How to write really good Doctor Who stories

People often ask me “Where do you get your ideas…?”.

Actually, they don’t. Generally speaking they’ll say “You have too much free time”, or some variation thereof. It usually follows a video; some investment of idiocy where the spit and polish has taken hours. I will point out, as diplomatically as possible, that this is just about the most hurtful thing you can say to someone who’s taken the trouble to create something: that it implies that the time they spent on something constructive is in some way less valuable than time they might have spent scrolling through news feeds, or playing sports, or watching Love Island. We don’t do this stuff in addition to poker nights or binging Netflix box sets; we do it as a replacement. Most of us have no more or less free time than you do – it’s just we use ours differently. In many ways this quest for clarity is a fool’s errand, but it is a message that I will continue to spread because otherwise they will say it to someone who is even more bothered by it than I am.

But I often encounter people who post ideas for ideas and want help. “I’ve got this idea for a story,” they’ll begin. “The Master has kidnapped all the Doctor’s companions and he has to rescue them all.” To which I’ll say well, that’s not a story, that’s a beginning. Or possibly a midpoint. Either way it’s a scene, not a story – an action, not a motivation. Why’s he kidnapped them? What’s his game plan? In what respect might the Doctor be hindered or aided? When and where are you setting this, and why there / then? How do you expect any thoughts when I have, at this stage, nothing to actually think about? Worse still are the ones who submit two paragraphs and then want your appraisal, copy-and-pasted into the Facebook comments. They act all earnest and unworthy, but it is thinly-veiled compliment fishing, the need for an ego boost.

Perhaps that’s unfair. But listen: if you want to write, you write. There is no other way of doing it. You write and you write badly and then you get better. And you write your story, not the one that other people have concocted for you. It’s not a democracy (said Philip Pullman); if you don’t know where the plot is going, how should anyone else? It’s different if you’re stuck, if there are narrative cul-de-sacs or technical problems or holes that you’ve dug around your characters that are seemingly too deep to climb. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re backed into a corner, so long as you’re prepared to ignore every piece of advice you’re given and listen, instead, for that still, small voice in your head – no, not the one that says you’re crap, the other one, the one who’s got a solution and an exit strategy. But please. Don’t come to me with two hundred words and then ask me for an opinion. Give me something I can actually work with.

“Here’s one I wrote yesterday; it’s called ‘The Oncoming Storm’…”

At the same time there are things I’ve said to people that I’ve committed to memory and resolved to write down somewhere permanent, or at least semi-permanent, in case they ever come up again. And seeing as there seems to be a plethora of new written material saturating the web at the moment – not to mention a ton of would-be writers following along thinking “Ooh, I could have a go at that” I thought I’d share a few thoughts here on how I go about crafting a Doctor Who story. Notice I said stories, not fiction. Writing a book is a different matter – I’ve done that, and it requires grit and commitment and, more to the point, it’s a whole other article, one I may one day write. Let’s not run before we can walk.

Here’s a disclaimer: I’ve got hundreds of Metro articles under my belt (most of which were dreadful), but that’s largely it as far as the professional side goes. Any fiction is strictly on an amateur basis – I lack an agent, a book deal and indeed any interest from a publishing house. This makes me completely unqualified to tell you what I’m about to tell you, at least it does if all you’re interested in is a list of accreditations that will give my advice some clout (not that you should be looking for clout – there are hundreds of online guides that start with “The author has written in X and Y and has produced stories that were shortlisted for…”; these are often leaky vessels and they must be approached with caution, as many of them will prove far from seaworthy). On the other hand I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to string a sentence together, even if that last one was excessively long. It’s one of the few things I can actually do reasonably well. So please take what follows with the necessary pinch of salt – it is the opinion of one person – but if you find yourself nodding in agreement at least once or twice, then I suppose my work is done.

Allons-y!

1. Don’t expect to get published. There are thousands of you and the market is fierce. Always seek to improve but remember, as you grow, that raw talent is only part of this; an enormous amount of success is down to social media presence, timing and the ability to self-market, not to mention sheer dumb luck. There will be many published stories you read that are, you are convinced, vastly inferior to your own. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, so deal with it. Chances are you’re not going to make any money, but that needn’t be a bad thing, so long as you have both eyes open. Anyway, you’re in this to tell stories, remember?

2. You’re not better than Chibnall. Well all right, maybe you are. I mean I don’t know you. But effective scriptwriting is an entirely different kettle of fish to the ability to string a few words together in prose. And even if you’re writing scripts, storytelling is only part of the equation – there are budgets, series arcs and intended audience to consider as well. Don’t go thinking you know more than the people who get paid to write this, because chances are you don’t: I frequently encounter unpublished authors on the internet who are convinced that an online degree and a couple of anthology inclusions makes them the next Michael Ondaatje, and I tend to give them a wide berth. “You must have,” quoth Roald Dahl, “a degree of humility.”

3. Pick your Doctor carefully. There is a novel I read a while back called Ten Little Aliens. It’s standard fare: a group of marines go on what appears to be a routine training mission only to discover a terrible secret. There are angry young men (and women) and budget-swallowing explosions and a lot of people get killed. There is even, in the book’s latter third, an ambitious and not entirely successful Choose-Your-Own-Adventure section. It’s grandiose and over-ambitious and it has a suitably tense finale, so a number of boxes are ticked.

The problem is this: the story is vaguely contemporary and American in feel; it has the ambience of something like Starship Troopers or Aliens, both of whom it closely emulates. And it just doesn’t fit with the First Doctor. This is a world of dank ventilation shafts and vast echoey temples and dismemberment and sweat and testosterone; it’s difficult to imagine Hartnell huffing and puffing along those dimly lit corridors with his cane. Stephen Cole (the book’s author) does his best to give Ben and Polly something to do, but even Ben is completely out of his depth in this world of pulse rifles and high-tech cameras. It felt as if Hartnell had somehow wandered into another Doctor’s story, and the net result is a book that is decently written, but jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. Either Cole was desperate to tell this story and use his favourite character no matter what, or he was answering a commission and got saddled with the wrong incarnation. Either way, it doesn’t work.

In many ways, the adoption of existing characters makes your job much easier – it provides a template – but that’s the sort of thing you’ll need to bear in mind as you approach any work of DW fiction, even a short story. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ wouldn’t have worked with Capaldi, Bill and Nardole; it is impossible to imagine Troughton in ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Some of it is contextual (‘Dalek’, for example, was written within the frame of the Time War), but it’s not just about the setting, it’s about how you’d expect the characters to behave. And if this isn’t an issue for you – if, for example, you’re turning out a very by-the-numbers base-under-siege story that would work for any combination of TARDIS personnel – then are you really telling the best story you can?

4. Keep it PG-13. This is just a personal preference, but I have yet to encounter a DW story or novel featuring sex or bad language that didn’t feel like showing off. You could arguably level that same criticism at series one of Torchwood – at least until it grew its own personality and became something far more enjoyable – but Doctor Who is a family show and while there’s nothing wrong with a provocative outfit, a bit of mild cursing or the odd spark of innuendo, anything stronger is in danger of unbalancing your narrative. The rationale behind this is that if we have to start thinking about characters having sex, we have to start thinking about the Doctor having sex, and that’s a place most people don’t want to go, so don’t. By all means pepper your story with mindless violence, graphic descriptions of dismemberment or disfigurement and plenty of blood; just keep the language mild and the clothes on. It’s a double standard – one that the likes of South Park have lampooned on more than one occasion – but it seems to be the only way to write stories that actually work.

(Please be aware, by the way, that I am not applying any of this to the murky underbelly that is Rule 34 Fan Fiction, a sub-strand that I accept has always existed, needs to exist and will always exist, at least in some form or another. It was simpler when these things were text only and we didn’t have to have accompanying artwork; nonetheless it’s a part of the fandom and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I don’t pretend to enjoy any of it, but I know some people devour the stuff like a Spaceball goes for canned oxygen. You do you.)

(As a brief sidetrack, do you want to know why I hold the Rule 34 material in such contempt? Really? Well, it comes from my first exposure to it – way back in the distant past that was 1996, when someone emailed an erotic story they’d found on a Usenet group. It was Sesame Street. It featured Elmo and Maria. Seriously, that’s enough to put anyone off.)

5. Read, re-read and then read once again every single last line of dialogue. I cannot stress enough just how important this is. It’s make-or-break. If you’re not voicing your Doctor or companion appropriately, people will notice. You know what stands out in Shadows of the Empire for me? That one scene I can’t get out of my head? It’s not the space battles or Luke honing his force powers or the final, climactic confrontation with Prince Xizor. It’s the bit where Darth Vader says “I’ll have my servants check it out”. That’s not something Darth Vader would say, ever. Anakin Skywalker, perhaps. But not Vader. His characterisation is in any case completely off in Shadows, but this is the nadir: in a poorly-written novel, it sticks out like a sore thumb on an already calloused hand.

Even a single word can make a difference. Let’s say, for example, that you have a scene where the Doctor says “Wonderful!”. I can hear that from Doctors One through Eight. I’m having a hard time hearing it from Eccleston (unless it’s delivered with dripping sarcasm), or indeed from anyone in the new series, with the possible exception of Smith. If you’re using existing Doctors and companions and you’re not sure whether your dialogue sounds authentic, go back and watch some episodes with the characters you’re writing, or ask for a second opinion. You can always ignore it.

6. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘said’. You know that ‘Let’s Do It’ parody? The one with Tate and Tennant with Barrowman at the piano? There’s a curious conceit between verses: Barrowman goes through an English teacher’s handout (replied, squawked, yelled, proclaimed, ejaculated) to introduce each new section, poking gentle fun at the gossipy natter-outside-the-shops feel of Victoria Wood’s original. It’s greatly amusing, but it’s not something you should copy. No one of any merit is going to chew you out for sticking a couple of ‘said’s into your work. This isn’t primary school. Equally, do not overuse it; it does get boring if that’s the only way your characters actually express anything.

Actually, a better way of handling dialogue is to keep usage both of ‘said’ and its myriad adjectives to an absolute minimum. This does not mean that you should write pages of back-and-forth quotes between characters you do not name. It is fine if you’re Manuel Puig, but it can be hard to follow. Instead, what you do is this: you intersperse dialogue with descriptive text to make it obvious who is speaking. Examine this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party,” he said. “All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat.

“Let me help,” she said.

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself,” she said.

“You’re right. And I apologise,” he replied, standing and adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

 

Which is so much better when you write it like this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party. All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat. “Let me help.”

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself.”

“You’re right. And I apologise.” Yates stood, adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

7. Don’t repeat gags. Catchphrases are fine, provided your story does not hinge, revolve or end upon them (there are exceptions to this rule, but you have to really know what you’re doing). But don’t ever drop in the same jokes you’ve seen on TV, unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Yes, it was funny when Tennant quipped “Are you my mummy?” when wearing that gas mask. We don’t need to hear it again, so write something new. Matt Smith’s horse dialogue? Well, that wasn’t funny the first time, so God knows we don’t need a repeat performance. This goes for variations – don’t go thinking you can a fresh laugh by tweaking the odd word. If the Doctor speaks muskrat, keep it to yourself. And please, for the love of sanity, do not use ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’. Ever. I mean it.

8. Screw the continuity. This is a showcase for you, and your abilities as a storyteller. You do not need to wade through the minefield of existing material in order to ensure that your own series of events matches up to What People Already Know. If you’re doing something that’s already happened, or wading into territory that’s already charted, it really doesn’t matter that much. I’m not saying people should behave out of character. Having Jamie rejoin the TARDIS as a prominent astrophysicist, or engineering a story where Mel suddenly starts drinking heavily before hefting a plasma rifle and joining a group of marines? It might be a laugh, but you’ll have to work incredibly hard to make it even remotely plausible.

But Doctor Who has spent years ignoring its own history – and the explanations provided are scant, when they are provided at all. There are at least two or three origin stories for the Daleks. The same applies for the Cybermen, and even then no one can work out whether the new ones are from Mondas or the Lumic factory. TV contradicts Big Finish contradicts the books, the events of ‘Turn Left’ fly in the face of the episodes it references, and there is an endless debate as to whether the UNIT stories happened in the 70s or 80s. Oh, we can pretend it all makes sense, but it doesn’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either pulling your leg or understands the show far less than they think they do.

During the writing process for The Child Left Behind, I became aware of a comic that clashed with the events I was talking about in the novel. In other words, there’s a story involving the Pied Piper. It’s not a particularly well-known story; I doubt many current fans have heard of it and even fewer, I suspect, have read it. But its existence jarred with me, and I thus set about establishing a side narrative that worked in the events of that particular adventure to the story that I was writing, so as not to mess up the timeline. I think I managed, just about, but whenever I look at that book now I can’t help wondering whether it really fits. It’s a whole extra subplot that squats uneasily on the fringes, like the socially awkward friend you invited to the party, standing in a corner making each glass of wine last an hour and talking to no one.

So honestly? It’s best not to worry about it. Know your subject and know your characters and try not to retread old ground, but if you do, don’t sweat the small stuff. Continuity should never get in the way of a good story, so don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by details. Leave that sort of thing to Ian Levine.

9. Resist the temptation to show how much you know. Yes, fine, you’re familiar with the history of the Tractators, the names of every Sontaran battlefleet, the specifics of the Cyber conversion process and the ins and outs of Gallifreyan sectarianism. Does it fit the story? Really? Because infodumps are fine if you’re trying to win an argument on a Reddit thread, but they’ll slow up the action and you run the risk of annoying the established fans and alienating the new or inexperienced ones. The next time you blind your audience with technobabble or historical discourse, ask yourself a single question: does it serve a narrative purpose, or are you just marking your territory?

10. If you must write in the First Person, do not make yourself the Doctor. Look, perspective can be a tricky thing. One rookie mistake made by writers is to swap between characters with wilful abandon: writing in the Third Person is going to be your undoing if you keep switching points of view. For the most part you’ll want to pick one person per scene, and stick to it. Aside from a few stray intermezzos, the Harry Potter books tell the entire story from the perspective of its title character and, with the exception of those dreadful flashback chapters (you know, the ones that read like bad Tolkien) they don’t suffer as a result.

You don’t need to do this. But at least within each individual scene you need to leave the “He thought / she thought” seesawing out of it – and what better way of doing this than writing the whole thing in First Person? Well, knock yourself out. J.D. Salinger built a career out of it. But don’t be the Doctor. Be a companion, a supporting character, a villain if you like – but the Doctor is off limits. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Eye of Heaven; it doesn’t really work in Scratchman. The Doctor is only ever defined by the people who are along for the ride; even in ‘Heaven Sent’ Capaldi at least had someone to talk to when he was jumping out of windows and punching a wall. You cannot inhabit that head, however well you think you know your Doctor. The whole point behind the show is that we never really do.

As an addendum, it is perfectly fine to write a third person scene (or even an entire story) from the Doctor’s point of view; narrative omniscience affords that luxury. Just remember to write ‘He thought’. Or ‘She thought’, if that’s where you are.

11. Enjoy it, or at least enjoy having done it. I’m channeling my inner Dorothy Parker with this one, but it’s an important point. We were going to open with the old Tegan maxim (“If you stop enjoying it, give it up”) but I don’t think that’s necessarily the mindset you want to be carrying. The unfortunate truth is that writing – any sort of writing – is hard work, and a lot of going back and forth over those fiddly sentences that won’t quite parse the way you want them to, and getting interrupted just as you’re in flow, and periods of blockage and despair and then that Eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or the car and nowhere near a pen, and then getting back to your laptop and feverishly tapping away, all the while having to listen to that small voice in your head – yes, that one, the one that’s constantly whispering “This is prosaic shit, really, isn’t it?”

No, here’s how it works: this will not always be easy. It will not always be fun. But you will achieve a sense of satisfaction when you have achieved something you know is good – perhaps not objectively good, because that’s a pipe dream, but at least something that’s fun and accessible and that tells a complete story.  And if you get nowhere, and your audience is sparse, and you wonder why you’re bothering, there are worse role models than Paul Sheldon at the end of Misery – specifically the end of William Goldman’s screen adaptation, where James Caan is having lunch in a New York restaurant with his agent. “I’m glad the critics like it,” he says benignly, as she gushes over the reception to his new book. “And I hope the people like it too. But I wrote it for me.”

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