The Invisible Writer

February 18, 2013 @ 7:39 pm | Filed under: , ,

penandinkDownton Abbey (which I’m discussing elsewhere so as not to put spoilers in Jane’s path) got me thinking about the man behind the curtain (or the woman, as the case may be)—the writer. My frustrations with that show have to do mostly with the way the writing is sometimes so very visible. Much of the conversation I’ve seen around the web today, including in my own post, is questioning decisions made by Julian Fellowes. In a way, he’s as much a character in the series as anyone on camera. We’re always aware of his fingers on the keys—this well-turned quip, that infuriating plot twist, this theme stated baldly and repeatedly by numerous characters until we feel bludgeoned by it.

It’s unusual, and therefore interesting, to see a show of this calibre (clearly there is something above-the-pack about Downton that keeps us all panting for the next episode, and has so many of us talking talking talking week after week) fail on a suspension-of-disbelief level with such regularity. We’re constantly thinking about the writing, and therefore the writer. This is seldom the case with other really fine shows I’ve been hooked on. Mad Men, for example—I hardly ever think about the writing while I’m watching it. Afterward, yes, generally with admiration, always with fascination.

The Wire: I don’t believe I ever once considered the people behind the curtain during the entire run of that show. I was pulled so thoroughly into the world that it became absolutely real. Sometimes I’ll see one of the actors in another role and get a jolt: but I thought you were still walking a beat in Baltimore!

LOST is an example of an excellent show which nevertheless featured The Writing as a supporting character. Indeed, there were entire seasons when I was pretty sure the writers had no idea where certain strands were going, and sometimes The Writing seemed to wander off into the jungle and be eaten by a polar bear. (I mean, that whole thing with ghostly Walt popping up now and then, after he’d been returned to the mainland—did they ever explain that? I have the feeling the young actor grew up too much over a hiatus and they had to just let the plotline fizzle away—which would be an event outside the story affecting the storyline.)

And yet I loved LOST (and still miss it), just as I have loved Downton, despite the enormous footprints The Writing leaves all over the house. (The poor housemaids, always having to clean up after it—and then it repays them by giving them the sack, or throwing their husbands in jail.)

The Downton incident that so many of us are bemoaning today is a particularly egregious case of The Writing leaping in front of the camera and announcing that it’s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. An off-camera, real-world decision by an actor seems to have annoyed The Writing, possibly outraged it, and it rummaged through the cupboard until it found a rusty old overused implement and flung it through the fourth wall.

As a writer myself, I like to ponder the people behind the curtain—after the fact. When the show’s over and I’ve emerged from its world, that’s when I like to imagine the discussions in the writers’ room or trace the artful seed-planting that bears delicious fruit somewhere down the line. Arrested Development is one of the best examples ever of a show whose writers are so perfectly invisible that I never think of them at all during an episode—and then afterwards, or four episodes later, or on the seventh viewing, I’ll find myself marveling at their skill, their cleverness, their patience (allowing a joke to bide its time and blossom half a season later). That’s a show in which the writers are never onstage, but upon recollection I’ll wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with some of their bits. What I wouldn’t give for a YouTube clip of the day they came up with Bob Loblaw! Who thought up that name? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link; you have to hear it spoken aloud.) Did the rest of the team all fall out of their chairs laughing when one of them uttered it for the first time? Were they able to get any work done for the rest of the day or was it overthrown by helpless giggles?

The internet, of course, puts us all in closer contact with the creators of our books, television shows, films, and music. Many of you probably know me better than you know my books. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, it may be hard to approach my books without thinking of me, the writer, on the other side of the page. At least, that’s how it is for me when I open books written by people I know, either in person or online.

Sometimes this familiarity works in the writer’s favor, and sometimes it hinders full enjoyment of the work. Returning to LOST, for example: much as I loved that show, much as I hung on every next episode, I had an uneasiness in the back of my mind the whole time, because early on I’d seen a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, in which he told a story about buying a mystery box at a magic store as a kid—a box marked only with a question mark, so that you didn’t know what was inside until you took it home and opened it. He never opened his. He displayed it right there during his talk, still sealed up decades later. It held more meaning for him as a possibility, a mystery; he’d kept it as a talisman all those years, a symbol of the joy of the unknown. I listened to him describe this—it was early in Season 2, I think—and I thought, Ohhhh NO, he likes unanswered riddles. LOST had us up to our ears in unanswered riddles, and by golly I wanted answers; but knowing what I knew about one of the most powerful people behind that particular curtain, I no longer had confidence answers would be provided.

(And yet I dove eagerly into that quicksand pit of riddles week after week.)

With novels, it seems generally easier to tuck the writer back behind the curtain and forget about him or her. Not always, but usually, if the story is well told. This is probably because there are fewer variables; your novel’s characters can’t quit on you, or send unfortunate tweets, or be arrested for drunk driving. It’s only when a book has plot holes or something clunks that I’m back to thinking about the person behind the page. Sometimes it’ll even be the editor who draws my focus; I’m thinking: Why didn’t you catch that? This story didn’t start until chapter three, and it’s your job to break that news to the writer. 

(Perhaps I think this because I’ve had the good fortune of working with truly excellent editors who perceive all things visible and invisible.)

It’s a strange age we live in. What I want as a writer is to be invisible on the page; I don’t want the reader thinking about me at all. I believe that if I’m doing my job right, you’ll have forgotten about me within a few paragraphs—or perhaps a few pages, if you know me with some degree of familiarity. And yet, as an author (i.e. writer of published books), I’m aware that my publishers expect, and my books’ survival may in part depend on, various kinds of visibility. And then I’m also a blogger, eight years in love with the form—a medium which is all about person-to-person sharing, and which sometimes brings me more direct satisfaction than my books.

(Am I allowed to admit that? It’s true, though. Most writers I know go on being critical of their own work long after it’s been published. Not to mention the blunt reality of things sometimes going out of print.)

So our various selves are all intertwined, these days: the reader, the writer, the viewer, the performer. I’m reading your novel on one screen and chatting about your hellish commute on another. I’m watching your movie and thinking about that perplexing remark you made in a blog post. I’m head over heels in love with your television show—and desperately wishing you’d written yourself out of this particular script.

Which I suppose is where my point is. I don’t mind the intertwined identities; in fact, I rather enjoy them, as long as they don’t affect the work. The more I respect your talent and skill, the less I want to think about you while I’m enjoying your art. I’ll eagerly go and hear you speak about it later—that’s a joy, hearing creative people discuss their work. But I don’t want to be in a writing workshop with every single creator I encounter. I don’t want to think about your writerly choices, and what drives them, not in the moment, not while I’m immersed in your work. Give me invisible craft. Let me believe, just for this hour, that there are no puppet strings, no hands pulling them. Let me believe there’s no one there behind that curtain—let me forget the curtain exists at all.

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27 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    Such an interesting post. Firstly, I can say that I never think of you when it comes to your books. Infact I find it hard to get my head around the fact you wrote them. Perhaps that’s due to my idolisation of authors and you are such a real person. I don’t know.

    You wrote a little while ago about an author you loved who wrote different kinds of things and they were all enjoyable. To me, that is the superior author – one who tells a story in its own voice. I love stylists like Patricia McKillip or Connie Willis, with whom you can count on a certain level of skill and eloquence. I’ll buy their books because I love their style. And I’m reading the writing, rather than the story, you know? I most admire those rare authors who get out of their own way and let the story shine through.

  2. Julie says:

    What a wonderful reflection on writing and The Writing and the writer and The Writer. You know what bothers me about modern television series? That the “actors” are now the characters and their personal ambitions drive story lines (if they choose to “stay” or “go”). Wasn’t there a time when the character was king (or queen) and if an actor chose to move on, another one would replace her and fill the role. Most recently I think of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies (two different actors since Richard Harris died, and Michael Gambon took over the role).

    But even thinking back to cheesy “Bewitched” from my childhood, we had two “Derwoods.” There was no idea that you should kill off one simply because the first moved on. You found a new actor to play the role! I don’t like that that is not the case here. I love the *character* more than the actor and while I’d probably bemoan a substitute, I would prefer that to **death** of the beloved character when it is clearly premature to the story.

    So my beef with DA is that the story line is not fixed but is in service of the career choices of actors. As a result, I think that Fellowes may be controlled by the whims of others and doesn’t have a clear vision of a story he wants to tell. It’s more like he has a collection of ideas, people, and places he wants to explore and as long as most of the original cast will travel along, he’ll make up tales to suit the ones who stay on board while discarding those who pick new acting challenges elsewhere.

    I realize this may be an acceptable path to take for crafting a story (indeed, clearly it is as it is the one he is using, as well as happily followed for our American Downton—Desperate Housewives )). But personally, I prefer a firmer allegiance to characters and the aim of story (what do you want to tell?) rather than “How do I keep this tv series going in spite of the modern constraints of actors’ unions?”


  3. sarah says:

    What a wonderful point Julie.

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Yes, an excellent point! I’ll have to think about it. It’s hard to imagine another actor filling certain roles…and yet I’m sure that’s how people felt about Dumbledore, and they adjusted. (Would you believe I haven’t seen past film #2 or 3 yet?)

    Other actors become so linked to the part that they take it over in my mind—Colin Firth’s Darcy, for example. So magnificent, so perfect, that not only could I not get on board with the Darcy in the Keira Knightley version, I can’t even *read* P&P anymore without seeing Colin’s face. My old Darcy, whoever he was before I saw the BBC film, has faded away.

    Same thing with Aragorn.

    But yes, I’m with you that it’s intensely frustrating—and feels like a disservice to the STORY—to have a plot driven by who or who doesn’t sign on for another season. Occurs to me this is chiefly a TV problem. In live theater, there’s no guarantee the star you’ve come to see will be onstage that particular night. Film is a kind of middle ground. Harrison Ford made a fine Jack Ryan after Alec Baldwin bailed. (Of course he did. He’s Harrison Ford.)

    We’ve even managed to accept new actors in the recent Star Trek remakes. In fact, part of the fun was seeing how those actors portrayed such iconic characters.

    I’ll have to think about why it’s so different in television. So often, when a certain actor leaves the show, the chemistry fizzles. I’m sure much depends on the particular role, and our attachment to the original actor. We’ve survived a succession of Bobby Drapers on Mad Men without much trauma, but can you imagine anyone else as Don? Unthinkable.

    Sarah, I enjoyed your thoughts about style as well! You’re right—there are some writers I go to for voice, style, *feel* —to the point where I don’t much care WHAT they write about, I so love how they write it. Elizabeth Goudge, perhaps?

  5. Angela says:

    I do so hope I have your permission to share this post and train of thought with my writing class next year, dear Lissa. You touch on some wonderful discussion points, and I agree very much with you!

  6. Lori B says:

    I have to mention that the ‘Bob Loblaw’ joke has been around in Ontario for almost a hundred years 🙂 We have a chain of grocery stores founded by the Loblaw family around 1920 and a running joke has always been that the founder’s name was Robert (it’s not :). The Loblaw name is pretty common in Canada, and there are actually quite a few Roberts!

  7. Tabatha says:

    Excellent post, Lissa. I haven’t seen most of the shows you reference, but your points make perfect sense nonetheless.

  8. Katy says:

    Regarding “unanswered riddles”, I think it’s one thing if it is truly an unanswered riddle (that actually has an answer somewhere), but completely another if it was just some “interesting” thing thrown in that never intended to have a resolution or that even the writer does not know what they would do with, but it made an interesting episode. To me, the former seems mysterious, the latter just seems lazy.

    I wonder how J.J. Abrams would feel if he did open the box someday (or had it x-rayed–ha ha) and found out there was nothing inside. Part of the mystery is that there IS something in there. If there’s nothing in there, it’s just a cheap trick to get you to buy a box with a question mark on it. That’s how I feel about plot lines that are never followed up on. (And maybe why I love Sherlock–every details makes a difference! Love that!)

    In a movie (or book) the writer is deciding where you turn your gaze, you can’t turn your head around and look at what you want to yourself. I think they owe it to the ones watching or reading to follow up things they start. If they start something, they should know where they are going with it. It’s irritating not to have closure and think that whatever it was ended up just being a short-term ploy for interest.

    I agree with another actor coming in, normally I think that’s terrible, but would definitely take it over something that doesn’t seem to fit with the story at all and ends up taking down a whole show.

  9. Ellie says:

    Only briefly, and obliquely as possible (I cannot comment over at the other place?). I terms of the egregious act to which you refer, and the other one earlier this season, and the producer/writers …. There is a NYT interview with him (JF) wherein he says the actors themselves were utterly uninterested in there being any chance of second acts. So. And prime time dramas such as these don’t seem to go for the ‘replacement’ actor. So there we are.

  10. Michele Q. says:

    So much good stuff here. Lost frustrated me for the same reasons although I loved it and also miss it. Mad Men definitely draws you in and no I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Don, or Joan, or Roger . . .
    Downton is losing it for me though. I don’t read a lot about it but for your reviews at Geekmom. I wonder if a lot of the draw is the time period, the beautiful scenery and of course the fabulous accents. But the story is becoming tedious and though I am sure I will continue to watch it I fear it’s not likely to last if it continues on its current trajectory.

  11. Lori B says:

    I’m not usually as aware of the witer as I think you would be (as a writer yourself), but I’ve found while watching Downton that I sometimes think, “Why would they do that?”. “They” being the writers. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but honestly can’t remember another show that had me asking that question so often (not even Lost). 🙂

    And I agree with Julie- very good point! I think maybe our fairly new ‘culture of celebrity’ is the difference between character-centered shows and actor-centered shows?

  12. Lori B says:

    Sorry to clog up your comments, but just wanted to second Ellie- I not only can’t comment at GeekMom, I can’t even read others’ comments??

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    GeekMom uses Disqus, which I loathe with a passionate loathing. Lori, to view them, are you clicking on “X comments” below the post? (Below the author bio, actually—so it’s quite a bit below the actual post. There’s the big “related links” section, then my bio, then the comments link in tiny print.) And then you have to scroll down past an ad to actually *get* to the comments. (Ugh. The formatting over there is up to Wired.)

    Ellie, I’m wondering if Disqus is perhaps incompatible with iPad or mobile users? I think there’s a mobile version of but I’m not sure how extensive it is.

  14. Lisa says:

    Julian is a puppet master and we are the puppets. I got so fed up with him this season that I’ve written my own Downton Abbey thru the Coronation in ’52 with a modern day epilogue!!!!! How dare you take sweet, doofy eyes-to-die-for Anthony away!! Admittedly he can’t help that Dan and Jessica decided to leave and thank God he avoided the Monarch of the Glen train wreck of Archie/Matthew off in New Zealand or somewhere. Another commenter mentioned the two Darins–I think of the 2 Roses in “Keeping Up Appearances” or the swap of a leading character in “May to September” and I give real thanks that we didn’t get a new Matthew. But Julian can be VERY heavy handed and sometimes, it seems, forgetful–Bates spending WAY TOO LONG in jail being the ultimate in forgetful. And the whole Reggie Swire being broke and at Wonderful, wonderful Richard Carlisles’s mercy then suddenly leaving a fortune to the guy who all but jilted his only daughter. Then there’s the “da-da-da-dumB” moments which this year was dumped on poor dear Anthony who got to tell the ladies that automobile travel is the safest way ever to travel–did they learn nothing from “God himself can’t sink the titanic.” You just KNEW when you saw that sweet little ride of Matthew’s that it was curtains for him even if you DID manage to miss the billions of spoilers and the well splashed announcement of Dan leaving the show. And sometimes Julian blows amazing opportunities (not just Anthony) such as the horror that was Shirley McClains totally cardboard charcter.

    I was reminded again in this week’s episode though why I love the show–the richness. The visual richness of the show pulls me in again and again. I loved all the detail we were shown at the train station and in the hall at Shrimpie’s. I loved the emotion–particularly Robert’s as he cringed thru Shrimpy and Susan fighting. I loved too the idea clash of generations of servants–the young boys lounging in the Drawing Room (Alfred, uneasy, but joining in), and Edna going for Tom and Carson devotedly carrying around his fussy “grand daughter.” I adored the WTF attitude of Edith to the family’s constant marginalizing of her and her feelings. Have it on with Mr. Rochester in the Heather and shock your father, Edith–you aren’t getting any younger.

    I was struck on re-watching Gosford Park (hadn’t seen it since it came out) how it is Downton–the pilot episode. Same pacing, same writing, but with meanness, skeltons in every closet and impersonal sex in the ironing room every night. Julian has the “feel” of the age down pat thank God.

    My show of shows was the West Wing and I endured the horrible middle seasons (Go ahead, writers, try to take a train in middle Indiana–how idiotic not to do your research!!!) but lovingly hung on thru thick and thin and don’t regret it. My love of this show and my years and years of Royal watching led me to pin great hopes on “The Palace” which bombed spectacularly because, I believe, Julian DIDN’T write it.

  15. Alan Gratz says:

    Terrific post! My wife and I have been discussing what I call the “Writerly” bits of Downton Abbey all season long. I had read (by accident!) some spoilery casting information before the season that clued me in to the spoilery thing that happened in the final episode (withheld here!), but I still didn’t know HOW it was going to play out. There were so many other ways that could have been handled, I thought–ways that did not echo too closely other events from this season, and ways that could have been more gracefully handled. I definitely felt the Writer’s Hand in that episode, and disliked it for that.

  16. Lori B says:

    Yes, when I click on the #comments I get a trio of little turning gears and this:

    “Nothing for you here … yet. But as you comment with Disqus and follow other Disqus users, you will start to receive notifications here, as well as a personalized feed of activity by you and the people you follow. So get out there and participate in some discussions!”

  17. Melissa Wiley says:

    OK, that’s odd. That’s what I get when I click the “My Reactions” tab right above the actual comments, but not when I click the word comments itself. (Have you tried both #comments places to click? There’s a tiny one under my bio, then a bigger one under the ad.)

    Of course the permalink itself should take you to a page with the comments showing, so something’s definitely wonky. You could try going to and creating an account/logging into your account, then reloading the GM page and see if the comments display. They’re supposed to display to all viewers, Disqus-logged-in or not.

    None of this may be worth your time, of course! 🙂 It’s just perplexing.

  18. Phoebe says:

    I know you have a TBR list as long as your arm, but you would really like John Scalzi’s novel, Redshirts. The writer, in this case called “The Narrative”, is a character all its own. Really fun, quick read, and delightfully meta. Sean and I are known to say, of particularly unbelievable plot twists, “Well, those poor people are done for. The Narrative has them now.”

  19. Monica says:

    Isn’t Downton Abbey basically a soap opera? I think that’s why the writing seems so visible – you know the twists and turns are going to go on forever, with no sure hope of resolution. When the writers make your favorite character die, etc., you feel manipulated. Plus, sometimes the writing is just heavy-handed.

  20. Lori B says:

    Lissa, thanks for checking. I created an account and tried checking comments again- no luck. And yes, it’s worth my time! Bummer I can’t get it to work 🙁

  21. Cylin B. says:

    Lissa, what a thoughtful piece about something that has long troubled me on screen and page–I always think of it as seeing the man behind the curtain in OZ–you can either let it ruin the magic for you or keep on believing. Sometimes I can go on and love the work, fully seeing the puppet master (I’m thinking of instances like knowing Stephen King was writing about himself & his own battle with alcoholism in THE SHINING, which actually, for me, adds depth), but other times seeing those gears spinning really destroys the story (I’m looking at you, DOWNTON!)

  22. Irene says:

    Lissa, after not being able to see any comments to your Downton recaps up until now, I was finally able to read them a minute ago! I am using my iPad now, and had previously always been on my desktop pc (using Windows) when I couldn’t view the comments. I wonder if others having problems viewing comments are using Windows?

  23. Melissa Wiley says:

    Interesting! Lori, what are you using?

  24. Lori B says:

    I’m using Windows!

  25. Lori B says:

    Just took a look through Chrome, and all the comments are there! Yay!

  26. Ellie says:

    Yay, Lori! I do like reading the comments there, and Lissa I wanted to clarify: on my iPad, I can see the comments, it’s leaving them that’s trickery. But oh well!! DA is over now for aaaaaages. **weep**

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