Kathy Fuller: What Writers Can Learn from My Mad Fat Diary

It’s not what you think…or maybe it is.

by Kathy Fuller

I LOVE BBC television. I’m a big fan of their short seasons, clever writing, tight plotting, and real characters. But I’m also envious of BBC. The writers seem to have much more freedom to be honest, messy, and politically incorrect. They take chances. My Mad Fat Diary is one of them.

The story premise (based very loosely on the published diary of Rae Earl) is straightforward: set in 1996, an overweight teen with self-esteem issues re-enters the world after a stint in a mental hospital. Rae’s issues have issues–she’s fat, her mother is self-centered, her father is absent, her best friend is often her worst enemy…the list goes on. To deal, she overeats, cuts herself, and is suicidal. Pretty much your standard angst-ridden coming-of-age story.

Except when it’s not. There’s an excellent balance between melodrama and humor. The pacing is slightly askew and impulsive, just like teenage life. Basic writing formula is present, but it’s often turned on it’s head. So what can writers learn from this show?

1) Be real. This show can be painful to watch. Rae treats her mother horribly, but her mother gives it right back. The family is broken and we don’t just see it, we feel it. No sugar coating, or worse, manipulation. Every real moment is grounded in the real moment before it, and all of it is a reflection of life, whether in England or the US or 1996 or 2013.

2) Be fearless. Conflict abounds in this series. Rae is put through hell every episode–friends turn on her, she suffers embarrassing moments by the dozen, she and her mother can barely speak without drawing each other’s blood. But Rae has to go through the fire in order to be changed–for better or worse–by the end of the series. One step forward always leads three steps back.

3) Be funny. I’m all about the humor, and with this kind of heavy material, humor is a must. Of course it’s sarcastic, dry, witty humor (my favorite) but it serves an important purpose. It also comes organically–Rae is a funny girl, not just when she needs to be. It’s part of who she is, which one reason the viewer wants her to win.

4) Be inventive. This show uses different story-telling devices–flashbacks, dream sequences, protagonist narration, and graffiti-type overlays. None of that is inventive, and they’ve all been overused. But when sprinkled throughout each episode they enhance the story, like seasoning a fine meal.

My Mad Fat Diary has it’s flaws. At times it’s too rushed, and the finale should have been stretched out to two episodes. The key to this show (and to all writing) is balance, and at times the lopsidedness is glaring. But like Rae and life in general, nothing is perfect. I hope next season the writing is just as top-notch. Unfortunately I have to wait until 2014 to see it.