I can tell you the exact moment when I knew I was serious about this writing thing. Sure, I’ve been writing since I was ten and realize it was something I could do for fun outside of school. And I kept writing all through my teens and well into my twenties for entertainment and as an escape. I always had the vague idea that I wanted to be a Writer (with a capital W). But the day that I knew I was serious was December 21st, 2007. That was the day I turned off the TV.
TV is a serious time-drain. It’s just so daggone tempting! We can spend hours sitting in front of it, letting it entertain us and suck away our creativity. Many an hour that could be spent in writing is, instead, spent being a couch potato. The modern world makes it so easy to watch TV too. What’s the flashiest item offered for sale on Black Friday? Giant TVs at massively discounted prices. What does everyone talk about at work that involves the entire department? TV shows. (Specifically American Horror Story where I work, which absolutely creeps me out … and I haven’t seen a single episode!) What is the velvet rope that keeps modern people bound in inaction? TV.
It’s just so seductive! And yet the moment I turned it off my productivity shot through the roof. I finished the first draft of The Loyal Heart (all 250,000 original words!) within a month and a half of turning off the TV. All those hours that had previously been spent with wide, glassy eyes staring at those flashing pictures on my boob tube went into creating. Granted, I stopped watching when I did not to write, but because I absolutely hate political commercials and I knew that the only way to avoid them in 2008 was to turn them off. That worked, by the way. But more importantly, my journey to becoming a serious, published writer had begun!
Yep. TV is a terrible waste of time. It can mire you in inertia faster than you can say “Where’s the remote?”
TV is also one of the most potent sources of inspiration and the most brilliant resources for learning the craft of storytelling that has ever been invented.
I’ve learned so many things about story structure from watching TV. Your average hour-long drama, even a good half-hour comedy, is a textbook perfect way to study structure. Each segment between commercials is designed to convey a chunk of story with all the elements of introduction, rising action, reaction, climax, and denouement. The very best TV shows also carry a plot through an entire season, complete with foreshadowing, carefully placed bits of information, and satisfactory tying together of diverse plot threads. Good TV shows are the best writing tutorial you can get.
My all-time favorite TV shows are Lost, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, Northern Exposure, Band of Brothers (technically a mini-series) and the Russell T. Davies seasons of the new Doctor Who. Downton Abbey, New Girl, and Modern Family might also end up in the all-time favorites. We have yet to see if they will stand the test of time. Yeah, I know, I have wildly diverse tastes.
Take Lost for an example.
Aside from the so-so third season (in which the writers arguably lost track of the plot as the network tried to decide exactly how many seasons to let the show run for), Lost is a terrific example of plot structure both within an episode, over the arc of a season, and through an entire series. I would hate to give away any spoilers for this highly-suspenseful show, but as the viewer you start out knowing almost nothing about The Island or the people who have crashed on it. By the end you’ve learned so much that it feels like a real place. When you watch the series through for a second time you realize just how much the writers knew in advance and just how many clues they squeaked into each episode along the way.
(As an aside, watching Lost from a writer’s perspective, you can also figure out which plotlines they were forced to drop as external forces, like actor arrests, ruined their plans. The ways in which they scrambled for new ideas to fulfill the original purpose of the characters they had to drop is a great exercise in revisions under pressure.)
The same kinds of comparisons can be made for plenty of other shows depending on what you like to watch. Try watching an episode of your favorite show not for entertainment value but for story structure. How are the characters introduced? What sets up the situation for each episode? What kinds of complications are thrown in the way of the characters achieving their goals? How is back-story introduced? When does the moment of most tension come? (Hint: before the last commercial break) How is the episode resolved? What tidbits do you get as the credits are rolling?
Everything you see in a good TV show is going to teach you something that will improve your writing. It’s going to teach it to you faster than reading a bunch of books. BUT, watching TV is no substitute for reading. And all TV is not created equal. In fact, there’s a lot of completely useless junk on the air. The key is to find the good stuff. Fortunately, most of the time there’s a reason why things are critically acclaimed.
I can count the number of TV shows I watch these days on one hand, not including my thumb. I watch shows online so that I can watch when I want to and avoid commercials. For me that’s the best way to avoid the time-suck of useless TV and annoying commercials while still learning what I need to know for my writing. It’s the best of both worlds.
So what TV shows have you learned from and what inspires you? I mentioned Lost as one of my all-time favorites, and the Sci-Fi series I’m currently working on, Saving Grace, tips its hat to Lost’s storytelling style. And I can’t help but see some of the style elements of Dr. Quinn when I work on my Montana Romance series. But that’s just me. Where on the small screen do you find your inspiration?