Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why you should be watching more TV.

This post was written as part of a Fantasy blog hop, coinciding with the opening of the second Hobbit movie. You can check out the blogs of all the other writers here and sign up to win prizes, including a free copy of The Lost Tower.

Why you should be watching more TV.
Congratulations! You have decided to start writing your first fantasy or sci-fi novel. Or maybe you are just creating a new secondary world. Regardless, it is a big undertaking and conventional wisdom would say that you need to sit and crack the whip, read a bunch of books, and really create. I have a different bit of advice. Go and watch some TV.

That is right. Go watch TV, and I don’t mean something like “Real Housewives” or “The Voice.” Though, if you like those I’ll be sitting over here quietly judging you. (Kidding. Everybody loves themselves some trash.) No. What I want you to do is go and watch some quality scripted TV. And it doesn’t have to be in your chosen literary genre.  It is my view that, outside of the novel, TV is really the only good place to get long form storytelling.

A multi-season television show of high quality will have long running character arcs that are established from the very start. They have plots that run long, but also small ones that wrap up, setting up new ones and shining a light on characters. Also there is nothing better for learning how to write dialogue then to listen to a well written TV show. You can also get this in a movie, but they have far fewer ideal conversations.
So, from here I will break out some examples of what I am talking about. I tend to watch mostly fantasy and cable shows, so that is where my I get my examples.

Long form character building. You can see the rise and fall, birth and death, ups and downs of a character on TV faster than almost anywhere else. Especially if, like me, you are a slow reader. There is also a powerful lesson about characterization. In a book we have the tool of inner monologue, or VO. You can sort of have it on TV but it doesn’t always work. The best example is to watch an early season of Dexter and see it done well and then watch one of the later seasons to see it done poorly. Without internal monologue you are left to learn everything from the perspective of what people say and do.

Far too many writers build all of their character work by what people are thinking and not what they are doing. So you can learn quite a lot about making a person’s actions speak louder than their thoughts. Look at Breaking Bad and Walter White; he is a man who is prideful to a fault. We don’t need to hear him tell us that, or even have another person tell us, because we see it in every single action. I feel that this kind of characterization, with the support of internal monologue, is the strongest that a writer can create. Far too often I read stories where I am told all these things about characters but never see them do things, so I guess it goes back to show- don’t tell, and watching a few good programs will get showing stuck in your head.

Dialogue. A well written and well-acted TV show is like a master course in how people talk. Take this scene from Game of Thrones first season. You learn gobs about both the King and Queen from an idle conversation that feels natural. At no point do we need graphs and graphs of internal thought about how the people are feeling because it is all right there in the lines. The other thing that watching a good dialogue heavy show does is help acclimate your ear toward what sounds right coming out of a person’s mouth. Far too often writers will concoct this wonderfully long complex sentence and then slap quotation marks around it. That, at least for me, is something that can kill a story, because in most cases people just don’t talk like that.
So here is a test. I want you to watch three episodes of The West Wing and then try not to talk and think in the shows voice. That illustrates my point. If you have at least a smattering of shows that do that in your head you can really build some good original dialogue. There is nothing better  when you are editing than to get to the tag at the end of a line and realize that you don’t need ‘he said sarcastically’, or ‘Jack grumbled,’ because what they are actually saying is strong enough to convey all of that emotion.

Visuals. As writers, we are the actors and entire production crew for the little head movies that we are building for people. Far too often we get lost in building and describing a world to the point that the story gets lost under the fifty course dinner. Visual mediums have very refined image based shorthand that I have found translates very well to prose. So build up the world enough that we can see it, and then go into detail on a few meaningful images that really drive points home. I don’t need hundreds of words about how Apollo doesn’t feel like he is living up to his father. After setting it up, all we need is him looking down at the lighter. (This is from Battlestar Galactica Season 1 Episode 10 ‘Hand of God’ youtube failed me.)

I think this, more than anything, can help keep your novels shorter and more focused. I’m on a mission to kill the bloat in fantasy novels, but that is another post for another time. Along with the short hand visuals, watching an actor’s face can give you a good idea of how people look when they react beyond just ‘he grimaced,’ ‘she winced,’ ‘Jack’s eyes bugged out.’ Think of it as people watching in a controlled environment.

Plot. Anything more than dialogue that you can learn from watching a good, well focused season of TV is plot. The success of a show rests on both its characters and the story that it is telling. I like to think of chapters. Multi- scene chapters are episodes comprising the novel or season. Each one should have a small situation that is resolved and reflects back on the main plot. More than anything, I see it as a place to crib a bunch of ideas because, outside of the novelist, TV show writers are really juggling more plot balls that anybody else out there. 

Every once in a while you can learn more about your craft as a writer by looking at another creative craft. I know people that pull inspiration from movies, music, or video games. Me?  I’m a fan of TV. So go and open Netflix and watch something new and awesome or old and comforting. Then after a few episodes, get back to writing.

Tell me how you feel using TV as a writing tool in the comments below. If we get more than five people talking, there might be a prize in it for one of those people.