Paul Cornell on Pulse

Wednesday 2 June 2010, 16:15

Piers Beckley Piers Beckley

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We asked writer Paul Cornell to talk about writing a scene in his new medical horror drama pilot Pulse. You can watch Pulse on BBC3 at 9pm on Thursday June 3rd, or right now on the BBC3 blog.

You may want to watch the show first - spoilers ahead.

There's one scene in the pilot script of Pulse that myself and producer Helen Gregory went back and forth on many, many times. It's right near the end, when Hannah is confronting Nick in the hospital corridor. James Hawes, our director, had scouted the building he wanted to use, and told us that there was a 'laundry cage' of some kind in place, to give Hannah somewhere she could hide in, but where Nick couldn't get at her. Emotionally, the scene takes Hannah from fearing her ex-boyfriend to fearing for him. But the problem was, it's the site of our exposition. Pulse is a medical thriller, and Hannah is right at the heart of it. It's her journey, through the episode and the series. This is the point where she, if her quest is to mean anything, has to learn something about the dark goings on behind the scenes at this NHS hospital.

There's a reason Michael York's character in the Austin Powers movies is called Basil Exposition. Exposition stops characters being characters, and makes them into simple voices for the production. The audience can always hear the gears changing, and character receding so they can be told 'what they need to know'. Sometimes, for instance in crime series, they quite like that. And these days, the reluctance to offer any exposition at all means the audience is sometimes starved of logical moments that they actually need. But nevertheless, the reluctance is there for a reason: exposition brings plot to a halt too. It's the point where characters talk about stuff that's not actually happening to them, that's about the past, or the future. And they usually stay put to do it too. Aaron Sorkin, being the kind of genius that can write shows that are all exposition, had them walk down corridors at high speed while they did it.

So, in the process of going back and forth, we worked out exactly what we needed to tell the audience to let them know what the format of the show was. That there are going to be different medical horrors every week, not just the same one repeated, that Nick wasn't happy with where the project was going, which plays off nicely against his expressed feelings elsewhere, and exactly what this week's horror was, the solution to the mystery which Hannah's been investigating, the prize she deserves for heading into danger to try and find the last element to solve that. What got cut back and cut back were the hints Nick gave about the nature of the conspiracy, of what's really going on in terms of the greater picture. We can put those in next week, or the week after. We can place them as exciting discoveries. We don't need Nick to explain himself now, when terrible things are happening and our heroes are talking against the clock.

To sort through that was a great exercise in itself, to cut exposition back to the minimum, and then to cut again. Be ruthless with your cutting: I think that's a good motto for our show. I hope that enough people watch it, and make enough noise about it, so we get a full series.

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