Smoke Gets in Your Plot

Picture the scene. The detective walks into the bar and approaches the femme fatale. Very Bogart and Bacall. He offers her a cigarette, then lights it for her. Yaaawn…

I have read so many thrillers recently which would have been two chapters shorter if the lead characters didn’t smoke. Descriptions of people fiddling with cigarettes, lighters, matches etc are simply boring. People also scratch their noses, fart and go to the loo but we seldom read about it in fiction unless it’s a plot driver.

The same goes for films and TV shows, although these divide fairly neatly into ‘smoking’ or ‘non smoking’ sections. In the latter there is a cuteness reserved for cigars and pipes in the hands of old men, even in fare aimed at children.

It may depend on the writer or the perceived audience, but all media to some extent reflects the attitude of the times. In the modern western world the educated middle class largely do not smoke, so the habit is confined to villains, members of the lower classes and characters the writers think needs a quirk. On the tip side of this, a disproportionate number of writers of my acquaintance are still smoking in one form or another, so perhaps their view of normality differs from mine. There is a trope which links smoking to stress, crisis, fatigue, recklessness, sin, excess and rebellion which of course we meet far more of in fiction than real life.

It does get tedious to watch on-screen and it starts to feel like dramatic laziness, even in shows that are otherwise excellent like Peaky Blinders or Babylon Berlin. What is the character doing? Uh oh, smoking. Like 120 per day for some characters, then. By contrast, the TV adaption of The Little Drummer Girl made the selective use of cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia a period-appropriate part of the plot.

I had fun with this trope in the Jeffrey Flint novels, as despite being a product of the 80s University system Flint doesn’t smoke – he doesn’t see the point and objects to swallowing the lies of tobacco multinationals. Instead he and Tyrone kill time eating Mars Bars, drinking Coke from cans or spinning out a pint of real ale. It’s the villains that are the smokers. As you may guess I’ve never smoked, and part of the reason is that tobacco has killed several members of my family; I don’t want to boost the bastards’ profits by making it glamorous, cute, sexy or in any way ‘manly’. None of my close friends and hardly any of my wider social circle smoke, which makes me rather like a nun writing sex scenes.

I’m currently working on a 1930s plot, so that gives me a dilemma as (a) everyone is smoking in contemporary ’30s movies and (b) ‘period’ ’30s movies made in modern times fall into either the ‘smoking’ or ‘non-smoking’ camp. Films made in the ’30s were still in the thrall of movie star glamour and the cigarette was a fashion accessory – even in fashion magazines. ‘Retro’ films either ape this style to overdose on period feel, or go for a more sanitized version of the past that doesn’t ring true. Golden Age novels also take the same approach, not seeing the problems inherent in the habit that we do now beyond certain questions of etiquette.

So how do I avoid boring not just the readers but myself with endless smoking scenes? First, assume it is just happening (like scratching noses, farting etc). Second, have a non-smoking lead. This is perfectly plausible, as despite the view that ‘everyone smoked’ back then it was not true. Tobacco consumption in the UK in the ’30s was half that in the ’40s and a third of that in the ’60s, when it peaked. With unemployment at 20% big slices of the population were simply too poor, and it was still viewed in many circles as unseemly for women. With a statistic at the equivalent of 4 cigarettes consumed per day per adult, there is plenty of scope for 1930s characters who don’t smoke at all or do so with restraint. I was interested to discover that the male and female leads in both Martin Edwards’ recent Gallows Court and Rory Clements’ Corpus are non-smokers. Perhaps I’m not the only one with this view.

So, a clean-air breathing hero braves the ’30s. I am going to have some fun…

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