Friday, May 28, 2010

The Plot Thickens: What I've Learned About Writing From TV

Full disclosure: I don't have cable. And because the hubs promised that we had a digital television even though we, in fact, do not, we never got one of those box things for the digital switch, so even the basic channels come in like snow. Which is kind of nice, since I live in Florida. But basically, my access to television is limited. We have Netflix, and the majority of my queue is filled with seasons of shows I've heard great things about (mostly because I can only spare 20, 40 minutes tops a day for TV, so watching movies is really out of the question). If I really love a show, I'll start watching the current episodes online, but other than that, I'll just wait for the new season to come out on DVD.

That being said, I do have to admit that my limited television watching has actually taught me quite a bit about plot devices and unique ways to tell stories. Many of my favorite shows have a unique storytelling style that I admire, and could thoroughly enjoying in a book.

Take, for example, my latest find: How I Met Your Mother. I'm currently at the beginning of the third season of this show, and I think it's pretty hilarious. I mean, come on...NPH? Jason Segel? Yes, please. But aside from the acting talent and the cute story lines, the way the story is told in a very smart way. OK, so you have to majorly suspend your disbelief that two teenagers would sit through their old man's ramblings about nothing related to the story they actually want to hear. And also the fact that dad's voice has totally changed for narrating purposes, but in flash forwards that take place in the same time period, his voice sounds like it did when he was in his 20s. Aside from those obvious errors, the show manages to do something incredible - tease what's coming, and still keep me interested. The best example I can think of is the Robin/Ted relationship. Robin is introduced in the second or third episode, and hilarious antics ensue. At the end of the same episode, the dad says "That's how I met...your Aunt Robin." And from there after, whenever Robin is referred to by the narrator, she's always called "Aunt Robin." And yet, even though I knew these two were never meant to be, I still found myself routing for them as a couple when they did get together. And there are many other times when the show does this - they'll hint that something will or won't work, but you won't find out how exactly it happens until two or three episodes later. (This is definitely another perk to having the DVD - watching multiple episodes in a row.) It's pretty smart storytelling - it sucks me in, because I have to know why, in the end, it turns out that way.  

Another show I love is Arrested Development. Sadly, AD lasted just three short seasons before it was canceled by some short-sighted executives at Fox. But I still think it's probably the best show that's ever been on TV - smart, funny, and rewards you for being a loyal watcher. Throughout the show, the characters make little references to things that happened in earlier seasons. In AD, of course, they're doing it for comedic effect, but a novelist could use this device to lay clues to a mystery, build suspense - or just for comedic effect. The jokes were so well laid-out, and there are so many, that after years and years of watching the episodes, I still find new ones every time I play the DVDs (and trust me, I play them often.) So not only did I enjoy them the first time around, but knowing those little hints were there made we want to re-watch - if you can learn how to use them in your writing, maybe you can make people want to re-read.

Finally, as much as I hate to admit it...LOST had me hooked. Even though I had no clue what was going on half the time, I still had to know how it all came together. Maybe it was the fact that they kept introducing new mysteries, almost right up to the last second. Maybe it's that, just when everything got a little too crazy on the island, they gave us some beautiful off-island stories to keep everything grounded. Maybe it was simply that there was so MUCH story there that I had to dish with my co-workers for an hour everyday after I watched the episode just to figure out what happened. No matter what it was, there was something about that show that got to me, and stuck with me, and made me want to watch. (And that very last few seconds? OMG. Totally perfect way to close, I think. But no spoilers here, since it was less than a week ago and it's totally plausible that people haven't gotten to it yet.)

So now, thanks to HIMYM, AD, LOST, and many other shows, I've learned to take television more critically. I don't simply watch and ignore. I watch and think, "Is this a good plot device? Could I use it somehow?"

What about you? Do you ever learn anything from television (or movies - like Momento!) that help you in your writing? If so, which ones?


  1. My writing instructor always yelled at us if we didn't watch enough TV. He would bring in TV shows and take us through them minute by minute and explain all of the different things we could get out of them. One of his favorites to discuss was My So Called Life.

  2. I've never seen AD but I love HIMYM and own all 4 seasons on DVD. I simply have to watch TV series from the beginning.

    I've only watched seasons 1-4 of LOST but I know why it had me hooked writing-wise even though not much of it made sense.

    It's the Easter-egg factor. How they managed to have all of these characters tied together, not only from being on the island but also their past histories are interlinked. It's wonderful. It's the ability to reveal new thinks to the viewer each time they watch the show again.

    I want to be able to have that in my writing. I want to be able to write a novel where my readers can pick it up again and have an entirely new insight and discover new things they didn't see before.

    J.K. Rowling did this really well in the Harry Potter books. You can read the earlier books again and understand or spot something you may not have before reading the later books. It's extremely clever.

    I love television and even though it is a huge form of procrastination for me (I'm not deprived as you are so I'm swarmed by so many programs) I do find them inspiring.♥

  3. i loved the lost finale quite a bit.
    also, supposedly there will be a AD movie soon, which would be AWE-SOME

  4. I still haven't seen Arrested Development... I think I'm the only hold-out left in the world. D:

    You make a great point - hit TV shows require top-notch writing and storytelling, too. Sometimes I forget that because I'm not physically reading the words, but someone still had to write them down.

    That Easter Egg quality is really nifty. I'm going to have to remember that during my latest round of revisions.


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