Confession time: I listen to a fantastic podcast called True Spies (don’t laugh).
The podcast’s producers recently linked a noteworthy article from the BBC on their site called, “The secrets of TV’s greatest thriller-writer.” It’s an interview with Jed Mercurio, creator of the TV series “Line of Duty” and “Bodyguard” – among other literary hits, both TV and otherwise. I was so taken with the article that I decided to write this post with the salient facts and tips. All his tips can be applied to any form of writing.
First, a little background: Mercurio used to be a doctor. He switched careers before he was thirty, and became a writer.
Here are some of Mercurio’s tips, with my scintillating commentary.
Write what you know…but in the broadest sense
We’ve all heard this a million times, but what I love about Mercurio is that he actually lived it! He knew medicine from his years as a doctor, and propelled them into two medical TV series (“Cardiac Arrest” and “Bodies”). However, he recognized that the same dynamics in the medical workplace could be applied to any workplace. He thus segued into to law enforcement (“Line of Duty”) and politics (“Bodyguard”).
Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed
Mercurio encourages writing in different genres. He tells us not to be afraid to switch from, say, drama to comedy. He says, “If the story feels right then follow it.” He also advocates for inventing genres.
Another way to prevent getting pigeonholed is to write different types of media: books, journals, a movie or play script, etc.
I recently wrote three chapters of a parents’ guide, and it was a blast. I’d never written book chapters, nor had I ever written in the self-help space. I just took a deep breath and went with it. I’m happy with the results, and so is my client.
Never be afraid to shake things up
Since Mercurio is a TV writer, this translates for him into “breaking new ground” with each series. His examples include introducing a new antagonist or extremely unexpected plot twist. He emphasizes that this is how you keep your present audience captivated while allowing new watchers of the show to be immediately engaged.
I believe this suggestion applies to both fiction and nonfiction. Don’t forget to initiate plot twists and turns, and be brave in your writing. For fiction writers, if you are thinking of writing a series, you will need new characters, new stories, shocking revelations, etc. in each book. You need to retain your regular fans while enticing new fans to your series.
With regard to nonfiction, you can “shake things up” via the language you use, with humor, or even as a result of the angle or “take” on the subject you choose. This is especially true in memoir and biography. Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing is a perfect example of this.
Make the writing feel authentic even if the plot is fantastical
Here’s Mercurio: “I want my current shows to feel as accurate as possible, which means doing the research and talking to people who actually do those jobs [that he’s writing about]. “
Mercurio says authenticity also means consistency in emotions. If a character has PTSD (“Bodyguard”), his behavior must reflect this in all situations: work, home, barber shop, etc. Moreover, the author must write this character’s family members as relating to and reacting to the PTSD. No character is an island, and characters need to be more than one-dimensional.
The importance of authenticity cannot be underestimated. Just because a book takes place on Mars, or in the year 2450, doesn’t mean that the players are wooden robots (unless, of course, the book is about wooden robots). However, this applies to all authors, not just fantasy writers. Make sure you delve into characters’ emotions, motivations, backstory, etc.
Do let me know in the Comments whether you agree or disagree with these writing tips, and what else you’d add to them.
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And as always,
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