BBC One’s Death in Paradise is one of the top three most popular programmes on British Television, enjoyed on screen as well as in a series of novels: we asked its creator, Robert Thorogood – how does writing the novels compare to writing the screenplays? Don’t miss Robert at Noirwich 2018 on Sunday 16 September.
Although the genre, style and tone of the books and TV shows are broadly the same, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the process of writing for both of them is wildly different.
The first and most obvious difference is that the TV series really is a gang show: from original idea through to finished script, each writer on the TV show is helped by the input of the other writers, a script editor, story producer and other execs on the show. It means the writers are constantly supported, and the entirely natural crippling fear, doubt and panic any writer feels trying to get a story to ‘land’ is shared among the whole group.
Whereas when you write a novel, you’re on your own. And not just for a few days or weeks. For months. This can be hugely liberating (up to a point), as you can make and implement decisions in the story as quickly as you can think of them, but I have to confess that I really miss that feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ that a TV show gives you.
Having said that, it’s surprising how much more freedom there is when you’re writing a novel rather than a TV show.
This is mainly because novels don’t have any budget restrictions, problems with hiring locations, actors’ availability, or sudden tropical downpours (or hurricanes) to contend with. In a TV show you’re always limited by what you can actually shoot, whereas with a novel you only have to write a sentence and you can conjure anything into existence.
For example, both of the stories for books one and two in the Death in Paradise series were ideas I’d first pitched as TV episodes, but we’d not been able to make them ‘work’. This was because the murder in A Meditation on Murder required a Japanese style paper tea house we couldn’t afford to build; and The Killing of Polly Carter required a cliff from which to throw a supermodel – and there’s no such cliff anywhere on Guadeloupe (where we film the TV show).
What’s more, we tend to have only limited locations in the TV show, because it’s already so very expensive to make each episode, whereas in a novel it’s possible for the police to go anywhere on the island for free. (This was something it actually took me quite a while to realize, and I’ve tried to make this a feature of Book 4 – Murder in the Caribbean, published in December 2018 – where I’ve purposely come up with a story that takes us on a tour of the whole of the island of Saint Marie).
But perhaps the greatest joy of writing the novels rather than the TV show is that a novelist gets to access his or her characters’ internal thoughts. Rather than rely on an actor as brilliant as Ben Miller to show the audience what my hero might be thinking, it really is liberating finally being able to access his misanthropic internal monologue and actually commit it to paper.
In summary, it’s hard to say which format I prefer writing, and perhaps the only conclusion I can come to is that while TV and books are both so very different, I’m extremely grateful that I get to do both.