Top ten writing tips from Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect

30 Oct
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Lynda la Plante: currently working on a prequel to Prime Suspect

After a diversion to report on the Brixton Ritzy strike, it’s back to my daily reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. One of the giants of crime writing gave a hugely entertaining talk: Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect. Here are her ten tips:

1. Write like a transvestite trucker. I was an actress [in cop shows like Z Cars and The Sweeney] before I was a writer. I had a role with dialogue that made no sense, so I thought, Can I have a go? I went off and wrote three short treatments. They were all rejected, but there was one, Widows, where someone had scrawled across it, “This is brilliant.”

So I sent it to [veteran producer] Verity Lambert, but decided I wouldn’t put my acting name on, but instead put “Lynda La Plante”. When she called me in, she looked up and said, “Oh no, you’re not Lynda La Plante, are you?” Because she knew me as an actress. “We thought it was a transvestite trucker!” She told me to write episode one.

2. Make sure you have a killer treatment. My treatment for Widows started like this: “Four men planning a raid blow themselves up with their own explosives. These men left four widows: Dolly Rawlins, Shirley Miller, Linda Pirelli and Bella O’Reilly. Bereft by the loss of her beloved husband, Dolly Rawlins finds weapons, money and a detailed map of the robbery, and knows where it went wrong. She approaches the other widows and says ‘I will pay you to work alongside me and do the robbery.’” But I didn’t know how to write it from there.

3. Do your research. So I went to source.  On every TV unit there’s always someone who’s done a bit of time, so I contacted one and said I needed to find some criminals. He’s like, “Oh yeh darlin’? What sort?” “Bad ones.” “Murderers?” “Yes.” He took me to the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the Krays hung out. He said, “Do you remember that bloke who fed the bodies to the pigs on a farm?” I said yes, not knowing at all. He said, “Right, here he is. John? Come and meet Lynda.”

Then I went to prison visits, met prisoners’ wives, widows. There was one who was tough, worked a greengrocery, and Dolly began to shape. I went to the police, they said they’d help me – I had no idea of police procedure. You show respect, and just ask.

4. Know how to keep your mouth shut. I’d had one big hit with Widows, then had various commissions that had all fallen down so was feeling a bit bruised. I was learning another big lesson – to keep my mouth shut in meetings. Instead I started off, I really need to know what you’re looking for. She said, “What we really want is a woman in a leading role, working on a murder investigation.” I said, “I’ve been working on that!” Which I hadn’t. She then said, “And we want her in plainclothes.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been working on just that!”

She said, “What’s it called?” The gods were on my side: I came out with, “Prime Suspect”. She said that sounded perfect, just what they were looking for! So I agreed to bring in a treatment.

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison

5. Do still more research. The first thing I did was phone the police and ask for a high-ranking woman detective. “No problem, we have three.” Only three! That was the first insight. So I go in to meet one, and in comes my prototype for Jane Tennison: DCI Jackie Malton. She would say the male officers were so desperate to elbow her out that when they got the call to scramble the squad cars, her rank would put her in the front seat, but she got her hand caught in the door three or four times because they didn’t want to let her in.

6. Keep one step ahead of the audience. People love crime fiction, because it’s a game. They say, “I know who did it – now trick me.” I will outwit you again and again. You think you know who the killer is? No you don’t. That’s respecting an adult audience, not decapitations and blood everywhere.

7. Break the rules – for a reason. I went for a split screen on Trial and Retribution because I had become so involved in forensics [La Plante is the only non-scientist to have been given an honorary fellowship by the Forensic Science Society], and was fascinated by the process of removing a single hair from a button, unwinding it bit by bit so as not to snap it, because the bulb at the end of the hair has DNA. How do you put that on screen, without the viewer making their cup of tea and going, “What, are they still on that button?” So that’s why I did the split screen, so the action could carry on. I did not copy 24. They came to me to find out how I was doing split screen.

8. Be prepared to fight your corner. When I suggested the split screen to the head of ITV, he said, “No, most people have 16-inch screens.” So I said, “Most old ladies watching this can also have eight cards of Bingo and do them all at the same time.” He said, “You’re bloody right, let’s go for it!”

9. Someday, you may want to set up your own company. It’s depressing for writers sometimes when they present a script, and they just go thank you very much. Then editors, producers and actors all have a hand in it. Towards the end of Prime Suspect, there were too many voices telling me where the character should go, which I didn’t always agree with. Then there’s the budget – you’ll write “four patrol cars steam up”, and they’ll say in the meeting, we’ll just have one.

10. And of course, know your characters’ background. I was at a book signing and this fan asked me in a Q&A, where did Jane Tennison come from? And I didn’t really know! It was astonishing. I had no idea. I kept thinking of this: where did she get that cold, aloof exterior, that iron will? So I’m working on a Prime Suspect prequel [book out in 2015, with TV series to follow in 2016] where Jane Tennison is aged 22, a probationary officer working in Hackney police station, fresh as a daisy. Ha ha!

For Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan’s equally entertaining tips from the festival, click here.

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