Watching TV Makes You a Better Writer

by Lori on 04.15.2011

in writing

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.

Just like story structure, a season of television has characters who have to grow.  Bob Mayer explains perfectly why a character needs an arc:

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, GABtVS, and Lost), and learn some craft.

More reasons to watch television to learn about writing:

Incidentally, I’d love to hear some TV recommendations from you in the comments!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele April 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm EDT

I love that you added Veronica Mars to your list of good writing. I think that show was unappreciated and underrated (lots of ‘uns’ =P ). I’m also happy to see Buffy on there because that is the ultimate. From the first episode so many years ago, you knew you were watching something great in the making.
Now, I have gotten back to Grey’s, and I love The Office (though not this season, so much). Other faves are The Walking Dead, True Blood, and Shameless.
For an oldie– My So-Called Life!
I watch a lot of TV, huh? ;)

Lori
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April 16, 2011 at 12:12 pm EDT

The Office is one of those greats I haven’t watched but have heard so much about. I used to say I didn’t like sitcoms, but that was before I was force fed The Big Bang Theory and fell in love. I love True Blood. I watched The Walking Dead but it was a marathon and I really can’t get into something if I can’t catch it at the beginning. I think it’ll be a DVD thing. Shameless, I’ve never heard of. I’ll have to check that one out, ASAP.

Thanks for the suggestions.

Mary Elizabeth April 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm EDT

I agree wholeheartedly. Television absolutely made me a better writer. Something I’m watching now that my partner and I both agree is EXCELLENT for the writing is The Killing on AMC.

So much is NOT said that it’s almost a lack of writing that sets it apart. No plot point is ever definitively stated. For example, none of the characters ever says “that wasn’t XYZ on the video you found, it was ABC!” Instead, the audience can tell by the characters reactions to the information.

It’s hard to do it justice, but I highly recommend watching it and observing that little device. IMO, it heightens the tension, especially for a murder-mystery type show.

Lori
Twitter:
April 19, 2011 at 3:00 pm EDT

I’ve never even heard of that. I will so have to check it out, that sounds really good.

Sarah Whitney April 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm EDT

Great post! I’ve always watched my TV with what I call my “writer’s eye.” Glad to know I’m not the only one. :)

I would add, though, that I’ve started paying more attention to the screen writers than just the series. A good example of this is the British scifi TV series Doctor Who. When I see Head Writer (& Hugo Award winner) Steven Moffat has written the screenplay in the credits, then I know I’m in for a treat. I’d highly recommend watching Season 4 episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” They are great examples of what you’ve talked about in this blog.

Also, if you like Joss Whedon & Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’ve got to watch his other series called Firefly. I recommend it ten thousand times over. It’s on Insta Watch on Netflix. Go forth and watch. You won’t regret it. Just make sure to watch it in order!

Lori
Twitter:
April 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm EDT

I have watched Firefly! I loved it and hated when it was cancelled. (Nathan Fillion-yum!) But, I hadn’t started studying writing back then, so it’s definitely worth a rewatch. I have to admit, I’ve never watched Doctor Who. The idea of checking to see who wrote the stand-out episodes is an excellent one that hadn’t occurred to me.

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