5 Things Television Teaches Writers

We’ve all watched television—dramas, police procedurals, reality shows, newscasts. Although television is a different medium than writing, it provides an abundance of advice wrapped inside the programming that’s relevant to today’s writers.

    


Guest column by Janice Gable Bashman, co-author
of Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters
and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil (Citadel
Press, 2010) and contributing editor of the
Big Thrill (the newsletter of the International
Thriller Writers). She is a regular contributor
to leading publications. See her website here.

 

1. Jump Right In—Television shows start smack in the middle of the action to grab and hold our attention from the get-go. This method discourages the viewer from flipping the channel to find something more interesting. Once we’re hooked, backstory is revealed. Tune in to any drama or even the news and you’ll see this method in action. Today’s readers expect the same from their books. They want to be hooked after reading that first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. They want a book so exciting that they can’t put it down, a story that captivates their hearts and souls and fires up their imaginations. They want a story that pulls them into a new world and threatens to hold them there until the very last word. It’s up to writers to hook the readers, to keep them interested enough to keep reading. And it all begins with the first scene. Make it exciting.

2. Use Hooks and Cliffhangers—What keeps us hooked to television shows when the distractions of home, family, friends, work, the Internet, etc. threaten to pull them away? It’s simple really. Good storytelling. But it goes beyond that. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean viewers will stay tuned, especially once a commercial comes on. Television shows tease us when going into a commercial or ending the show. They leave us hooked with an unfinished question or scene that makes the viewer want to know more and makes us wonder what will happen to the characters in the future. This process is a deliberate effort to keep us watching the shows. And it works. For writers, it’s important to begin and end a scene with a hook. It can be an unfinished question, a line of dialogue, or a bit of action—anything that grabs the reader’s attention and make the reader wonder what comes next. The hook compels the reader to turn the page and read more. As readers, we’ve all experienced that book that keeps us up well into the night when we have to get up early the next day. What keeps us reading each page, each chapter, when we know we should really go sleep? It’s simply a good story combined with great hooks.

3. A Break From Writing Is Not a Waste Of Time—We’ve all seen the television character who can’t solve a problem but who is then hit with a great idea while fiddling with the remote, hanging out with friends, playing basketball, or cooking. Some of the best ideas come to us when they’re least expected. Some writers believe that writing is the only way to find new ideas or resolve problems, but sometimes taking a step back from the process yields wonderful results.

4. It’s Not Always Best To Brainstorm Alone—Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. Television cops don’t work alone, the women on “Army Wives” solve problems together, and the creative group on “Mad Men” is just that—a group of individuals who work together to brainstorm ideas. Many of the ideas are terrible and are rejected, but then a unexpected gem emerges from the give and take among the group members. When stuck for ideas or for solutions to plot problems, writers often stew in their chairs, surf the internet, knock out chores, or play games on the computer with the hopes that the solutions will magically appear. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. Shooting an idea past a colleague or brainstorming with a friend can be just the thing to bring freshness and excitement to your work.

5. Diversification Is Key To Success
—How many good television shows have gone stale? They show the same twist on an old story line over and over again. As a result, we become bored, abandon the shows, and find new ones to watch. Also, have you noticed how advertisers don’t focus on only one market? They diversify among television, print, radio, and the internet and adjust their advertising to each market to achieve the highest success rate and to reach the widest audience. As writers we must diversify in order to succeed in this ever-changing industry and to ensure our work is constantly in demand. If we focus on only one market and that market becomes stale or fails, we’re out of work. But if we diversify and continually look for new opportunities in untapped markets, the opportunities are endless.

What forms of media have inspired your writing, and how?

Interested in scriptwriting? Check out The 101
Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, and
read interviews with the writers of Rain Man,
Forrest Gump, Die Hard and more.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “5 Things Television Teaches Writers

  1. Tyler Reed

    Excellent points! I love the first point you made about keeping the beginning engaging.

    One beautiful thing TV shows can benefit from is the same that writers already have — lack of a laugh track! When a TV comedy lacks a laugh track, it has a charm similar to the written word: The reader/viewer makes up his or her mind what reaction to have and when to have it.

  2. Gerri George

    My writing has been influenced by all forms of media and art: museums, especially quirky ones, (they stimulate my creation of unconventional characters); TV (especially Ovation Channel, History Channel; National Public Broadcasting TV…& Radio); sculpture (abstract and classical); movies; murals on buildings. Art in general, I suppose. I jot down thoughts as I watch and listen. Many anecdotes find their way into my writing, and influence my motivation and enthusiasm for writing. You see good stuff and you want to make your own art better. Art changes you, but the best art often influences you in ways it’s difficult to understand. Various art and media make me a better person, a better citizen, a better writer. G. G.

  3. Kristan

    Good points. I think TV can also teach you a lot about stories within stories — each episode has to work on its own, but then also fit into a larger narrative. Much like chapters! 😛 (Or books in a series, if you’ve gotten that far.)

    I find movies and screenplays to be very helpful to my writing too. I’m not sure why prose writers don’t think in terms of 3 acts and turning points more often… it’s such a natural form of storytelling!

  4. CarmenFerreiro

    I agree with your post. Writers are competing with TV, Facebook and video games, thus I understand that books must hook the reader from the first sentence and never let him/her go, which means new cliffhangers must be set along the way.

    Yet this technique can backfire if overdone. If nothing is ever resolved, dissatisfaction can set in, and tired of being left hanging, the reader/viewer can give up.

    That is how I felt after watching the season finale of Pretty Little Liars. I like a good mystery, but continuous teasing without resolution doesn’t work for me.

  5. Jon Gibbs

    Great post, Janice 🙂

    Movies and TV are a big influence on my writing, especially when it comes to pacing and, as you point out in yourself, the idea of hooking the reader from the outset so they’ll keep reading.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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