Do you watch television? I’m not talking about news channels, or nature documentaries now; I’m talking scripted dramas and comedies written and produced to entertain us. Do you watch? My literary-type friends are split on the subject. About a third consider anything on television brain-rotting poison and never watch. The rest do admit watching television, but do so guiltily, as though watching television was something dirty, like checking out your host’s medicine cabinet while using their bathroom.
Granted, most television programming is not the most intellectually challenging. It isn’t meant to be. As one author wrote: it’s designed to entertain people who are mentally tired after a long day’s work. It is designed to be easy, familiar, and predictable.
So can we, as authors aspiring to improve our craft, learn anything from watching scripted television? Absolutely.
Here’s a secret. You can learn something from just about anything.
So what can we learn from television?
We can learn plot and structure.
Television programs, not matter how puerile you might think them, are still stories and they follow the same rules of plot and structure every other story has to follow. The nice thing about television programs is they are relatively short and straightforward. It is a nice exercise to sit down with a police drama and identify the key structural points in the narrative.
You will find that most television dramas follow the same structure as your novel. With a little practice, you can see them coming as you’re watching live. It adds a whole new level to the experience.
How to write within the confines of a genre, yet still surprise.
Take any genre of television programming, say the police/crime drama, and you will find they all have several things in common: the officers will always be people (usually men) of good conscience and above average intelligence. The bad guys are always devious, heartless, and genuinely immoral. Despite everything thrown in their way, the police will always catch the criminal. In American television, there will be at least one violent conflict: a foot or car chase, a fist or gun fight, or at least an arrest at gunpoint.
Yet the very best programs manage to stay within these general guidelines and surprise us anyway. They do this through good characterization, unusual locations, and differing plot twists. Anyone wishing to work within an established genre (westerns, romance, mystery, etc.) could learn from these shows. Notice that these are the very best shows, not the ordinary ones.
How to leap right into the action.
On U.S. commercial television, most dramas are one hour long, most comedies thirty minutes. But this is misleading. There are breaks during the program for advertising and the programs are written around these break. In actual time, the drama is only forty minutes. The comedy only twenty minutes of actual action.
The television writer has no time for lengthy character buildup, or multiple subplots. The problem has to be revealed to the viewer within minutes. The program as a whole needs to be lean and efficient, with no wasted words or meaningless scenes. Everything has to be dedicated to advancing the drama.
We all could learn to write succinctly. If for no other reason than that is what the public has grown to expect.
So yes, we can learn ways to improve our writing from watching television. It is, after all, written first as a script before it ever becomes a broadcast program. We can learn by watching consciously and paying attention to how the writers work within the limitations of their medium. It will never replace reading, or offer nearly so much to learn, but it doesn’t have to be a total waste of time either.
Back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: do you watch television? My answer is yes, I do sometimes. Though, to be honest, I’m usually doing something else while the television is simply on in the background. But yes, I watch television.