I learned a few years ago, when I lost an entire weekend to the time-suck that was Seasons 1 and 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, if you watch a television series in order, for at least a season, you can actually learn a lot. A season of television (good television, anyway) has story structure, character arc, and escalating conflict.
Think about it. You get 22-25 or so episodes in a season of (most) TV shows. A season is structured to introduce the season’s conflict, build the tension, tie up the plot in a nice bow, and introduce next season’s story question. An episode does the same thing, only on a smaller scale. Look closer. That’s right. You can divide an episode into about four parts, usually where they place commercials, that have those same elements. And, ideally, a scene would do the same. I think some writers miss this, but a novel should be the same way. Novel > Acts > Chapters > Scenes. And they all perform the same way.
If you take your protagonist as she is at the beginning of the book and thrust her into the climactic scene, she should lose to the antagonist. A key portion of the story is her growth into a person, that by the climactic scene, can defeat the antagonist.
If they could beat the season’s big-bad at the beginning, then what’s the point? Each episode shows the character face a challenge and grow to become the hero who can win in that final battle.
And, of course, every episode ratchets up the stakes in the conflict just a little more so that, by season’s end, you’re begging for the showdown.
What I watch when I want the thrill of good writing:
- Veronica Mars. Especially the first season. When I recommend it to friends, I call it the most perfect season of television in the history of ever. By the final (third) season, you’ll cry a little for what TV execs did to the show, but hang in there. The final show, while a cliffhanger, still has enough payoff for the longtime viewer to get a thrill.
- Season 1 of Prison Break. If you want, you can watch Season 2, because it’s sort of a “Where Are They Now” and still a little fun. Do not watch anymore. The third season will rot your brain. The fourth season… well, I don’t know. I was in twelve minutes into the first episode and gave it the big, “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” But, Season 1? If you want to learn how to build tension until you actually torture your viewer/reader, then watch this.
- Seasons 1,2,3 of Grey’s Anatomy. The last time I watched it, it was still a good show. I know a lot of people who still love it. I know more people who want to go back to the good days of Grey’s. Start there. If you love it, watch some more. Nothing wrong with having a little fun while you learn, right?
- Supernatural. All of it. Or, at the very least, up to the end of Season 5. From what I understand, that’s how far it was intended to run (and so, how creator Eric Kripke plotted the story) and Season 6 may be a whole other monster. (Seriously? That pun was entirely unintended.) It’s on my DVR, waiting for me. Season 6, I mean. So, I can’t speak for it’s awesomeness, or not, at this time.
- Speaking of monsters–Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Any season, every season. Joss Whedon seriously knows how writing is done.
- Lost. All of it. All six seasons. Watch it all. This is how television should be. Agree with the ending or not, it has something rare in television: an on-purpose, definitive end.
So, next time you’re wondering how to fill your free time, get with the Netflix queue (which has VM, PB, GA, BtVS, and Lost), and learn some craft.
More reasons to watch television to learn about writing:
- The Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing Romance from TV by Jennifer Crusie.
- TV Tropes – a wiki about “the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.”
Incidentally, I’d love to hear some TV recommendations from you in the comments!