In the spirit of George Orwell, here’s a classic demonstration from Yes Minister of how to spin an argument to get the result that you want.
“In fiction the accuracy and coherence of the imaginative narrative must be strong enough to impart a vision of truth to the reader.” Peter Ackroyd.
Apparently the same does not apply to finance, which is finally facing up to the idea that some things actually are too good to be true. Or tobacco, where cigarette companies are only now being forced to admit that “light” cigarettes are just as likely to kill you as the full-fat version. Or government, where the latest Department of Transport efficiency programme has managed to save £57m … at a cost of £81m.
Orwell has long been a hero of mine, for a number of different reasons. There’s his personal courage in the Spanish Civil War; his brilliant understanding of the nature and methods of fascism – and indeed all kinds of fundamentalism; and the number of his ideas and phrases that still resonate today: Big Brother, doublethink, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and many more. Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular now feels like a primer for the so-called (and how Orwell would have mocked the phrase) war on terror, and Big Brother’s mantra “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” like an epitaph for the presidency of George W Bush.
But what makes Orwell particularly relevant to Mastersvo is his dedication to rigorous thinking and clear language. In his classic essay Politics and the English Language Orwell outlined some of the ways in which language can be used as a weapon of persuasion, deception and obfuscation. “If thought can corrupt language,” he wrote, “then language can also corrupt thought”. Good writing, on the other hand, should be “like a windowpane”: you should be able to look through it to see exactly what is being written about. This is especially important in screenwriting, which gives you only very limited verbal tools to bring an entire visual, aural and emotional world to life, and where every image has to count towards the story. So here are Orwell’s six rules towards good writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never us a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to.
There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:
The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. [...] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:
1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?
This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”.
This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone.
Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.