Honestly what were you THINKING

On quantum emotions

Writing drama, you’re regularly asked to justify the actions of the fictional people you’re creating, to give them clear reasons for doing what they do and saying what they say.

And of course this is key to a method of storytelling that seems to have done us fine for a good two hundred years or so. But our modern world is one where a kind of information panic has led to an explosion of binaries and over-simplifications. A reactionary reduction of all the things humans could be. A world where having doubts, and asking for time to think and feel, has become a radical act.

So an unchanging model of beat-by-beat emotional clarity in our storytelling sometimes feels… a bit like it might be helping this malaise? It feels a bit old, at the very least.

Perhaps, for dramatists and audiences alike, all this realist talk of visible character motivations and their corresponding journeys has always been a nice and tidy lie we tell ourselves – a useful lie, one with a seasoning of the truth, but largely a fiction. It’s not realism at all.

Because it suggests that people know themselves, and act accordingly. 

I’m not sure I know many human beings who truly know themselves. Those that claim to strike me as even more troubled than those who put their hand up and say yeah, I’m a tangled mess on the best of days; of intentions, of contradictions, of hopes, of fears, of faults.

So, fine: people don’t always make sense, but we like our stories to. It’s part of the comfort of stories. I love those kind of stories too.

But I suppose what I’m asking here is, what if it’s also a great comfort for some of our stories to show that people very often don’t respond to analysis? To have stories that say: you’re not alone in feeling entangled beyond control, messy as fuck?

At this point you probably think, well sure, Tim, those stories exist. Watch a David Lynch film, read Angela Carter, listen to Roots Manuva or get lost in some Murakami or see a performance by Oreet Ashery, go to a play by debbie tucker green.

In different ways all of these artists work with the idea that people’s emotions sometimes lead to situations beyond measurement or reason. 

Or that emotions lead to the kind of result where you can’t know it until you see it, indeterminate until observed. Quantum emotions.

It’s not a new idea, then – but I feel there might be another step to take. I wonder if it’s healthy and good to start using the idea of quantum emotions within storytelling forms that haven’t, to date, had much of a home for them.

It’s a difficult thing to expand upon or justify. For the last couple of years I’ve been banging on about ‘quantum emotions’ in fiction to anyone who will listen, but I’ve always floundered when trying to give a working model. I don’t think it always has to be about abstraction and / or poetry and / or the uncontrolled. What I fear is that my ramblings make it sound like all the above.

So this notebook entry is the beginning of trying to lay something out with a sliver of clarity. And even then, it’s going to end abruptly for no reason in 17.5 paragraphs.

A few years back I wrote a play called Heartworm that won a big prize, and at time of writing is still on a long journey to production. I think this long journey might be because Heartworm looks like a piece of new writing theatre, but feels like a dream, and trying to push it too much in either direction unbalances the whole. 

The drama portrays a situation that seems to make sense, and then increasingly oscillates in its logic, but constantly skirts the possibility that it’s intended as realism of some kind – even as it dips in and out of horror and science fiction and fantasy. 

As a script, it came from a tumble of highly emotional, sometimes contradictory intentions, unformed but vividly present. And one by one as I was writing, those emotional waveforms collapsed and became something that made a world I believed in completely… even if it didn’t always ‘make sense.’

Funnily enough, I think it’s one of the most accessible things I’ve ever written. And that includes the Doctor Who stories and the chart-topping podcasts and the episodes of Chinese TV drama intended for millions of viewers. I think Heartworm has the potential to speak to more people than any of those.

So while Heartworm has been gradually oscillating its way towards a stage, I’ve been taking the spirit of that writing process, the approaches that felt alive and exciting to me, and allowing them into other forms I work in. In the last few years that’s included stage musicals and computer games and genre TV drama.

This doesn’t always mean that I’m throwing curveballs in my scripts. It doesn’t mean the people I’m writing about have to be mercurial or magical or zany or weird. 

The conclusion I’ve come to is that the most important thing is not to be afraid of mystery. To welcome the indeterminate into your stories, to let the people in those stories surprise you not just through ‘surprising acts’ that will later make sense in retrospect, but also in other unfounded or concealed behaviours making themselves known – stubbornness or stupidity, curiosity, generosity, humour, shame. 

Sometimes it instinctively strikes me that even as a writer, I should never know why one of my ‘characters’ did a particular thing they did. Never. I’ll spend the rest of my days guessing, along with everyone else.

If we’re always always writing about what it is for someone to have gone from A to B or 1 to 60 or shadows to light, to have charted a definitive course, then what we’re actually writing about is what it is to be dead. We’re writing in past tense, about legacy and readily available information and the eyes of the world on what was done, and how, and why. That’s OK… stories about being dead are well useful. However.

If we’re writing about what it is to be alive, we won’t have all the information. We don’t know what it means to be alive. 

To be alive is to be mysterious.

And when it comes to writing the lives of the people in our stories, if we always understand the flow of their emotions, it won’t ultimately feel alive. We might not be able to put our finger on it, but on some level it won’t feel true and present. Sometimes that’s fine, because what you want is a good basic story with an ending that makes total sense. But that’s not always what you want – especially if you’re hoping to create a fiction that gives people new, exciting tools for the whole ‘being alive’ thing.

I mean there are plenty of places where this hifalutin attitude won’t work. It won’t work in soap / continuing drama, for instance, where it’s essential that the viewer at least vaguely understand what’s about to happen before it happens – and certainly after it’s happened. It won’t always work within the very heaviest of genre conventions, but I reckon it’s worth a shot now and then.

For the writer to say:
I don’t know why

but not just that, to stress:
It’s important we don’t know why

and sometimes even to say:
It’s vital that we’ll never know why

These are sometimes tough things for your collaborators to hear; especially script editors and dramaturgs and financiers and producers. Because it leads to the suspicion that the writer is avoiding something, or worse, simply doesn’t know what they’re doing.

But, ironically enough… it actually means I really, really know what I’m doing. It’s becoming a core part of my storytelling skills. I think that if I can ac