“Let the listener invent their own dragon.” I can’t remember who uttered this line, but it has stayed in my mind since last century, when I took a BBC News Skills training course in London.
The nervy young broadcast journalists renamed it News Kills. Until a man in tweed came to our stuffy classroom to impart his code for living: “It’s only radio, but it’s what we do.”
I learned to create sound pictures that let the listener see “their own dragon”. Why state you’re on a beach when you can immerse the audience in surf and seagulls? Why say an interviewee is nervous when you can hear his shallowness of breath between carefully-chosen words? A broadcaster, like a novelist, is a magpie for the glimmering detail that sparks life into a story.
Of course, people don’t like hearing a news-worthy tragedy or triumph described as “a story”; it feels impersonal, trivial. No-one wants our human woes tossed like just another carton onto the production line of news. So broadcasters seek the “human interest” in every report; the individual who embodies a wider truth. It’s the same in fiction; readers demand authenticity in the hearts of our characters.
I remember picking up a report on the police log one morning when I was in the BBC newsroom in Birmingham. Three members of a family – a mother and two children – had been found dead in their home. The body of the father was hanging from the top of the stairs.
We sent a reporter out, even though there wasn’t much to say beyond the bare facts. At the house, you wouldn’t know anything was amiss, except for the police tape across the front door. The neighbours went about their business with heads down against the wind. It could have been any normal day, in any normal street.
Except that upstairs, despite the bright grey light of a winter morning, a single bulb still burned in a bedroom where a child’s body had been found. A sad, small detail that brought to life a sad, small tragedy.
Months later, I would attend the inquest into these deaths. For two days, I watched four grandparents clutching each others’ hands while we learned that a father was so shamed by a $500 debt that he killed his family. Another sad, small detail that could occur on any normal day, in any normal street.
The small detail is vital in broadcasting because the writing is condensed. It’s brutal; you kill darling after darling. Even a fascinating ten-minute interview must be cut to (at most) three minutes for a radio show. An audio clip for a radio news bulletin is less than 30 seconds; and that’s further cut to ten seconds for TV. If you can’t identify the core idea, you’re lost.
I’ve found these skills come in handy for writing a synopsis. For both my novels, I wrote the synopsis early on, to try to identify the core idea. Doing it requires emotional distance; you are not the story, you are only a conduit for the story. Emotional distance is useful in the planning and editing stages, when you need to see clearly. I reserve the emotion for writing the scenes.
Back on that News Kills course in London, we were told to imagine telling the biggest news story of the day to a bloke in a pub. “What happened today, then?” the stranger asks. “Well, you’ll never believe it, but…” The rest of this sentence is your news headline. Or an elevator pitch for a novel. Especially in radio, which is fleeting and ephemeral, the idea must hit home first time because the listener isn’t going to listen again. A bit like speed-pitching to agents; you get one shot!
My first job after training was at the BBC in Stoke-on-Trent, a city known as The Potteries because of its famous factories, such as Wedgwood, Spode, Aynsley. While recording at Moorcroft, I realised that the workers were embarrassed when I referred to them as “artists”. Despite their unique skills, they considered themselves, at best, craftspeople: another potter in a town of potters.
Broadcast journalists tend to be similarly pragmatic (with the occasional diva whose antics entertain the troops). Radio is relentlessly deadline-driven; there is no time to be precious about your crafted script or resist the editor as though she is your enemy. I find I’m equally unromantic now about writing fiction.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that it’s important to avoid glorifying the process in terms that involve the word “muse”. Like many writers (especially ones who start later in life, or didn’t grow up in creative families), I struggled to believe I could become that rarefied creature: an author. It’s less intimidating to think of writing in a business-like way: bum on seat, words on page, copy on printer. We’re all hacks at heart.
As you might tell from these indulgent reminiscences, I miss the BBC newsroom. But I try to bring the old News Skills into my current writing career. After all, “It’s only fiction, but it’s what we do.”
Jo Furniss gave up the glamour of working night shifts at the BBC to become a freelance writer and serial expatriate. Originally from the UK, she’s lived in Switzerland and Cameroon, and currently resides with her family in Singapore.
All the Little Children is released by Lake Union Publishing on 1st September 2017; a second domestic thriller is due in 2018.
About All The Little Children
When a family camping trip takes a dark turn, how far will one mother go to keep her family safe?
Struggling with working-mother guilt, Marlene Greene hopes a camping trip in the forest will provide quality time with her three young children—until they see fires in the distance, columns of smoke distorting the sweeping view. Overnight, all communication with the outside world is lost.
Knowing something terrible has happened, Marlene suspects that the isolation of the remote campsite is all that’s protecting her family. But the arrival of a lost boy reveals they are not alone in the woods, and as the unfolding disaster ravages the land, more youngsters seek refuge under her wing. The lives of her own children aren’t the only ones at stake.
When their sanctuary is threatened, Marlene faces the mother of all dilemmas: Should she save her own kids or try to save them all?