The hidden secrets of writing with Michele Rowe
Andrew Sherwood is a dead man. The last time forensic psychologist Marge Labuschagne saw him, alive, was a fraught confrontation in the benign setting of a neighbourhood fair.
The scene which shows their encounter is the one I’ve chosen for the latest in our blog series showcasing the published works of our community and associates. Michele Rowe, award-winning script writer and novelist, runs All About Writing’s Crash Course in Screenwriting with Richard Beynon.
The extract is drawn from Michele’s novel, What Hidden Lies (Penguin Random House), which won the CWA Debut Dagger Award. And, to my mind, it demonstrates just how much the writing of prose fiction can be honed by some experience in script writing, and vice versa:
‘Hello,’ he said tentatively. ‘Remember me?’
He was blocking out the light, and it took time for her eyes to adjust.
There were a few awkward minutes as she took in Andrew Sherwood. He’d aged rather badly since she’d last seen him close up. His denim jacket hung on him. He looked unkempt and nervy.
She forced a smile. ‘Of course I do. How are you, Andrew?’
Sherwood’s pale-lashed eyes fixed on her. ‘Do you have a moment?’
She hesitated. He looked around pointedly. As if she needed reminding that her stall was hardly a hive of activity.
‘Is there something I can do for you?’
‘I think you know.’ His stare had become uncomfortably intense.
‘I don’t, actually.’
‘The Logos school incident –’
She cut in. ‘I would prefer not to discuss that now, if you don’t mind.’
‘Colette was a very ill woman, could you not see that? You call yourself a therapist!’
‘This is hardly the time or place –’
‘Well, so sorry to inconvenience you, but I’m not going to shut up.’
‘What do you want, Andrew?’
‘I want you to tell Colette that she was completely deluded.’
Marge was aghast. ‘I can’t do that!’
His face darkened. ‘You’ve just walked away, haven’t you? Like someone who plants a bomb and doesn’t stick around to see the damage. I’ve had to live with this stain on my character for years. I was hounded out of my job, lost friends …’
He choked on the words and had to stop.
Marge could feel she was fast losing control of a ghastly situation.
‘I loved Colette deeply,’ he said hoarsely, ‘and she loved me.’
To her relief she spotted a couple of women from the leopard toad group advancing on her stall. ‘I think it best you leave.’
He stared at her accusingly through red eyes. ‘Shame on you!’
Then he turned abruptly and walked off.
She wondered briefly if she should go after him, but the frog enthusiasts took up her attention, and Sherwood gradually faded into an uneasy thought just hovering on the edge of her consciousness.
Later, she spotted his thinning gingery hair among the crush of drinkers in the beer tent, his haggard face looking jaundiced from the reflection of the yellow plastic…
…She grabbed a quick kebab from the schwarma stall. Nearby, some hay bales had been stacked two deep and packed together to form a corral for children’s pony rides. The circular space was now, rather alarmingly, being used for the fire-poi demonstration. A spellbound circle of mostly young children looked on, as the performer whirled and spun his arms around, creating elaborate circles of fire, not terribly professionally, she thought. At one point he even stumbled and the poi passed dangerously close to the spectators. There was an ‘Ooh,’ and some of the children moved back, their eyes big as saucers. To her astonishment Marge realised the performer was Andrew Sherwood. She felt a sharp stab of apprehension, recalling the parlous state he’d been in earlier, and his drinking in the beer tent. She spotted Orlanda sitting on one of the bales, watching.
At that moment, things went awry. Sherwood, bending sideways and passing the burning poi hand to hand behind his back, was battling to keep them aloft and they swung too close to the ground. The paraffin caught and ignited, and he was soon surrounded by a ring of burning grass. The heat and smell from the burning paraffin was overpowering. Marge moved forward on automatic pilot, scooping Orlanda off the hay bale and depositing her outside the circle.
‘Go find your mother,’ she said, ‘Quick!’
Both these scenes are strong, and filmic, in that Michele has given us just enough detail to visualise the setting – and Andrew. She has been economical, while still providing an immersive experience. We’ve been given just enough, in other words.
The dialogue is extremely strong: it is realistic, sharp and pacey. The conflict between them provides a taut line of tension without ever becoming over-the-top or on-the-nose. Michele is an accomplished scriptwriter and these skills, I am sure, have helped hone her crime fiction.
- Just one or two distinguishing details are enough for us to visualise a person eg : ‘He’d aged rather badly since she’d last seen him close up. His denim jacket hung on him. He looked unkempt and nervy’; his ‘sandy-lashed eyes’; his ‘thinning, gingery hair’.
- We don’t need these details to be given all at once, when we first encounter the character. They can be woven through the scene, as your protagonist notices new particulars.
- Dialogue should ideally be economical and sharp. It should sound like natural speech, but without the circumnavigation of real speech: its rambling, repeats and restarts.
Join Michele Rowe and Richard Beynon for their Crash Course in Screenwriting on 27 February, a five-week, online course in the basic skills of writing like a professional script writer for film or television.
- The course will lay a foundation of understanding the range of key skills you need to write a script.
- It will excite you about the infinite possibilities of writing for the screen.
- It will deepen your understanding of and appreciation for film and television drama by revealing the secrets that attend the birth of tv and film drama.
- If you’re already a television professional, then it’ll give you insight into the challenges and potential of creative screenwriting.