What, where, when, how and why are the necessary elements of every great story, but in my not-so-humble opinion, the ‘why’ is the key. Without it, the event [what], its setting [the where and when], and the mechanics of how it happened are like the dry pages of a history book – factual but boring. Only the why brings the story to life because the why is always about people.
We are eternally fascinated by ourselves, but most of us are small, insignificant motes living small, insignificant lives. Only in fiction can we become something more. Only in fiction can we live bigger lives…from the safety of our armchairs.
In The Game, a six-part drama produced by the BBC, we are taken back in time to the Cold War when the Western democracies were pitted against the Soviet Union in an undeclared, covert war fought by spies, assassins, traitors, and information gatherers. Both sides had developed nuclear weapons post World War II, so if either side started a physical war, the result would be mutual destruction, many times over. It would be the end of everything.
I grew up in Australia during the Cold War, and although we felt very distant from all the pushing and shoving in the northern hemisphere, the possibility of being wiped off the face of the planet was very real. I remember reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and wondering how I would spend my last hours of life. Trust me when I say that the fear was real, as was the threat.
That is the ‘where’ and ‘when’ in which The Game unfolds. The ‘what’ is Operation Glass. No one in the UK’s MI5 know what Operation Glass is about, but they all know there might not be a UK if the Soviet plot is allowed to succeed. The following is a short trailer from Episode 2:
All of the people shown in that scene are key players in MI5, and you automatically relate to them as the ‘good guys’, but are they? Bit by bit as the six episodes unfold, we learn snippets from the past of each player, but these snippets are not just nice to know background fluff, they are the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Put the pieces together correctly and you discover how Operation Glass took MI5 by surprise.
If you know anything about that period of UK history, you’ll know that deep cover traitors were discovered. To say more would be to spoil a part of the story. Suffice to say that the ‘why’ of each character in The Game is vital to the story.
If I were doing a movie review, I’d give The Game 5 stars along with a recommendations that you watch it on ABC iView [for Australians]. But I’m a writer, and I have to say something more, something about balance. The ‘why’ may be key to any story, but it has to be balanced by all the other elements.
Frankly, nothing bores me more than a work of fiction that reads like a therapy session using fictional characters as the medium. Yes, the deep hurts of our lives are necessary if we want to write strong, believable characters, but great stories require that we sublimate those hurts. Great stories require that we find the universal in the personal. We have to find the elements that are common to us all. Only then can we write three dimensional characters that all of us can relate to.
And then we have to place those characters in terrible situations from which they will emerge stronger, braver, better…or dead. Okay, not always dead, but you know what I mean. 🙂
May your stories grab readers by the short and curlies, and may your characters display motivation we can all recognize! Write well, all you wonderful Indies out there, and may 2021 see you all gain the recognition you deserve.