David R Ewens

Plotting and characters

23rd August 2018

Nobody really remembers plots. It’s characters that stick with people. But a good plot is essential for bringing the characters out. With this in mind, it was interesting to have a close look at the TV series Unforgotten, which recently finished.

The idea and shape of the programme wasn’t particularly original. There’s a cold case police team, headed by a woman and her sidekick, with a group of underlings supporting them, only about three of whom develop into characters that are not simply ciphers.

The skeleton of a young girl is discovered in some London roadworks, and that leads to a cold case in a small West Country town. The police team develops a relationship with the mother and twin sister of the dead girl once her identity is established.

Through painstaking investigation, the team works out that the girl disappeared at the same time as four families were staying in a rented house over a New Year period. The four men in the families (three of them husbands) are childhood friends. In each episode, their back stories and current activities (and tribulations) are explored. One is living a life virtually as a derelict in a camper van, another is a failing financial adviser or sales rep, another is a GP, and the fourth is a TV presenter with a drug-addict, gender-changing son. Each arouses the suspicions of the investigators, until finally the murderer is revealed.

But it’s not only the suspects whose lives are explored. The DCI, Cassie, has a tense relationship with her father, with whom she shares a house; and the wife of Sunny, Cassie’s immediate subordinate, threatens disruption in his family when she wants to return to the marital home.

It feels as though the director ran out of material half way through the final episode. By then, the murderer had made his awful confession (at the same time ‘baffled’ by how he’d turned out – that is as an emotionless psychopath). The rest of the episode is filled with a procession of reconciliations, mostly syrupy, though not before the ‘pure evil’ cliché of his awful crime(s) is referenced.

Nevertheless, Unforgotten was gripping, and useful for the writer of detective fiction. The key event at the beginning started a structure of investigation which allowed development of characters. In every case, tension of one kind or another maintained pace and interest. Cassie and her father clashed over his apparently failing memory and his new partner. Sunny’s new-found happiness with another partner was threatened by his wife’s about-turn. The GP was being investigated for professional misconduct. The financial adviser/sales rep’s marriage was falling apart because of his failures, dishonesty and penury. And so on. That Unforgotten was formulaic doesn’t matter. The plot might be forgotten, but the characters linger. It’s a useful writing lesson.