Telling Stories True

Deadwood's "eloquent" Al Swearingen, played by Ian McShane

The prematurely-deceased HBO series “Deadwood” is in the news again, not, alas, because it is going to be resumed, but because it has just been released on Blu-ray. In a article about its new incarnation Matt Zoller Seitz writes that the technology “brings the series to glorious life” in a way that “proves why Blu-ray really matters.” He likens it “to getting a chance to stand close to a huge, elaborate mural that had previously been seen only in photographs, and admire the texture of the paint and the precision of the brushwork.”

But as a writer, what I took away from the article was what it had to say about the show’s use of language.

First of all, there was the shocking use of the F-word:

Some linguists pointed out that 1880s Americans did not use the F-word as often, or in as many grammatical variations, as characters on [David] Milch’s show; Milch replied that he’d thought about having the characters swear in period, using religious oaths instead of secular curses, but decided against it, because to modern, secular ears, 19th-century blasphemy sounds more quaint than shocking.

Secondly, some criticized the elaborate dialogue as not being realistic. Seitz defends the writing this way:

This is theatrical, not “naturalistic,” dialogue, and it’s staged and delivered with theatrical flair — passionately, paying maximum attention to the rhythm of sentences, savoring the sound of words.

I thought both of these defenses made a lot of sense. If we can make our writing more vivid by using words in unprecedented or even “inaccurate” ways, then why shouldn’t we?

History is one of my passions, but even I have to admit that sometimes history needs to be embellished in order to teach its lessons. In a “History and Hollywood” class I took when I was in college, one of the questions we were asked to consider was, “What’s the difference between accuracy and authenticity?” Or, to put it another way, “Does a film have to be accurate to be authentic?”

We were asked to evaluate historical movies based on 1) how true they were to actual facts; and 2) how well they conveyed the “spirit” of the truth. “Deadwood” was accurate in a lot of details, but as we’ve seen there was a certain amount of poetic license being taken. Did that make the series less accurate? Yes. But I’d argue that the series’ popularity came from how authentic it felt. Those characters felt like real people on the screen. Their conversations were riveting. We couldn’t help but pay attention. And in the process, we learned more about that period of America’s history than we would have ever learned from most history books.

Some writers are muzzled by their preoccupation with sticking to the rules. They’re so afraid of violating one, they never allow themselves to create. When Picasso, who could draw perfectly well in terms of realism, began to bend the rules, he unleashed his creativity. We writers can do the same.

I’m too often hampered by my preoccupation with using words accurately and I forget to tell the story. What I fail to realize, even in my nonfiction, is more truths can be taught when the reader is challenged than when he is reassured. We need to push ourselves—and our readers—to think outside the box when we tell our stories. Only then will they ring true.