Writing advice

Should Writers Watch Television?

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.

Writing advice

Decisions, Decisions

After the recent publication of Deception Island, I, of course, began working on a new project. (One can never stop working, not if you want to get anywhere). The project—currently untitled—stands at about 10,000 words. Until recently, it has been successfully mocking me.

This is not terribly uncommon for me. I start writing something and cruise for a while (like 10,000 words) and then the ideas dry up and what I do produce begins to feel superficial and forced. For a while, I will literarily flail around. I try forcing the issue (thus the forced feeling). It doesn’t work. I try walking away, taking a break. It doesn’t work. I seek inspiration by reading something similar to what I’m doing. It doesn’t work. Nothing works. I’m stuck.

I’m blocked.

I’ve been writing for a while now. Longer than I like to think about. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon and I have learned the most common causes. Generally speaking, if you know the cause of a problem, you can figure out the solution.

But it isn’t always a quick process. It can involve a bit of trial and error. Or a lot of trial and error.

There are usually one of three reasons why this blockage occurs.

  1. I can’t do the story justice the way it stands.

This usually breaks down into two reasons: I either need to do more research, or the story is too ambitious for my writing skills. Earlier this year, I was sketching out a historical tale set during the Indian wars in Wyoming/Montana. But it quickly grew apparent as I worked on it that I wouldn’t be able to write it until I actually spent some time in the area. Now that I realized that, I could put the story aside and move on to something else.

  1. Somewhere along the way, the plot has taken a wrong turn.

I, generally speaking, am an organic writer. That means I don’t carefully outline or plot out an entire novel before I sit down to write. I know where it starts and an idea of where it will end up, but I literally make up the journey as I go. This makes for some interesting twists and turns (because often I didn’t see that coming any more than the reader did) but it also leads to the occasional dead end trail. Often, when the ideas dry out, it’s because I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where that happened.

  1. Some kind of decision or commitment needs to be made.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need to make a decision about our project. It can be hard. Decisions imply commitment and that can be frightening. What if we make the wrong decision? (See #2 above). However, the longer we postpone these decisions, the better the chance the story will force it upon us. It does that by keeping us from doing anything else.

In my particular instance, the problem I was facing fell into category 3. I needed to make a decision.

I had determined the situation/problem that begins the novel. I had also continued the main characters from Deception Island, because series characters are popular right now (look on Amazon or Goodreads. Nearly every title has a # attached) and it is much easier to continue characters than create entirely new ones from scratch. I had the general location and an idea of the plot.

But I was stuck, blocked.

So what was the problem?

I had to decide whether the project was going to take place before or after the action in Deception Island. Was it going to be a prequel or a sequel? Thing is, I’d been putting off that decision, even as I wrote two chapters and well into the third.

Then the story stopped me. I went into block and stayed there for a couple of weeks. I stayed there until I realized I needed to make this decision. Was it going to be a prequel to Deception Island, or a sequel? It was time to make a decision.

I decided it needed to be a sequel. I decided.

Almost at once, the backstory fell into place. The relationships between the characters grew deeper, more nuanced, as did the plot. Suddenly ideas were popping up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. I’m not stuck anymore. I’m not blocked.

And all I had to do was make a decision.

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Structure

Perhaps the most basic tool a writer can use to create suspense is plot structure and though there are an infinite possible variations, the basic structure of all suspense stories is the same. Below is a stripped down blueprint for a suspense novel of 80,000 words.

The Structure of the Suspense Novel at 80,000 words

Part One THE SET UP 0-20,000 words
introduces the protagonist and his/her backstory
introduces the protagonist’s inner demons
creates empathy for the protagonist

Plot Point #1 the story changes; defines what challenges are in store for the protagonist

Part Two REACTION/RESPONSE 20,001-40,000 words
describes the protagonist’s reaction to Plot Point #1
(largely defensive, exploratory, and/or unsuccessful)
At this point the antagonist is winning and in control

Plot Point #2 (Midpoint) Parting of the curtain; a secret is revealed to the protagonist and reader

Part Three THE ATTACK 40,001- 60,000 words
with the new knowledge gained in Plot Point 2, the protagonist begins a counterattack against the antagonist. The battle is now in doubt, but momentum is swinging toward the protagonist

Plot Point #3 something changes to empower the protagonist; the last piece of information about about the antagonist is revealed

Part Four RESOLUTION 60,001- 80,000 words
the protagonist is now in control and successfully defeats the antagonist

For an example of how this structure works in real life, let’s look at the film The Ring. (I know, I know, it isn’t a novel, but the essential story structure is similar for film and fiction. Storytelling is storytelling, after all.)

So, The Ring.

Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is a reporter and single mother to a precocious young son. At the funeral for her niece, Rachel is told by several of her niece’s friends of a mysterious video that causes all who watch it to die.

This is Plot Point #1.

Rachel investigates and eventually identifies a young girl as the originator of the mysterious video and determines she was murdered.

This is Plot Point #2.

Sometime later, Rachel tells her son she’s found the girl’s remains and that she can now rest in peace. Her son looks at her and says: “Mom, you weren’t supposed to help her.”

This is Plot Point #3.

Now it becomes clear to Rachel that she hasn’t defeated the video and that she probably can’t. The only option she has left is to cut her losses.

This is just an example of how structure can work in practice. Examine your favorite novel or film and I’m sure you can find similar (and better) examples.