Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What I Learned about Writing from 'The Sopranos'

In my humble opinion, The Sopranos was the best show aired on TV for ages. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought each series and watched them four times over! Every time I watched it, I learned something new.

So what is it about the programme that appeals to me?

Well for a start, the characters are believable and their situations interesting. Who would have thought that a show about a mob boss who suffers from anxiety attacks would get such massive ratings? Or that the final ending would cause so much controversy?

As a writer, who pens both fiction and non fiction, here's what I learned from The Sopranos:

1. Not to make my villains all bad

There's no doubt about it, mob boss Tony Soprano is a bad guy, after all, if you cross him you're liable to end up six foot under. Now if he was an out and out hit man with no redeeming features, he would not be such a likable character. Likable? Tony Soprano? I hear you cry. Yes. The guy does have some redeeming features. He likes animals. Remember how he got upset when he found out that the family dog had not 'gone to a farm' as he thought, but was given away to his father's mistress and son? Or the time, the race horse, Pie-0-My, bought by his cousin, Ralph Cifaretto, gets sick. Tony rushes over to the stables and pays the bill. The vet has been withholding treatment because Ralph hasn't been paying him. Tony stays and comforts the horse. Tony is absolutely devastated when the horse eventually dies in an insurance-fiddle fire at the stables.

So Tony cares about animals but does he care about people? Yeah, sure he does. He cares about his children. He wants them both to have good lives. Whether he truly cares about his wife, Carmela, is of course debatable because of his constant affairs. He also shows kindness to his mother even though she plotted against him and to Uncle Junior in some respects, even though he shot Tony.

So, he's not all bad. He has a vulnerable side and that's what we like about him. We laugh with him and we cry with him.

2. My plots need to be character led

Plot evolves from character. Have you noticed how if Tony has a bad day then everyone else is going to know it and his actions have a ripple-on effect? He might shout at his son, AJ, for example, let his wife Carmela down by sleeping with another woman, walk out on his shrink Dr. Melfi in the middle of a session, or even worse, put a bullet in the back of someone's head!

I have learned that character drives plot. Not only that, but character is plot and even certain settings can become characters in themselves. For example, The Bada Bing club can evoke feelings of menace at times when something sinister is afoot, or equally, it can feel a light hearted place depending on the mood of the plot. Or what about Tony's swimming pool at home? Look at the time the ducks arrived. The pool and the ducks seemed to represent how he felt at that particular time coinciding with his mood. When the ducks left he became depressed.

3. Not to sleep with the fishes

Okay, not many of us want to end up sleeping with the fishes in the ocean like Big Pussy Bonpensiero. He was like the older brother, Tony never had, but of course Tony felt justified in getting him bumped off having found out he was an FBI informant. Tony's haunted by it later of course. But that aside, 'not sleeping with the fishes' here, with regards to writing, I'm talking about is not letting my manuscript gather dust in the drawer or languish on disc. If it never sees the light of day then I've little chance of seeing it published. I need to take a chance and send it out somewhere and if it gets rejected, then back out it goes again and again until it finds a suitable home. Some times it might need some revision to make it publishable but that's not always such a bad thing if it makes my story even stronger. I need to be in it to win it!

4. Keep the reader guessing

The ending of The Sopranos has to be one of the most controversial endings of all time. There are those who felt cheated by it and those, like myself, who have read something else into it and feel in retrospect that it was a brilliant ending.

Many fans anticipated a bloody massacre for emotionally tortured New Jersey captain, Tony Soprano, his mob, and even his family.

David Chase, the show's creator, who wrote and directed the finale, chose to cut to a blank screen which left many viewers wondering if the connection to their television sets had somehow worked loose. As the ending is ambiguous, there is another way to look at it of course, that maybe Tony and his family just had an uneventful evening at the diner after all and that the suspicious looking man who left to go the gentleman's room [a scene reminiscent of The Godfather] did just that, went to relieve himself and did not go there to grab a gun hidden in the cistern to shoot Tony and co while they were in the middle of eating a plate of onion rings! This scene gave the viewer the impression that Tony would be forever looking over his shoulder in the future.

We shall never know for certain of course. I prefer to think of Tony, Carmela and the kids still alive and living somewhere in a parallel universe. But that's the beauty of David Chase's ending, he left the reader guessing. There's nothing worse than a predictable ending and that one was anything but! So in summary, the things I've learned are that villains shouldn't be all bad, character drives plot, manuscripts need to get sent out and to keep the reader guessing!

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