eye Moody’s obsession with drinking from a hipflask underlines his paranoia rather than exposes his use of Polyjuice Potion, the Half Blood Prince’s increasingly evil spells and the date his spellbook was published suggest the work of a teenage Voldemort, not a bitter young Snape with a hand-me-down book. Hiding clues in plain sight means that the integrity of your surprise will never be in question; it’s just about making the audience look somewhere else while you plant them.
It can get too obvious, of course. Dexter Season Six has one of the worst twists of all time because the creators went overboard planting clues and seemed to have forgotten that Psycho and Fight Club left us all well and truly on the lookout for split-personality reveals. Broadchurch, largely a good mystery series, spends so much time focussing on a succession of red herring suspects that its lack of attention on the man eventually revealed as the killer becomes suspicious in its own right.
Not every twist has to be an explosive reveal of hitherto unknown information. The Last Jedi boasted a brilliant twist that was actually just a logical character choice, one that hit hard because it flew in the face of how we’ve been conditioned to think Star Wars films work. The Force Awakens was such a close analogue to A New Hope that it was easy to believe this new trilogy would follow the same rough trajectory as the old one, that it would all build up to the final defeat of Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode 9. Last Jedi played on our assumptions so well that when Kylo Ren eventually killed Snoke we were as surprised as the supreme leader himself – but not (a few angry corners of the internet notwithstanding) unsatisfied. Snoke was a dull villain precisely because we had seen his like done before and better. In retrospect, of course he had to go. It seems so obvious now, but through clever sleight of hand Star Wars got us good.
It bears repeating that a surprise ending and a twist are two different things; a shock character death in the final act of a film or an unexpected downbeat ending are not twists, because they don’t necessarily build on something carefully set up. Superman dying in Batman Vs Superman or Han Solo being dispatched by his own son aren’t twists, shocking and unexpected though they may be.
Twists are tough to pull off, because they need to be both surprising and inevitable. Pulling this off requires some deft storytelling; careful seed planting and clever distraction. But if you land a good one that gets a real reaction out of people, it can be one of the best feelings you’ll ever get as a storyteller.
The best way to figure out twists is also the best way to figure out literally anything else about writing; look at what works and what doesn’t and then look deeper until you figure out why.
People say that writing endings is hard, but I don’t think that’s true. Endings are only difficult if you aren’t sure how your story is supposed to end, and if that’s the case chances are you’ve either missed something or taken a wrong turn along the way. The end of a story is where you place the full stop that gives the sentence meaning; it’s the moments you tie your themes and ideas together and reveal exactly what point you were making all along. If you know what you’re trying to do then the right ending will reveal itself to you, and that’s only if you didn’t know what you were working towards going in.
No, endings are easy. But beginnings, on the other hand, suck.
It’s something I’ve grappled with a lot; what’s the best, sexiest, most intriguing way to start a story? After all, a clunky opening can lose an audience; you really need to nail it in order to make sure they stick with you. So many of the best TV shows or novels have weak beginnings because a first chapter has to do so much; you need to establish the characters, world and conflicts in a way that doesn’t feel like awkward table setting or an info dump. You need to give people a sense of the journey they’re about to embark on without giving too much away, you need to introduce intrigue and basically make a promise that it’s all going to be worthwhile. And all of that only matters if readers get past your first paragraph. So how do you land that hook and reel your audience in?
So many young writers, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, start in media res; with an out of context glimpse of a later, more exciting part of the story. In theory this makes the audience immediately engaged by teasing them with the good stuff; in practice, it often just comes off as a cheat, a desperate attempt to assure the audience that the story will get good if they can just stick through the boring early stuff.
I’m not saying in media res is an inherently bad way to start a story; Breaking Bad famously opened its first episode and many episodes thereafter with a form of it. But then so did Twilight. And in a recent episode of Rick and Morty, Morty bluntly tells a wannabe screenwriter who has tried to employ the trick that ‘stories should start when they start’.
Like anything, there’s no hard and fast rule; what matters is less what you do but how you do it. During my Master of Screenwriting I had this idea for a TV show about a couple of uni students who figured out a way to anonymously adjust internet banking numbers and turn anyone into a millionaire. My idea was to open the first episode with the main character lying in a gutter, covered in blood, dressed in an expensive suit, while hundred-dollar bills float around him. It would then jump back to a year or so previously, to show his life as a broke, party animal student.
My tutor at the time didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but I think it took him a lot of effort not to. I was thrown by his lack of interest in what was clearly an amazing, striking, iconic opening, but he went on to make a very important point; there was no real difference between the two presented versions of my character. One was rich, one was poor. They were still both the same reckless hedonist; the suit and cash revealed that much. That kind of juxtaposition needs to be very stark in order to be interesting.
Consider Breaking Bad. The first thing we see is a man wearing underwear, an apron and a gas mask driving an RV. The guy in the passenger seat is passed out. There are two corpses in the back, sliding around what looks like a drug lab. We hear sirens getting closer. Then the RV crashes. The man gets out. He’s terrified. He records a farewell to his family on a video camera, before picking up a gun and walking out on to the road, ready to face his pursuers.
Then we cut to a month earlier. The man is a downtrodden, mild-mannered high school teacher who works at the car wash to make ends meet. The two characters are strikingly different and yet the change came about in only a month. How the hell did that happen?
It works on a couple of levels; firstly it’s irresistibly intriguing, secondly it pays off by the end of the episode so it doesn’t force us into an interminable wait, and lastly it suits the theme of the show; terrible circumstances can change almost anyone. Now we’re going to show you how.
My TV pilot Windmills, which won the Sir Peter Ustinov Award and was recently shortlisted for the Monte Miller, starts in media res. We see the burnt remains of a prestigious private school. In the centre of the school’s courtyard is a blackened, dead tree. Cops are everywhere, body bags are being carried out but the lead detective is fixated on the tree. In the middle of a concrete courtyard, setting it on fire had to be deliberate. So why? As he says this the tree grows back and we pull out to see the courtyard years previously, full of students in immaculate uniforms, leading into the start of our story.
I grappled with whether or not to have this opening; generally speaking, I’m of the ‘stories should start where they start’ school, but Windmills is a special case. The narrative spans years and travels from a high school mistake to a higher stakes world of organised crime. The progression, I believe, is organic, but one of the biggest criticisms that every version of Windmills has been met with is that it feels like two different stories. I decided on that opening as a way of being honest with the audience, a way of saying that as much as this might initially seem like a high school drama, that’s not the story I’m telling, so be ready. It wasn’t a choice made to be clever or get to the good stuff early; it was purely made in the name of clarity. Although the fact that it pulls you in nice and early doesn’t hurt.
But, generally speaking, when it comes to opening a story I always point to the first lines of two of my favourite novels.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
This is the opening line of Red Dragon, the book that gave us Hannibal Lecter and spawned a massive media franchise comprising several more novels, a bunch of beloved films including one that cleaned up at the Oscars, and one of the more beloved TV shows of recent years. As our first introduction to this saga, it could scarcely be more less significant or pretentious; there’s no description, no ominous foreshadowing, no sense of who these people are, what they look like or what they’re doing. Crawford doesn’t even get a first name.
I love this opening. It gives us no time to decide whether or not the book is for us, it doesn’t attempt to dress up a mundane conversation as something more portentous or powerful; it just drops us into the action and implicitly makes us ask questions. Who are these people? What are they talking about? The scene goes on with essentially just dialogue; the back and forth telling us enough to intrigue us, but still not what we want to know. There’s no flowery language, not potent imagery, nothing but this conversation that begins our story, because there doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s stripped back, efficient, and confident storytelling. It’s also my preference of how to start; just jump in. Don’t worry about sounding pretty or profound or anything. Just start. Because sometimes the best way to pull your audience in is to not give a shit about pulling them in. Trust that the strength of your story will do the work, and you won’t have one of those clumsy openings that tries to do everything and only succeeds at making people bored early. This is the trick I tried to pull off with the opening to Sunburnt Country and a few other things I’ve done recently; except it’s not a trick. It’s the complete opposite. Just honest, robust, blunt storytelling.
That said, how you start always depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The book I probably consider to be my all-time favourite, The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper, opens with the following line:
Just a few scant months after my mother’s suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Posner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother Brad.
Apart from being simultaneously shocking and funny, it tells us a lot. It introduces the trauma that hangs over the novel. It implicitly establishes the relationship between the two brothers and it sets up Joe as somebody who accidently stumbles into situations that have nothing to do with them, only to make them worse. It also tells us exactly what kind of book we’re reading; one that lets humour and heartbreak sit side by side in a succession of deeply awkward encounters. In short, it tells us everything we need to know going in.
I tried to do a similar thing with Boone Shepard:
I always take the time to appreciate the rolling green fields and pretty woods of the English countryside, whether I am viewing them from the seat of my motorbike or, as I found myself on the day this story begins, hanging one handed from the side of a speeding train.
In one line I try to set up the tone of the book, (humorous and action packed), Boone as a character (someone for whom death defying scenarios are almost mundane) and the setting (England). It also throws the audience headfirst into the story and directly tells them that this is the proper start; no unnecessary preamble. Whether or not I succeeded is up to the reader.
In plays I often try to be a bit cleverer, starting with a line of dialogue that speaks to either the themes or overall plot. Moonlite, a play about the divide between truth and legends, starts with the line ‘I don’t believe him’. Heroes, about two best friends who try to use dark secrets to destroy each other, starts with ‘we need to talk’. The Critic, about subjectivity when it comes to art, starts with ‘maybe, in the end, it’s a matter of perspective’.
But then conversely, Chris Hawkins and Regression, probably the two best plays I’ve ever written, respectively start with the words ‘hello’ and ‘fuck’ so it’s hardly an exact science.
That, in the end, is probably the truth about openings; there’s no one way to do it, because stories are different and have different demands. What suits your story? A clever, layered opening line, a funny, quirky, surprising establisher, or a direct dive into the action?
I hate overly showy descriptions of weather or settings. I find them tedious. I’m someone who wants a story to get going and prove itself as worthy of my time. But I’m not everyone and my taste doesn’t always dictate the best way to proceed. My advice would be, if in doubt, take the Red Dragon approach. Dive in, start telling your story, and don’t worry about drawing out the beginning. You can always change it later, but you might just find that starting at the start is the best way to do it.
Creatives, inherently, tend to be dreamers with little grasp of reality. A passion and love for the make believe and a tendency to use stories to shape your understanding of the world are basically pre-requisites. Of course it’s all very well and good to wax lyrical about the values of those traits, but they also tend to be what hobble creatives when they reach the point of wanting to leverage their ideas into a viable career. After all, a mind full of stories is scarcely the kind that can identify brutal realities.
I’ve written at length before about how hard it is to make any money in the arts, how it requires almost pathological self-belief and refusal to listen to the people who tell you you’re not good enough. But one thing I’ve learnt is that you can save yourself a lot of pain if, early on, you educate yourself on a couple of tough truths.
A lot of people will tell you that art is a form of self-expression, and any time you see a tedious one-person show or pretentious piece of abstract performance art, you’re seeing that ethos in action. You’re also seeing an expression of profound self-indulgence. Here is the truth that so many people can’t seem to get their head around – nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, gives a shit about your self-expression. Your friends don’t. Your family don’t. The general public absolutely don’t. Even if they say they do, they don’t. At all. If you’re writing a script or book or whatever that’s very personal, then you have to ask why anyone else should care. We live in a world that is absolutely overflowing with entertainment options, and if you want to be a contender then you can’t be producing work that only your Mum will grudgingly come out and see.
Now that’s not to say that self-expression is a bad thing. It’s actually essential to good art. Self-expression is what makes your story unique and special. But it cannot be the only thing your piece has. Is your story funny? Sad? Gripping? Action packed? What does your story have that people might like to see? The trick you have to pull off as a storyteller is to disguise self-expression as something else entirely.
The Boone Shepard series is a zany, funny, action packed trilogy of quirky adventure novels with time travel and absurd cameos from heightened versions of famous people. They’re designed to take kids on a twisty, rollicking, entertaining jaunt through a world that’s a bit like ours but not really, with two central characters who, hopefully, are fun to be around.
But if that was all Boone Shepard was then I wouldn’t be so invested. I wouldn’t have spent a decade of my life working on it. The reason I care so much about Boone is that the three books are also deeply, deeply personal, exploring themes and ideas that mean everything to me. In a lot of ways, thematically, Boone is not all that different to darker work of mine like Windmills. The trick is that all those deep, meaningful, personal themes are not the selling point. They’re not what I mention when people ask me about Boone Shepard. I tell them about all the things that I think make the story appealing, and then trust that if and when they read it they’ll pick up on what I was trying to say. Basically a good story should be like a Trojan Horse; the heart of your intentions hidden in the shell of what someone else wants.
I used to be arrogant when trying to get my work published. I would send agents and publishers manuscripts that I figured would work just because they were there, without ever stopping and seriously interrogating why somebody would spend money on this thing. A reader might be willing to risk twenty bucks on a book that could be bad, but a publisher spends thousands of dollars on editing, printing, designing and marketing a book. And that’s where things get really hard; you’re not asking somebody to spend twenty bucks on a story, you’re asking them to spend thousands on an investment. If you can’t justify making that investment to yourself, then you really can’t expect someone else will.
I made a lot of mistakes early on. I sent out work that wasn’t ready and I took meetings with important people to discuss projects that had absolutely no chance of being picked up. Those people, if they remember me at all, won’t remember me as someone worth taking seriously. That makes a hard task nigh impossible.
If you’re a young writer, I suggest patience. Don’t take the word of a couple of friends telling you your script or novel is a masterpiece. Get an anonymous manuscript assessment. Put it in the drawer for a year before you come back and reconsider if it’s really where it needs to be and use the year in between to work on other projects. At every turn ask yourself what you have that people want. Think of your story as a product; is there any demand for what you have, and if there isn’t how can you change that? Basically, remove your perspective from the equation and look at your story as if you’re a publisher. How much would you be willing to spend on this thing?
Even once you’re 100% sure of what you have, stories are subjective and chances are you’ll start a handsome collection of rejection letters. But believe me, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you’re trying to sell a story that you know in your heart is worth that investment, rather than one you’re just throwing out there in the hopes that it might stick somewhere.
Last year was the first year in which writing really became a job for me. Between various creative projects, freelance stuff, Movie Maintenance and creative writing tutoring I didn’t have a single source of income that wasn’t directly tied to storytelling. Which is the dream, right? I mean, obviously I’m pretty ambitious and have bigger designs, but making a living from writing work was something that, not long ago, seemed pretty far off.
The problem, of course, is that making a living from something means it’s your job and the thing about jobs is that sometimes you get over them. Sometimes stuff gets ahead of you and you find yourself burnt out and at a loss. The things that used to excite you don’t anymore.
I’m well past the point of fretting about whether or not I’ve ‘lost it’. At least once a year I have a mini crisis with my writing, wondering if I’m as good as I used to be, wondering if I’m ever going to get better, wondering if it’s actually what I want to do and so on. Inevitably, I’ll find a new project that excites me or something good will happen or I’ll just get over myself and these times pass. I don’t let them drag me down anymore because history has proven that, once I’ve had some time away, I’ll be back to storytelling with renewed energy and focus.
The thing is, I burnt myself out badly last year. My production company did four plays, three of which I’d written. I co-produced a web series, launched a line of radio plays, celebrated the release of my second published novel and wrote my quarter of an anthology that I collectively published with some friends. Well, actually, there were two anthologies. And none of this is to mention my work for Den of Geek or Sanspants Radio. The point is, I wrote a lot last year, most of it for money, a lot of it stuff I wasn’t especially proud of. And that takes a toll. Because when you’re working to a deadline, no longer writing for yourself, some of the sheen has to go. And that’s something I don’t think I’d ever anticipated.
By December I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t. Whenever I tried it came out clunky and awkward. So I just… didn’t. I didn’t try to force it. I went away on holiday and just waited. It would come when it came.
I started slow. I wrote a novella over the new-years period, a sequel to Sunburnt Country that had no reason to exist other than it being a story I wanted to tell. But even after that, I had no burning story to tell next. I had ideas, but those ideas were all being held at bay by responsibilities. Deadlines to meet and all the rest. So I just didn’t write.
It didn’t help that Moonlite pretty much dominated my January, or that it was a singularly difficult, stressful season of theatre, difficulty and stress that didn’t abate once the show was actually underway. When people asked me what was next after Moonlite I didn’t answer because there was no answer. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just focused on getting to the end of that show.
Meanwhile things were falling by the wayside. I had so much to get done but all of it would be handled tomorrow. That was my ethos through January; ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. Never mind that I was supposed to hand in a second draft of Boone Shepard 3 by the end of that month. I’d do it tomorrow.
Then, last Thursday February 1st, one day after the Boone deadline I had not met, I attended one of the weekly Words and Wine nights I do with the Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio, the first of the year. Words and Wine, where incidentally I am writing this, is basically what it says on the tin; a weekly catch up of writers where, for two hours, we drink wine and write words. That’s it. Last year I treated W&W as my holiday, the place where I wrote things that I wanted to write.
At the start of last week’s session we were given a challenge, to come up with three loglines for new stories on the spot. My plan was to cheat and use pre-existing ideas, then I looked out the windows, into the dimming sky, and an idea struck me. An idea about an aging astronaut who wants to return to the stars.
So I wrote that story, something I came up with on the spot, something that, from concept to completion, took less than two hours. I wrote that story and it was the best thing I had written in ages.
After that, I could focus on Boone. I could approach it from a new angle and finally get productive, finally get the rewrites done I needed, including some scenes I literally teared up writing because I was plumbing some character depths I’d never before touched with Boone Shepard. I got back on top of my freelance jobs and then, two days ago, I learned that I was one of three people shortlisted for the 2017 Monte Miller Award, which got me on to the Pathways Program – a collection of the best unproduced scripts in the country.
Despondency and flatness were gone so quickly. Not because I wrote that short story and it changed things, because I kept in mind at all times that, even if it seems counterintuitive, telling stories will always be what makes me happy and, if I’m in a funk, then chances are telling stories is the way out of it. It’s just about finding the right story.
Writing is the best thing in the world. It also sucks as a career. You make very little money, you’re constantly rejected and it takes a long time for anybody to take you seriously, if anybody ever does. But if you are a writer you’ll persist because, honestly, what the fuck else are you going to do?
The last couple of months have reminded me of all the worst things about what I do. The last week has reminded me of the best.
And if you’re interested, below is that short story.
I get nervous before every single one of my plays. The degree of nervousness varies; it’s always worse if it’s one I directed and it’s especially bad if the show has had a bumpy production, but whether I’m feeling mild uncertainty or full blown terror, I have never gone into any opening night with a sense of breezy confidence. And even if the show seems to go off without a hitch, even if we get all the laughs and gasps and tears we wanted, that nervousness comes back in full force over the next few days as we wait for the reviews to come in.
The worst was the hours before my very first play, Windmills, opened in 2010. I had gone through the rehearsal process happy and excited by how it was all coming together, but when opening night arrived I was a nervous wreck. This was back in my acting days and I had a lead role in the show as well – I was shaking like a leaf when I walked onstage for my first scene.
What characterised that fear, a fear that has lingered to some degree ever since, is the simple fact that you can never be sure how something is going to be received. When Windmills was performed I was eighteen and utterly untried as a writer. It was the first time my work was going before an audience and as such the first time my belief that I was good enough to do this would be put to the test. And while I have learnt a lot since then, I still don’t know whether any given show will have the effect I want it to. To some degree, a play is a Schrodinger’s Cat – it’s impossible to know until people come out of it just how well it works.
Of course it’s somewhat subjective. If you trawl the depths of IMDB you’ll find savage putdowns of the most beloved and respected films. Rotten Tomatoes, for all its flaws as a system, has shone a light on the fact that there is no such thing as a story for everyone. The percentage of people who dislike something will vary, but even the most impeccably crafted piece of art will have detractors.
I don’t want to go too far down the path of the subjectivity argument; there are, after all, people out there who believe Rogue One is a masterpiece. The truth is that I think there is value to consensus, even if it doesn’t account for the reaction of every individual. If most people like your play, book or movie then you’ve probably done something right. You can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should write off any and all criticism as being ‘just someone’s opinion’. After all, listening to well-argued negative feedback is how you get better, even if you don’t always agree with it.
The reason I’m writing about this is, somewhat predictably, the opening of Moonlite. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Moonlite has been one of the most stressful shows I’ve ever been involved in; from compromised availability of the cast and band to a venue that simply put, isn’t a theatre, nothing about this show has been easy. And when opening night came around I was partly certain it was going to be a mess. Would people be pissed off by the noise from upstairs? Confused by the flashback-based narrative structure? Offended by the fact that, despite being sold as a musical, it doesn’t really follow any of the rules of musical theatre?
I was ready to be laughed at. I was ready for withering or patronising reviews telling me what an idiot I was for ever thinking I could make something like this work. I was ready for Moonlite to be a massive failure on every level.
But of course, there is one fundamental difference between Moonlite and past plays that haven’t come together, and that difference is that everyone involved has worked their arses off to make this show happen. And everyone is a professional who knows what they were doing. Is Moonlite perfect? Of course not. But it’s sold out its season, had rave reviews and by all accounts been massively entertaining for the audiences we’ve had. We had a vision for this play; for it to be a raw, rough, rollicking journey through the story of a larger than life character, a story told with heart, humour and catchy, toe-tapping songs. And I think we’ve delivered that. The cast give brilliant, dedicated, emotional performances. Dan’s music is phenomenal. The band are brilliant. And I’m really proud of my script. Nobody has let the team down, everyone has done their job and in any play that is all you can ever ask for.
Are there people who don’t like Moonlite? Nobody’s told me as much, but I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure there are people who are indifferent or ambivalent towards it. But by and large the lesson I’ve learnt from this play is one of ‘if you build it, they will come’. If you put in the work, if you are tough on yourself and make sure you’re operating as professionally as possible, then chances are you will have a quality product. Not one everyone will love, but one you can be proud of. If you know what you want to achieve and put everything towards realising that vision, you probably will.
Arrogance will kill any creative project; just half arsing it and hoping for the best. If you produce a script you don’t believe in or phone in a performance or basically assume that somebody should like something just because it’s there then your project is doomed to fail. Call it Rogue One syndrome.
I won’t ever stop being nervous before the openings of new shows. But I will know, going forward, that as long as I can rest assured that I’ve done the best I can, I can stand by the product and know that if people don’t like it, at least I tried. Basically, my big, life changing message is this; do the work, reap the rewards. It won’t always pay off, but it’s a damn sight more likely to if you do your job properly. That’s all.
Yesterday I was rushing to fill out a major application for Bitten By Productions and I stumbled on a bit of a dilemma. The application required details of every previous show the theatre company applying had done, including reviews. For us, this would range from Reunion, the tiny, unassuming comedy I put on with friends back in 2013, to Moonlite, the play with songs that has sold out almost its whole season and has a cast of trained musical theatre professionals, which opens tomorrow.
Moments like this, moments that literally require you to chart years of creative development, are great for reflection, but the problem here is that said charting came as part of trying to convince a major player in the theatre scene to give us a lot of money for a future production. And frankly, I don’t especially want to hold up some of our earlier works as examples of what we can do now because they’re not.
I was lucky enough in that every play we’ve done has at least one positive review and even the reviews that were more on the fence came from early shows rather than anything we’ve done recently. Showing signs of clear development probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does make me think. After all, we advertised plays like Below Babylon and A Good German with just as much conviction as we did far stronger recent shows like Springsteen or The Commune. To me and anyone who has seen all over even some of our output, the improvement is obvious. How could it not be? Over years of growing and learning if you don’t get better you’re doing something wrong. But the problem here is that, to the average punter who might have seen one of those early plays, there is no reason to believe that Bitten By Productions is now worth taking seriously. Not when you parted with your hard-earned for a show that might not have seemed worth it.
For creatives, this is a dilemma with no clear solution. I strongly believe that the only way to really improve is to put your work out there, gauge the reaction, learn from your mistakes, and continue. Sure, you can study writing for theatre and learn all the practices and conventions and whatever, but that will never teach you as much as sitting in a darkened room, hearing the gasps of audience members around you, or else reading a savage review or seeing friends lie through their teeth to your face about liking a show. It’s these tough experiences that make you learn, that cut your ego down to size and teach you that you have to stop thinking about art as self-expression. Nobody gives a fuck about your self-expression. Nobody should have to pay thirty dollars to see you express yourself. If you’re going to ask that of anyone then you have to offer them something else. What does your play have? Will it make them laugh? Cry? Shuffle to the edge of their seat, wide eyed and enraptured?
The truth of course is that opinions are subjective and not everyone will like your work even if you do everything right, but you will be coming from a much stronger position if you are able to justify to yourself why a total stranger should see this play. This requires interrogating the worth of every aspect of your script so that when faced with criticism you can at least justify why you made the choices you made.
In early plays I didn’t ask for much feedback. My tokenistic substitute for this was giving the scripts to people I privately knew would only say nice things. Essentially I, on some level knowingly, cut myself off to criticism because I believed I could do this and that my work deserved your time and money. In the process I took advantage of the support of friends and family, all of whom helped produce and put on plays that were simply not ready. And when the negative feedback came, I shrugged it off. I felt bad about it, sure, but I rarely engaged in what it was saying.
Engaging, here, doesn’t mean agreeing. It means listening and considering. You can think feedback is wrong. But you have to be able to articulate, at least to yourself, why it’s wrong. That is one of the biggest and most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
But, of course, it doesn’t heal the damage of those early mistakes. It won’t win back directors, producers and established actors who came and saw my plays on the recommendation of friends and probably walked away vowing never to trust that friend again, let alone see anything else written by that Bergmoser kid.
Of course this begs the question of at what point your work becomes consistently ready for consumption, and to that there is no answer. The best I can offer is that I used to look back on plays that were about a year old and cringe, now, when thinking over just about every script I’ve written since 2015, I can find something of value or at least justify why I made the choices I made. Not everything I wrote in that time was good, but the scripts I didn’t feel good about didn’t see the light of day. That might be the biggest difference.
I wish I could tell everyone who came and saw Below Babylon or A Good German and the rest that I’m a better writer now and my new work will be worth their time. But I can’t so I have to take the hit. And furthermore, if I could go back and tell my younger self not to produce work that wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t. The lessons I learned in that time, for me personally, made it all worthwhile.
It’s not a one size fits all thing. I wouldn’t recommend everyone make the choices I made. I’m impulsive and impatient and I’m lucky now to be surrounded by collaborators who temper those traits. If you have a play you want to produce, be honest with yourself, get it into the hands of people who will rip it to shreds and listen to them before you decide how to proceed. Because I can promise you with the weight that comes from experience that you will not get away with just throwing a show on and hoping for the best. But you will certainly learn from it.
For as long as there have been classics, people have been paying tribute or adding to them. Shakespeare has been reimagined so many times and almost all the Greek epic poems or plays soon got sequels from new writers, if they weren’t already an addendum to or reimagining of a previous piece. Basically, there has always been, and will always be a hunger for more of the stories we love. As such, a current media landscape dominated by nostalgia, long running franchises and reboots is hardly a new thing.
The truth here is that film and TV are relatively young mediums, and we’re only just reaching the point in their life cycle where returning to the well is becoming an ubiquitous thing, especially in TV. And unlike reimaginings of Shakespeare plays, in the cases of most television classics they’re recent enough for many of the key creatives to still be alive and active, meaning we’re seeing a glut of stars and creators returning to the characters that made their careers. From The X Files to Fuller House, Will and Grace to Roseanne, many long dormant properties are coming back and this is only the beginning.
It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, streaming services mean that TV shows cut down in their prime can be revived, sometimes years after the fact (please save Hannibal), but on the other hand shows that had their time, had an impressive run and were considered classics are returning. When a series ended on its own terms after many seasons, do we really need more?
Recently I’ve been re-watching a lot of Arrested Development and Community. The two shows have a lot in common; both were clever cult hits that struggled in the ratings, both were unceremoniously cancelled and both were later revived by streaming services in victory lap runs generally considered to not hit the heights of their respective heydays. Nonetheless, both shows are still technically alive; Arrested Development has a fifth season coming this year and Community remains in active talks for a movie.
The other day I did a bit of an experiment with both shows; after watching a classic episode from an early season, I put on one from the revival. I turned off the first episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season after five minutes and laughed maybe once in the episode I chose from Community’s sixth. The contrast was stark and unflattering; neither show, in the end, was near its creative prime.
And yet, I’m still excited for more.
Part of this comes down to nostalgia; re-watching both shows instantly transports me back to the place I was in my life when I first discovered them, and that’s a potent thing, but unlike a belated sequel to a beloved film, a TV revival offers something a more. An actor friend of mine once said that TV was a preferred medium for him because it gave actors the chance to develop a character over an extended period of time, which, in turn, means that we build a relationship with them. Over several years and sometimes hundreds of episodes, we get to know and love the ensemble of a given favourite show and as such going back always feels like revisiting old friends. There is something inherently comforting in re-watching favourites, a reminder that no matter how far you have come in life, hours of entertainment with the fictional people you love are still there for you to go back to at any time. And if you follow a TV show for years it becomes more than just an instantaneous time portal; sometimes the lives and growth of these characters over an extended period of time can parallel your own, and so the attachments we forge become something more personal than that of recalling a single special moment.
In the case of a beloved film that we watch over and over pleasure comes from the familiar, from knowing every line, shot and beat. In TV it’s different; when there are so many episodes we often forget certain gems and while there are always favourites we go back to, the process of a true re-watch often yields a thrill of rediscovery, or a new appreciation for things we didn’t like the first time. It’s comfort food with the added bonus of a potential for new flavours. Seen through that light, how can we not get excited at the prospect of spending more time with these old friends?
Of course, it comes with an element of risk. In 2013 I was so excited for the final season of Skins, a show that meant a huge amount to me as a teenager. This last run would revisit characters from the early seasons (Skins changed cast every two years), picking up on them in their young adult lives. This, to me, was thrilling; the characters of Skins were so special to people of my generation because they were teenagers at the same time as us, sharing (albeit heightened) similar experiences, heartbreaks and woes to what we were all going through. The prospect of seeing those beloved characters living lives that reflected our own years later? The power of that can’t be understated.
And for the first few minutes it worked; I remember seeing Effie and her friends hanging out and drinking wine on the roof of their shitty apartment between work and uni, seeing my own life reflected back at me in a way I hadn’t since the early years of the show. It really was like seeing an old friend, a friend who I could still relate to because we were in similar places in our respective lives years after we last saw each other. There was a unique and special feeling that while I had been growing and changing, these characters had too.
But then, of course, Skins fell victim to its own worst impulses. It went for unrealistic, sensationalised drama over the power of relatability and as such I stopped watching the final season before the end of its six-episode run. I felt betrayed and angry. I wished Skins had not come back at all.
And yet, if you told me today there would be a new season revisiting those characters, I don’t know that I could promise you that I wouldn’t be watching.
As more and more shows are revived, I find myself speculating on what else could come back and, in the process, start to wonder if I’m going to see more of the TV show that has possibly had the biggest influence on me, that show being Scrubs. Scrubs was the first show I ever fell in love with and it shaped my style and sensibilities like no other; it taught me how to blend pathos, humour and relatability but it also taught me that sometimes it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. The first four seasons of Scrubs are TV classics (three is the best), and after that it descended into cartoony, unfunny tripe. Scrubs did manage to regain some quality in its eighth season, building up to a TV finale that I still think might be the best of all time, one that balanced the melancholy of saying goodbye with an assurance that life, for these characters and for ourselves, will go on. It was perfect but then they had to go and fuck it all up with a ninth season that sold itself as a reboot but did very little to let go of the past.
And yet, now, years later, despite knowing that Scrubs had the perfect ending and ruined it with an unnecessary addendum, I still want more. I want to see my friends again. I want to laugh with JD, Turk, Elliot and Dr Cox. I want to see where they are in life and if the fantasies JD had in the season eight finale did come true or if, true to Scrubs form, something more complex happened. I want this despite knowing that I don’t need it, despite knowing that there is no reason to believe a 2018 Scrubs reboot could recapture any of that early magic if it couldn’t do it in 2010, despite knowing that the season eight ending was so good because, at the time, it was an ending as is still considered the real finale by the vast majority of viewers.
TV characters often feel real because of the sheer amount of time we spend with them, because we see them weekly, because we stick with them through the good and bad, through the classic episodes, the forgettable filler, the jump-the-shark moments and the emotional goodbyes. We forge an attachment to them that can become a yearning to see them again, a yearning that means we ignore the fact that nine times out of ten it’s better to leave the stories we loved behind so as to keep on loving them.
The problem with connections like this is that they create a weight of expectation that belated revivals can scarcely live up to. Harry Potter, Skins, Scrubs and so many more now all have an asterisk hanging over them, that footnote of “yeah they were really good except for the unnecessary follow-up”. Even if we can turn a blind eye to the Cursed Childs and Scrubs season nines of the world it doesn’t mean they’re not there, a constant warning that it’s always better to say goodbye when saying goodbye still hurts, rather than when we don’t care anymore.
If a Scrubs reboot happened I would watch it. I would watch it despite knowing that I shouldn’t, because I’m only human. Likewise I will of course watch Arrested Development and the Community movie and any other reboots of old favourites that come my way. But, if you gave me the choice? I would rather they never happen at all.
It was about a year and a half ago now that Dan Nixon and I first sat down for drinks at the Grace Darling and discussed the prospect of a gay bushranger musical. Dan had invited me to grab a beer with him so he could pitch me a project, and the moment he said the words ‘Captain Moonlite’ I got excited – after all, it had only been a couple of months earlier that I had first learned about his story on an episode of Shut Up A Second and had started thinking of how to get it out there. The idea of a musical theatre show seemed more fitting than most.
After a few beers and a lot of excited ideas being thrown around, Dan said something to the effect of ‘it’s a little odd though, two straight guys writing this play’.
At the time we laughed it off, but the words stuck with me. Back at VCA we had often been asked about our scripts ‘why is this a story that only you can tell?’ Usually the answer was something to do with personal experience, but it becomes a harder thing to justify when you are writing something that is miles divorced from your own life.
This very discussion starts getting into thorny territory, the question of what themes, ideas and situations a writer has the right to explore, whether it is inherently arrogant to delve into experiences that aren’t your own, but personally I think doing so sits at the core of being a storyteller. In his play The Pillowman Martin McDonagh suggests that ‘people only write what they know because they’re too fucking lazy to make something up’, and while I don’t necessarily agree I think there’s something to that. After all, if people only wrote what they knew we never would have gotten Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Furthermore we never would have gotten some of the great dramas or crime films written and directed by people who never experienced anything close to those events. In general, the problem with writing ‘personal’ stories is that in most cases the only person who finds your life interesting is you and it’s arrogant to assume that anybody else will.
So if it’s arrogant to write outside of your experience and arrogant to write within it, what are you supposed to do?
My theory has long been that it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it. Whether two straight men writing a musical about a gay bushranger is wrong comes down to how it’s done. Likewise even the most mundane life can take on significance and pathos if it’s presented in a way that is engaging and interesting. I believe that writers of all backgrounds have the right to explore whatever the hell they want, but crucially they have a responsibility to do it well, especially when it’s engaging with a real experience that isn’t their own.
Of course, saying that is a lot easier than doing it.
In 2013 I wrote a play about a Nazi officer in a concentration camp falling in love with a Jewish inmate. It was an idea I had had since high school, one I believed was challenging, compelling, powerful and all those other adjectives you apply to historical dramas exploring sensitive territory. The problem was that none of those adjectives were true; my assumption at the time was that purely by writing about this subject matter I was doing something somehow brave or with inherent artistic value. Consequently, when the play came out a year later, we were rightly eviscerated in our first review. A Good German remains a source of shame and motivation for me, a constant reminder of what not to do.
The mistake I made, one born of pure arrogance, was never really interrogating why I wanted to tell that story. I think the premise is strong and, in the hands of someone more equipped to explore it, could have made for an amazing play. But one of the biggest lessons I learned from A Good German is that just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you’re the right person to realise it.
While A Good German proved that this isn’t always the case, usually an idea that is your own will have more personal meaning than one someone brings you, and so before I could write Moonlite I had to find my angle. Outside of it being a great story, I had to ask myself why I personally wanted to tell it. What could I bring to the table that someone else couldn’t, someone else whose life closer matched that of the subject?
In the end it’s a matter of theme. What is your story about? What are you trying to say? In the case of A Good German the answer to that question was some vague guff about grey areas of morality, and as such I needed something stronger for Moonlite. After all, if this play didn’t have something to say beyond ‘hey check out how zany this story is’ then it would fall flat.
As I researched I kept this question in the back of my head. I looked for the parts of Captain Moonlite’s life I related to, the actions he took that I understood, the moments that moved me, and then I interrogated why that was. Through this process, I found the story I wanted to tell, the angle I would approach from and the theme that would unify the show. My Moonlite is not about his sexuality, although that is a big part of it, but rather about the divide between legend and fact, the question of whether the truth is more important than the story when the story is what people remember. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, one I have explored in other pieces of writing, and one that, as such, I feel I am qualified to tackle. Furthermore it’s one that suited the story of Captain Moonlite.
It’s for this reason that I have no qualms about my being the right person to tackle this version of the story, partly because I know for a fact that other people will have their own interpretations and they are no less valid than mine. There is no definitive take on a real person’s life.
Every story has, in one way or another, been told. Originality or individuality, to me, comes from the telling of the story rather than the subject. As such the first question any writer should ask of any project they’re working on is whether they are the right person for this story, and if so, why? You might find that it saves you from working on the pieces that don’t mean that much to you and lets you focus only on the ones that do.
All that said, Moonlite is yet to open so for all I know it could be a massive failure that leaves me singularly unqualified to write this blog. Time will tell.
Just some thoughts.