Inside No 9 is writing at its best

Have you been watching InsiScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 13.30.50de No 9? No? Well you should be. It’s in its third series now (tonight, 10pm, BBC2, is the last episode – don’t miss it), and it’s some of the best television I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I love it for the pure entertainment value – it’s sometimes scary, occasionally funny, often sad, regularly unsettling and never less than brilliant. And I also love it because the writing is just wonderful. As a lesson in storytelling, I really think Inside No 9 can’t be bettered. At the end of each episode I always find myself wishing I could sit in on the writing sessions shared by its creators Reece Sheersmith and Steve Pemberton – just to see how their minds work.
For those who don’t know, Inside No 9 is an anthology of unconnected stories, each set behind door number nine. There has been an episode that played out via the clues in a cryptic crossword, one that was completely silent, and an episode starring Sheridan Smith that had such a twist in its tail that I find I still think about it months and months after watching. There was one on a sleeper train, one in a karaoke booth, one in call centre… they are varied and original and it’s hard to pick a favourite episode from the three series.Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 13.30.08
I have a hatred of overly long films. I firmly believe that if you can’t tell a story in less than two hours, you shouldn’t tell it at all. I still have nightmares about the months (it was months, right? Or did it just feel that way?) I spent watching Lord of the Rings. Inside No 9 makes me feel like my dislike of waffle has been vindicated. Every single word either moves the story forward, or adds a layer to the plot, or sets up the final twist. And for writers that’s a really important lesson to learn.
Like many writers, I’m sure, I am often guilty of padding; adding extra words to a scene just because. I know how my heroine is wearing her hair in this scene, I find myself thinking, so everyone else should know too. But Inside No 9 has taught me that unless it’s a vital part of the story, then the heroine’s hair isn’t really relevant. Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 13.30.29
Of course not all writing is like this, and sometimes it’s fun to play with language or write glorious descriptions. But in terms of plotting a novel, there’s a lot to learn from Sheersmith and Pemberton.
In the crossword episode – The Riddle of the Sphinx – the characters talked about Chekhov’s gun. That’s the dramatic ‘rule’ that if there is a gun in the first act, then it needs to be fired before the end of the play. It means that everything has to be relevant to the action – otherwise it has no place in the play. Inside No 9 shows this off to perfection – and I’m going to try my very best to remember it when I’m plotting my next story.

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