Things I Learned About (Action-Based) Writing from Horatio Hornblower

Recently I have been obsessed with the miniseries Horatio Hornblower, the story of a young man who wins glory at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. I’m not going to attempt to do it justice in this blog post, since I’m trying to get some other writing done, but if you haven’t watched it, you’re missing out. Especially if you have a thing for the BBC miniseries. It’s classically cheesy, swash buckling, and fantastic. I liked it enough that I put down the book I was reading and ordered the Young Hornblower omnibus (the first three books) from the library. The books are always better than the movies, right?

Young Hornblower doesn’t quite sweep me away like I thought it would. It’s not a great surprise that my excitement is reduced, seeing as I don’t have a strong understanding of naval terms and ship anatomy, so it’s easier for me to visually process what’s going on in the miniseries during an action scene. But the sense of strength and cameraderie is missing from the books, in a sense. In the miniseries, Hornblower’s got a whole crew of secondary and tertiary characters who bring out different parts of his character. In the books, the characters behind Hornblower change constantly so I haven’t developed an affinity for anyone else (Note that I’m only partway through the second book, though, so this might change). The format is also strange, for a book series – the first book has chapters that function like episodes, recounting isolated incidents in the life of the young Horatio Hornblower. While this made it greatly adaptable to television, I wasn’t a fan of the style. It was almost as though C.F. Forester wrote a serial for a magazine before being picked up for a full novel.

All of this rambling is only a preface to discussing some of the things I appreciated about the storytelling in the miniseries. Sorry about that. But here are some of the things that made Horatio Hornblower, the miniseries, something addictive to me:

  • Flawed Characters: I’m not just talking about Horatio here, though it sometimes seems he’s got more flaws than good points. Virtually all the characters had flaws. Oftentimes their flaws were shown in a manner that made me laugh. And on the other side of things, virtually all the ‘bad’ characters, or characters with whom Hornblower had a strong conflict, had something that redeemed them. It’s easy to provide a backdrop of characters that don’t do much and stick to one tack – support or dissent. But by making sure that every character had good and bad traits, every interaction has several factors tugging on it, not just one or two.

 

  • Strong motivations: This is another character one. People who went against Hornblower often had strong moral reasons for what they did – in other words, they truly believed their actions were for the best. A number of them were still rather cheesy about it, and of course there were a few exceptions, particularly when the miniseries was just finding its feet. But generally speaking, something greater than such influences as greed or mean-spiritedness pushed characters to act as they did.

 

  • Everything mattered: In television your characters can’t spend a morning contemplating the sunrise over the desert, the play of light on sand and rock. Things have to get done in a specific amount of time, and there’s not much to waste. Horatio Hornblower’s best episodes made certain to use every minute they were allowed to convey something important. Every incident was important to the plot of the episode, and every conversation helped both with character development and with moving the story forward. Everything was so tight knit that sometimes I think it would take me longer to explain the episode correctly than to watch it. Now, of course, this is an action-based show, and perhaps not everything is suitable for the non-action writer. But I think it can be boiled down to – every sentence should matter. In a book, every sentence should contribute somehow to the overall story. My creative writing teacher once told our class, “Write prose like you have to pay a dollar for every word you put down on the page. Write poetry like you have to pay five dollars for every word.” That stuck with me. If everything matters, it will also keep people engaged. They won’t skip the long paragraphs because they’ll be afraid of missing something.

 

  • Each Story is Complete, but has an Open Ending: I was griping about this a couple of months ago. You’re reading along, your book’s just winding up to a climax, and then BAM. No more pages. Check back in our next installment to find out how the story you purchased ACTUALLY ENDS. As you can see, this might be a tiny pet peeve of mine. It’s the next big thing in selling books – you’ll be hooked and grab the next volume if the first one cheats you of an ending! Thankfully, each episode of the miniseries was complete (with the exception of one two-parter, which I can forgive because it was so freaking amazing). Horatio was given an assignment, came into conflict, ingeniously fought his way free, impressed his superiors and all was well and good. The end was always left open, so we knew that more was forthcoming, but only one episode wholly relied on its predecessors. Now, I love book series and I think there’s nothing wrong with having a closely knit lineup. I think people are less likely to read only the fourth book in a series than they are to watch only the fourth episode of a miniseries. That being said, there is a structural soundness to a complete story, and in my opinion Horatio Hornblower does it very well.

That’s all I’ve got, for now. But maybe some of you have tips you picked up from a separate art form. It doesn’t have to be television or film, it could be any type of art.