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Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

The Rich Writer: Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Friday, July 1, 2011

Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

I used to spurn TV. Why would I waste all that time sitting in front of the tube when there are so many other things to do in life? Why not spend the time writing, instead?

*Photo credit

Well, despite that lovely black-and-white vision of the world, I now watch the occasional TV series. Why? From a writer's perspective, there are numerous reasons to indulge in this visual form of storytelling:

1. Keep up with what's current—in fashion, language, hot topics, humor...the list could go on. If you're writing fiction that occurs in the present, you need to keep abreast of current trends.

2. Character. Although I'm a great fan of people watching for helping to create my characters, analysis of characters in a movie or TV show lets you see how the writer/actor creates a clear, complex character with relatively few details. Next time you watch a movie, pick a character to analyze. What is that character's archetype? What details does the filmmaker provide that lead you to that interpretation? It may surprise you how little information the actor and director use to create an incredibly clear character portrait. That's what we want to do—what we need to do—when writing fiction.

3. Plot structure. I love watching the series Castle, in which a mystery novelist (the magnificent Roger Fillion) partners with a NYC homicide detective inspire his writing—and the more I watch, the more I start to see patterns in the structure of the episodes. The first suspect is never the bad guy...except when the director decides to stand the plot on its head. The second suspect will seem to have insurmountable evidence stacked against him—until a clever plot twist reveals that he, too, is innocent. Richard Castle will always face some sort of dilemma on the home front, which parallels and provide insight into the main story line. Analysis of movies and TV episodes can give you ideas to strengthen your own story line.

4. Tension. I'm surprised at the ways actors and directors evoke tension on the screen. It's never the big disasters that get me—a mushroom cloud, although devastating and frightening, is impersonal until you show its impact on the individual. On the other hand, one person reading a message—a bad report—might move me to tears. As you watch, learn to identify the ways directors build tension. Back at your desk, experiment with their techniques in your writing.

5. Broaden your idea pool. As writers, everything we see, read, watch, or imagine has the potential to inspire our writing. When I'm stuck with a plot conundrum, reading a novel will often provide the needed spark to get me going again. When a character refuses to cooperate on the page, watching a similar character on the screen can help me figure out what isn't working.

6. Theme. The best shows, in my opinion, are those that explore fundamental truths about the human condition. Theme seems like a tricky and nebulous concept, but pay attention to the next show you watch: at some point, one of the characters will probably state the episode’s theme outright. The pared-down context of a TV episode is a great place to identify theme and how the writer explores it in the course of the story. 

TV and movies can be brain-numbing, if you approach them mindlessly; they can also give you a glimpse into how other creatives solved problems of plot, setting, pacing, and character. Try enjoying story in a different sort of format. You might be surprised by the results!

Do you have a favorite TV series? What makes it “work” for you?

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At July 1, 2011 at 9:30 AM , Blogger Lindsey said...

Great post! You bring up some very real writing lessons we can get from long as we're paying attention to them!

I like to watch Burn Notice for writing inspiration. In the opening credits, the main character, Michael, speaks in a voice over, and I think that it's a great example of a pitch. It introduces all the main players, the setting, the conflicts, all in less than a minute. I like to watch the opening credits over and over when I'm working on a query letter.

At July 1, 2011 at 9:48 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Lindsey,
What a terrific idea! I like Burn Notice, too, but I never thought to listen to the opening voice-over as a pitch. You're right: not only does he concisely introduce the characters, setting, and conflicts, he does so in a voice that sets the tone for the show. I'm going to start paying more attention to those intro sequences! Thanks so much for sharing.

At July 5, 2011 at 8:02 AM , Blogger Lindsey said...

Another one is the intro voiceover for Drop Dead Diva. Cute show, too!

At July 5, 2011 at 10:47 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Ooh, I haven't heard of that one. I'll have to check it out.

Since reading your comment, I've started to notice other shows that do this. It provides great inspiration for those tricky pitches :).

At July 21, 2011 at 2:17 PM , Blogger Wildflower said...

Thanks for your post. I've always struggled with the idea that TV is a waste of time but love the structure of the story and characterizations that are portrayed on my favorite shows.


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