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Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

Cheryl's Musings: Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


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?

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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 4, 2011 at 9:00 AM , Blogger Rachel Brooks said...

I don't watch nearly as much television as I used to. However, when I do watch it I learn a lot about story structure, just like you said. There is so much to learn from TV shows that can be applied to writing a book.

At July 4, 2011 at 2:31 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by! Yes, there's lots to learn--I suppose the trick is to watch with learning in mind. I don't have time to watch much, but I enjoy it when I do!

At July 5, 2011 at 10:53 AM , Blogger Lisa Gail Green said...

Hi! Glad you found me. I loved the post! My favorite series (no surprise there) is Vampire Diaries. I've done my own post on how it relates to writing, and I've seen other great ones as well. Studying well done TV is a great tool for writers. And a good excuse to veg out for an hour or so. :D

At July 5, 2011 at 11:16 AM , Blogger Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I do have my favorite shows that help my writing stay current. I love The Closer. I'm very sad this is their last season.

To be honest, good shows are few and far between. But I'm always on the look out.

At July 5, 2011 at 11:56 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for stopping by :). Can you point me to your Vampire Diaries post? I couldn't find it and would love to read it.

Hi Kathi, thank you for stopping by, too! I've never seen The Closer, although I've heard good things about it. It will have to wait: I already have my quota of distractions :). It's probably a good thing that good shows are few and far between. Of course, since I'm just starting to watch Battlestar Galactica, you can tell I'm a little behind the times. I have years' worth of series to choose from!


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