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5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Television

Like most of us, I watch a LOT of television. It’s a lot faster to watch a 40-minute episode of TV than it is to read a whole novel. And you can get your story fix while also multitasking. (i.e. Eating dinner, knitting, etc.) There was a time when I felt a little bit guilty for watching TV instead of working my way through my giant To-Read list.

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But, after thinking about it a while, I realize that there are a lot of lessons that can be learned about writing and storytelling from watching a TV show that you really love.

1. Body language is important.

Most TV shows don’t have interior monologues for the main character, so we get a lot of our clues for how a character is thinking and feeling from the actor’s expressions and body language. Slinging an arm around someone to show affection, rolling their eyes in exasperation, or a single tear to show pain. And while you might not have Jensen Ackles’ incredibly expressive face to work with when writing a book, you can still incorporate body language into your novel. Think about the moment on a TV show where the camera pans down to focus on an actor’s clenched fist. We don’t have their inner monologue to tell us that they’re angry and are holding themselves back from punching somebody, but that one physical movement, tiny as it is, still conveys that information just a clearly. And in fact, it’s actually stronger, because we are being shown, not told. So instead of telling me that your main character is nervous, maybe they just bite their lip a little, or sit on their hands to hide their trembling.  

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2. Keep things moving…

TV is all about movement and drama. Any given episode only has a set amount of time to convey their story, so they have to do it as quickly as possible, but they ALSO have to keep people invested, because even 30 seconds is FOREVER in TV terms. Think about The West Wing or Gilmore Girls, both shows where a lot of information needs to be presented to the audience in a very short period of time. The actors were all very good at talking quickly, clearly, and concisely, while still having personality. AND most importantly, they almost never just sit and talk. They’re always walking, moving from one room to the next, and interacting with other people. It’s much more visually interesting for TV viewers to have the scenery changing and things moving. And the same thing goes for your readers. Even when you have a lot of information to present, you need to do it in a way that is active. Try to avoid a lot of passages where your character is just sitting and thinking and dwelling. Even having two characters just sitting in one place chatting for too long can bog your story down. Instead, see if there is a way they could be moving. Is there a way to include triggers for all of these different thoughts and emotions? Can they be interacting with other characters, objects, or their environment?

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3. …But know when to pause.

That said, stillness has a time and place, especially when used in moderation. If your story is always moving and is filled with action and momentum, contrasting that with a moment of stillness can be incredibly powerful. Think about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is a show with a thousand things going on at all times. She’s in high school, she’s hanging out with the Scooby gang, she hunting something down. Even when they are just establishing the setting, there’s usually atmospheric fog drifting around, something is ALWAYS moving. But, in the episode where her mom dies, everything goes still and quiet. It’s incredibly powerful, and it really lets us understand and feel Buffy’s grief and shock.

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4. Find the hook.

Every television show has some kind of really quick, one-line elevator pitch/hook. (For example, the elevator pitch for Supernatural might be something like “Two brothers travel the country hunting monsters” and for Leverage it might be something like “A band of misfit thieves team up to help people by conning corrupt one-percenters.”) These kinds of elevator pitches make it easier to talk about the show to people who’ve never seen it, but might be interested. You, as a writer, should also be able to boil your story down to one line. (I know this sounds incredibly hard. As an editor, I have to do it a lot, and it can be painful.) But, if you only have 20 seconds (or even less), or one tweet, or say, 100 characters in a short description on this site, then it’s important to be able to summarize the hook. Not the heart of your story—You can get into that once you’ve grabbed their attention, whether in your long description on site or your flap copy or in follow-up questions while you’re chatting— but the hook. What elements of your story are going to grab someone’s attention? And what’s the fastest way to get them into one sentence? If a television show that runs for multiple seasons can do it, so can you!

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5. No one can do it all on their own.

No matter how strong your main character is, you can’t have a TV show of just one person sitting alone in a room. Every show has an ensemble cast. Even if the show is mostly about one central character, there will be a host of side characters. You can’t defeat evil in a vacuum. Everyone needs somebody else to balance out their flaws. If you look at the show Arrow, it became so, so much stronger once Oliver started gathering allies. When it was just him alone and brooding, the show was slower and less interesting. But when you add in Digg and Felicity and Laurel and the rest of the crew, they introduced a variety of emotions and interactions that not only kept the plot moving forward, but also helped spur Oliver’s character growth. That’s why most of the shows that I end up binge-watching have strong ensemble casts. Partially because I am a sucker for found families, but also because characters are more interesting in a group. So, when you’re working on your novel, sure, it’s important to have your strong main character, but remember that the people around them are just as important. All for one and one for all!

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What other lessons have you learned from watching your favorite shows? Or, what lessons have you learned from shows you didn’t particularly like, or gave up on? (This could be a whole blog post on its own.) Also, any recommendations for great shows that we should be watching? :)

Let us know in the comments!

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Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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