“What is the cost of lies?”

The opening line in HBO/Sky’s astounding miniseries Chernobyl. It asks a question, then spends five hours answering it.

Apparently it’s IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time. It’s not one I’ll revisit, but in terms of efficient, compelling (terrifying) storytelling, it absolutely delivers. In my new blog attempting to decode why good/bad storytelling is good/bad, I thought it’s worth looking at why Chernobyl is so effective. So having spent the first post of PK’s Writing Blog looking at endings (Game of Thrones‘ in particular), let’s go now back to the start.

Many writing tutors suggest verbalising your story’s theme in the first few minutes/pages. Blake Snyder suggests having a secondary character blatantly state the theme to our protagonist by page 7. In Casablanca, Ilsa tells Rick he sounds “like a man trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart…” – and Rick then spends the film trying to act on his convictions. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne tells Red: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Red spends the rest of the movie learning what he means.

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What is the cost of lies? Or a cassette recorder in 1986?

It’s no hard and fast rule though. Main characters can state their own theme, or it’s not stated at all. In Chernobyl we find a Soviet state fixated on swift cover-up and deceit. It’s efficient to its core, so it’s appropriate to be efficient in its own storytelling. No hanging about – the show opens with our protagonist, Valery Legasov played by Jared Harris, reflecting on two years of failed nuclear clean-up, by asking that opening question. By the end of the series, he summarises the answer to that question: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, the debt is paid.”

The true story (revealed in the excellent accompanying podcast interview with the show’s creator Craig Mazin) is that Legasov recorded these confessional and accusatory tapes, then committed suicide exactly two years to the day since Chernobyl’s accident (this isn’t really a spoiler – it happens in the first two minutes and sets up the show from there). He didn’t ask that question in real life, but TV necessitates condensing reality into palatable gripping dialogue. By having the hero ask that question in the very first line, writer Mazin gets to the nub of the show immediately.

How I Met Your Mother‘s opening line similarly sets out its stall from the off: “Kids, I’m going to tell you a wonderful story – the story of how I met your mother.” Arrested Development tells us what (or who) it’s about: “This is Michael Bluth.” Goodfellas famously sets things up with “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” No messing.

Others aren’t so swift to establish theme – and that’s fine too. Reservoir Dogs begins: “Let me tell you what ‘Like A Virgin’ is about.” Breaking Bad and Four Weddings & A Funeral both start with a string of expletives that set the chaotic-yet-fun atmosphere of a normal character thrown into chaos. They establish tone, if not the big theme.

The excellent ScriptNotes podcast (co-hosted by the aforementioned Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl, as well as two Hangover movies and two Scary Movies – it turns out you don’t have to be confined to one genre) made a good point about theme. Theme, they said, isn’t a one-word subject matter. It’s not ‘Brotherhood’ or ‘Family’. Instead, your theme should be an arguable point. An explorable question. Like Chernobyl‘s opening ask, or When Harry Met Sally‘s ‘Can men and women ever just be friends?’ Ask a question, then answer it. When you have, roll credits.

Sitcoms have a similar theme thing going on. What the show’s really about isn’t what it looks like its. Perhaps Absolutely Fabulous isn’t about the fashion industry, but about the quandary: ‘Can a daughter play mother to her own mother?’ Blackadder Goes Forth is arguably about how class intermingles at life’s worst moment – and it compellingly ended with class making not one iota of difference when Darling joins Blackadder, Baldrick and George as they left the trenches via the wrong route.

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Cunning plans no help here.

I’m trying to write a political comedy-drama right now. It opens on election night, so I had my first couple of pages full of aides zinging around with coffee and stats. Scene-setting panic – all urgent calls and reassuring the candidate. Then I saw Chernobyl‘s opening. Why not start with a question then?

My new start has my candidate staring at a TV screen, asking: “Did we win?” That touches on my show’s theme too – asking at what point politicians have truly won. There’s a much pithier opening line I’m sure – it’s a work-in-progress. But I vastly prefer those three words to the two pages of waste-of-time chaos I had in the first draft.

I’ve taken too many words to talk about efficiency of words.

Next post: irony.

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