Everything I know about writing I learned from watching TV

[If you’re here just for the ROW80 update, skip to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy.]

“Everything I know about writing I learned from watching TV.”

This may sound odd coming from someone who watched very little TV as a child. (Really. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was it.) Nor is the statement 100% true. I chose it as a title because it makes a point.

Good fiction writing is not the sole purview of novelists.

Family watching television, c. 1958

Family watching television, c. 1958. I am not among them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

I have never attempted to write a screenplay (the though scares the crap out of me, frankly). But recently, while pursuing my current series addiction, Breaking Bad, I realized that we novelists could learn a thing or two from well-written TV dramas. Since the advent of Netflix, first via DVDs and then as streaming downloads, I have enjoyed shows ranging from the The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to Mad Men  and Weeds—almost always consuming multiple episodes in a sitting, often running through a series in a matter of weeks.

Here are a few things I think fiction writers can learn from TV dramas:

1. Make something happen. This, of course, is the ever-present drive toward plot. Contrary to popular belief, plot does not always—even in a mob drama—have to involve shootings or car chases. For example, Season 3, Episode 5 of The Sopranos is summarized this way by IMDB: “Tony and Carmela try a therapy session together, which ends in an angry dispute. Artie, meanwhile, tries to move in on Adriana.” That doesn’t sound like a nail-biter, but it works. Lesson 2 reveals why. Read on.

2. Make the reader care. By season 3 of The Sopranos, the audience has come to care about what happens to Tony Soprano. We care about his relationship with his wife and about what’s going on inside him, not just about what he’s doing as a mobster. Even secondary characters, like Artie and Adriana, have been rounded out to a degree that we care what happens to them. Notice, however, that caring doesn’t always start in Episode 1. See next point.

3. Reveal character slowly—but not too slowly. A pilot, like a good first chapter, shows you enough of the character and plot so you want to continue watching. Scene by scene, detail by detail, bits of the character’s life and motivations unfold. They’re not described in one big lump at the beginning. Leading us to…

4. Showing. I couldn’t bring myself to call this one “show, don’t tell,” since it has been done to death and is probably the first piece of advice most writers get and will continue to hear, ad nauseum. Nauseated or not, you’d better work at it, because showing-not-telling is hard. But think about your chapter as a TV show. Right there you have a clue: it’s called a show, not a tell. In any event, a show can’t interrupt the action and dialogue with a long introspective speech (by one of the characters or an omniscient narrator) about how the character feels sad because his mother just died but conflicted because of the way she treated him as a kid… You get the idea.

I’m willing to give novelists a little wiggle room here, since I believe there is a place in fiction for just a tad bit of exposition. But if you write fiction with the idea that you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and use exposition sparingly, you’ll have the kind of gripping prose we all want to read. For more on gripping and compelling, see the final lesson, No. 5.

5. Build tension through character. If you have already accomplished 1-4, this should come naturally. You have created characters the viewer cares about. Now put them in situations that make the viewer squirm. Squirm? Yes, I sometimes do find myself squirming as I watch. Because the character might be mortally wounded, or be jilted by the love of her life, or have his moral integrity challenged. But sometimes I also squirm watching a character sitting on his living room couch, staring at the son who will no longer talk to him, or answering the phone call from the nosy sister-in-law. When the viewer/reader cares about the character, you can build tension from seemingly small events because each one can carry a big emotional charge.

So there you have it: five lessons I have distilled from TV. While it might look to you as if I’ve been wasting my time staring at the boob tube, I’ve actually been working.

(I am not the only fiction writer to have taken a page (scene?) from TV. Anna Elliott recently shared what she learned from Season 4 of the show Castle at Writer Unboxed.)

What NOT to Read

This week I heard Crawford Killian, a Canadian author, interviewed on NPR talking about the 10 most harmful novels for aspiring writers. My ears pricked up and I actually sat in my car to finish listening. Once inside, I found he had also written a column on the same topic for The Tyee. I thought I’d pass the links along so you can see what to avoid reading while sitting on your couch watching TV. Plus I loved the last line of the article:

The bad novels give us at least this consolation: If those nincompoops could break into print, and even sell millions of copies, then we nincompoops ought to be able to do at least as well.

Sunday’s ROW80 Update

What I’m most proud of is that I wrote on 6 out of the last 7 days, and on both weekends, averaging 500 words a day. Having a late-waking family has its advantages.

8 thoughts on “Everything I know about writing I learned from watching TV

  1. Ooh, I remember this post! So glad you pointed me back. I’ve learned a great deal from TV shows as well, from what to not do (bore or try to “trick” readers/viewers) to the importance of compelling, emotional content.

    I love what you say here: “…if you write fiction with the idea that you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and use exposition sparingly, you’ll have the kind of gripping prose we all want to read.” Absolutely! Feeling like we’re in that picture while writing is a great sign, IMO. 😉 Love this post, Audrey. Thank you.

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  2. I don’t have any TV shows that I watch currently, so I can’t comment on those you mention but I’m sure you’re onto something. Storytelling is storytelling. My younger son is opting for visual storytelling, while I write, and we compare notes quite often. There are differences, like the one you point out about exposition – it’s harder to do visually. Description is another – time-consuming to do with written word whereas you just show it visually. But as far as plot and characters are concerned, there are more similarities than differences. Nice post.

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    • Thanks. Neither of my kids has any interest in telling stories through words, either. My older one uses music. Quite a different medium, but it packs a powerful emotional punch!

      Good point about the efficiency of just showing a scene visually. However, I can only imagine what it must take to actually get to the point where the camera can capture that moment. First, the director must indicate what the shot should look like. Somebody must decide, down to the color of the curtains and the placement of furniture (or whatever), what the room will look like. Then the prop masters have to assemble everything. The camera crew has to come in and do the lighting just right. Looked at that way, it starts to make a few paragraphs of description seem downright efficient!

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  3. Had to add something I just saw this morning on Jane Friedman’s blog (http://janefriedman.com/2012/04/23/perfecting-your-first-page/). In her excellent post on perfecting your first page, Jane quotes Joyce Carol Oates: “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses—one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” Exactly the point I was trying to make in #5… much more beautifully and succinctly said!

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  4. There are indeed some very well-written shows on television. “Justified” and “The Good Wife” are two shows whose writers deserve definite accolades. I watched “Six Feet Under” a few years ago, and I agree, that is another one. Other than “Weeds”, I haven’t watched the other series you mentioned.

    Thanks for another great post with sound advice. 🙂

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