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What Writers Can Learn From TV

I’ll just come out and say it, “Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m a crime show junkie.” Deep breath. There I said it. I LOVE a well written, well cast mystery drama. I devour them like a dog with a fresh steak. I especially love murder mystery shows featuring a crack sleuth author (like Murder, She Wrote or its more recent protégé Castle.) But that’s for another post.

So here’s the kicker, most writers might consider TV a bad habit – something to add to the list of things that keep you from writing. And, for the most part, if you are on the couch for five hours watching a Jersey Shore marathon, that is true. You are wasting your time! And with reality TV – ugh! But I’m here to liberate you from your TV rut.

Yes, get up off your couch, in fact, do a couple laps to get your circulation going again and then get to your writing spot. Now, here’s the bad news – no more reality TV marathons. (There’s really nothing edifying whatsoever about them – although I’m sure if I tried hard enough I could rationalize some merit out of…maybe…one episode.) But fret not my writing friends, there’s good news. Watching TV can actually benefit your writing!

So how can you rationalize watching all your favorite shows instead of writing? How do you tear yourself away from those captivating stories on the screen to create your own? USE them to enhance your own writing!

Here’s the deal, you get to pick one episode of your favorite show (or a scene from your favorite movie) and use it when considering the following list of things we can learn from TV.

  1. Multiple perspectives. That brilliant show you love so much was most likely written by more than one person. What can we learn from this little fact? Don’t be afraid to bounce your ideas or drafts off of a few trusted writing friends or your critique group. Having multiple eyes on a piece can provide depth and perspective that you might not otherwise have.
  2. A short and simple plot. While there are plenty of shows that have multiple sub-plots and character spin offs, ultimately the more successful series have a format where each episode has an overarching, clear and simple plot. Check the show you’ve chosen. What is the main plot in a nutshell? If there’s too much going on in a single episode it can bog down your audience and cause them to lose interest.
  3. Ending on action. Consider your chosen episode again. How does it end? How do the producers keep you coming back for more? They end every episode or commercial break in some sort of action. They leave you with a question or with a vested interest in the main characters that make you care about what happens to them. This is a common method used among many great suspense writers like Grisham and Patterson. It’s what keeps you tuned in through the commercials and what will keep your readers turning the pages.
  4. Dialogue. Dialogue is generally the aspect I come to admire most in my favorite shows. It’s often the feature that makes me classify a show as my favorite. Is the dialogue of your chosen show realistic? Quick-witted? Dry humor? Whatever it is that makes you appreciate the words that come out of your favorite character’s mouth, consider the factors that support what they say. How exactly did they say “I love it.” Was it with sarcasm? Sincerity? With a raised brow in question? What do you think the director told the actor when explaining how they should act out that scene? What was their motivation? Try the following exercise to help you study and catch all the nuances of your favorite scene and see how it helps amplify the dialogue in your own work.

Exercise – watch an episode of one of your favorite shows. Listen carefully to the dialogue and write down your favorite quotes. After the show – use it! Try to re-create the scene surrounding that quote. Capture all the five senses of your characters and portray the mood of the moment. So go ahead, watch re-runs of Friends. But do it with paper and pen in hand.

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