So often when we look at writing we want to concentrate on the big things. On the great narrative sweeps, the themes that we’re wrestling with, the epic journeys that our protagonists are going on.
This can make it difficult to concentrate on other characters. Sometimes, when focusing on others, the protagonist’s story can suddenly fall off a cliff and we have to drag it back up again and put it back on its feet, losing all emotional momentum.
What can help are small details. They can help keep our ‘main’ story going but still let other characters’ narratives have space to be told.
This idea crossed my mind when I was watchingthe BBC prison drama ‘Time’. For those who haven’t seen it, please do. It is an excellently crafted and researched piece of writing, which is brilliantly acted to boot. I have worked at a charity that helps communicate with people in prison and the founder said it was the most accurate depiction of prison life she’d ever seen on screen.
There is one moment in ‘Time’ that I think captures the power of simple moments. It happens about half an hour into episode two. Sean Bean’s Mark Cobden is being bullied by the small-time thug Johnno, part of which includes having his food stolen. He is starving. He is, however, too proud to mention it to anyone.
At the same time, Daniel, his new cellmate, is to have a talk with his victim’s parents as an attempt to gain some closure on his crime. He asks Mark to come with him, for emotional support. This is a moment that we have been building up to for Daniel. It is a crucial point in his story and it’s importantnot to overshadow it. However, the writer of ‘Time’, Jimmy McGovern, wants to make sure that the suffering of Mark doesn’t get forgotten by the audience – tension for his character needs to be maintained; the longer we’re aware of him starving, the longer it feels he’s been starving for.
This is achieved in a brilliantly simple way. As Daniel and Mark sit at the table, the other side of which are the grieving parents, Mark looks down. On the table is a plate. A plate full of biscuits. He stares at it for a second longer than normal, and then looks away, clearly sitting on the urge not to grab several. This moment is tiny, but it is an excellent piece of character continuity that doesn’t break the flow of the scene
The impact of the moment is heightened by the performance of Bean, but it is clearly a deliberately made one. The shot of the biscuits is a cut away. We have been deliberately shown them and then Mark’s reaction, before we move on.
What I take away from this moment is that when writing for your main character one doesn’t need massive moments to keep their journey going. There doesn’t need to be great speeches or deeds, especially if there is an important secondary character we want to focus on. We can keep the protagonist’s story bubbling along on the back hob through serving tiny portions of it. Nothing big, nothing flashy, nothing that takes away from the chosen moment. But it is still there, they’re still living their story, and that keeps it alive and real for the audience watching it. And, in the end, that is the most important thing.