I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other Monday, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show.
This week we’ll take a look at House. Potential spoilers follow. (Note: Though I do like this show, I stopped watch around season 6, so I can’t comment on anything past that point.) Personally, I love House for the dialogue and the characters. You can learn a lot from this show in developing point of view and creating a consistent voice for multiple characters.
Previous posts of “What Television Can Teach Us About Writing”
February 29: Better Call Saul: A Study in Writing Excellent Characters
March 14: True Detective (Season 1): Creating Mood & Atmosphere in Your Fiction
March 28: Fargo (Season 1): Developing Terrifying Antagonists in Fiction
April 11: House of Cards: Writing a Strong Cast of Characters
April 25: Bloodline: A Study in Creating Conflict & Tension in Fiction
May 9: Wayward Pines: Developing Elements of Suspense in Fiction
May 23: The Office: Perfecting the Details in Your Fiction
June 6: The Path: How to Foreshadow Effectively in Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don’t know, House is a medical drama that follows the titular character, Dr. Gregory House, and his team of diagnosticians at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. House is narcissist and a cynic, and he regularly pops Vicodin for his damaged leg. The result is a consistent, terrible mood and poor worldview. His motto says everything about what he thinks of everyone else: “Everybody lies.” And his practices as a doctor is sketchy, at best. His methods are so unorthodox and his way of treating patients so unprofessional that Dean of Medicine Lisa Cuddy (whom he often butts head with, though sometimes in a playful manner) sets aside $50,000 in the budget each year for potential legal expenses. Dr. James Wilson, head of oncology, is House’s one true friend, and he often seeks his advice or simply desires to bounce ideas off of him. House’s team, at last in seasons one through three, is comprised of Dr. Eric Foreman, Dr. Allison Cameron and Dr. Robert Chase. House and Foreman have a mutual respect for each other, though they often don’t get along. Cameron takes a much more conservative view of ethics and medicine than House, and often the rest of the team. And Chase is the one character who is the most likely to go along with House’s games and theories throughout the series. House eventually replaces his team with new doctors in later seasons. Each episode consists of a strange medical issue that House and his team must diagnose and treat. Should they fail, it generally means death for the patient.
1. Managing Multiple Points of View
One of the best things this show pulls off is managing the points of view of six different major characters. Cuddy and Wilson aren’t always big factors in an episode, but it’s common to see them get a few minutes of screen time or more. And you sometimes get scenes through their eyes. That’s necessary, in order to see how someone might manage the volatile and unpredictable House as a superior and as a friend. We also see a majority of scenes in an episode through the three characters on House’s team. It varies from episode to episode who gets more POV scenes, depending on the case they’re tackling. A certain issue with a patient or the way a case is handled determines who takes the lead (indeed, House rarely goes to talk the patient one-on-one). This provides a unique perspective from episode to episode, revealing storylines and personalities of each doctor. Ultimately, the most POV scenes usually go to House. Or at least his personality is dominant in the scenes he appears in.
Want a good blueprint for executing multiple points of view? Pop on an episode of House. The majority of the time, you’ll find that you’ll see 50% of scenes through House’s eyes, with another 40% being split among Cameron, Foreman and Chase. (Of course, these characters often overlap and are in the same room together.) Then there’s 10% of the episode left, so you’ll see a scene or two with House from Cuddy or Wilson’s POV, or scenes with the patient. Usually, each episode begins with the abnormal illness afflicting the patient, as seen from his view. If we see their viewpoint again, it’s usually in an interaction with House to give the audience perspective on his abilities (and lack of tact) as a doctor. Here’s the point with these percentages: If you’re going to write a novel with multiple POVs, you still need one or two primary characters to carry the load. Not every character needs to get the same amount of page time. And things don’t need to (nor should they) be split up equally. Pinpoint and write characters that have interesting personalities and fascinating backgrounds. Place them in situations where their traits can come forward, but manage them. If you find one character dominating your book (more than 50–60% of the POV), then you might want to rethink your strategy. You may not need as many POV characters as you think. But you do want one of them to stand out as your go-to character.
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2. Crafting Compelling Characters
Of course, if you’re going to pull off a story with multiple POVs, then you better have a cast of interesting characters. Every character you write in a novel should be unique, and this job only gets more difficult when you introduce multiple POV characters. Now, not only do you need interesting characters, but you need characters who have a strong voice, a personality and a fascinating background. You’re essentially creating multiple protagonists (or antagonists), and you need to spend an equal amount of time developing them, even if they’re not going to get an equal amount of time on the page or in the book. If a POV character isn’t compelling, then you should fade him or her into the background and eliminate that POV.
The easiest way to create these characters is to link them to one POV character—the one who’s getting the most time on the page. Think about it. In House, Wilson and Cuddy are linked to House on a personal and professional level (Wilson as both his friend and colleague, and Cuddy as a potential love interest and House’s boss). Cameron, Foreman and Chase are linked to House on a professional level because they’re part of his team. Wilson and Cuddy, appearing on screen less than the other characters, have their stories developed slowly over the course of the series. The others, though, see plot lines develop quickly. Cameron butts heads with House in practice, but is attracted to him. She also is a widow, having married a dying man in the final months of his life. Foreman, who is a brilliant doctor, comes from an underprivileged home and was a juvenile delinquent, breaking into houses. House admits that this was a factor in Foreman’s hiring, as he could recognize misbehaving patients. He also seems to respect Foreman the most out of the other doctors. And Chase is the most like House, willing to do whatever it takes to advance his career. He also has a strained relationship with his father and eventually begins dating (and marries) Cameron. Each of these characters has a vastly different personality and perspective. Their unique characteristics make them interesting and compelling POV characters. We care about them. If you can’t make your reader care about your POV character, then she shouldn’t be one.
3. Developing Smart and Witty Dialogue
My favorite part of House is the dialogue. There’s dry sarcasm laced with a little bit of hatred and respect between House and Foreman; there’s sexual undertones (or, sometimes, ones that are in-your-face) in conversation between House and Cameron, and House and Cuddy; a sense of disrespect between House and Chase; or mutual respect and friendship between House and Wilson. Any episode is a lesson in developing a tone and voice of each character. And the best part is the consistency. World views, upbringings and life choices have affected (or afflicted) each character, and it carries in their dialogue. House is the best example of this. Cuddy and his ex-girlfriend made a medical decision against his wishes, costing House the use of his leg. House was placed in a medically-induced coma after an infarction in his thigh. He refused to have the leg amputated, instead believing it would heal. Cuddy and his ex opted for a middle-ground, removing the damaged muscle, leaving him with a limp and permanent pain. This makes him a consistent cynic and a grouch (though there’s some question over whether House was always like this), utilizing sarcasm and belittling others to mask his own pain. This leads to dialogue and soliloquies like this:
Speaking of which, if you’re particularly annoying, you may see me reach for this—this is Vicodin. It’s mine. You can’t have any. And no, I do not have a pain management problem, I have a pain problem … but who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m too stoned to tell.
That voice never wavers throughout the show. (At least not in the 5+ seasons I watched.) It’s one thing to create dynamic, compelling characters. It’s another thing to give them each consistent and unique voices. A reader should be able to turn to a character’s specific chapter or section and know which character it is from their voice alone. If you’re really good, you won’t have to tell the reader. (But, do tell the reader, in some way.) Keep your voice for each character sharp. Try creating separate word documents for free writing, or even separate notebooks or journals if you’d prefer to write longhand. When you’re getting ready to write in a certain character’s voice, spend some time warming up in a document or notebook dedicated to that character. Don’t start writing a chapter ice cold, but spend fifteen or twenty minutes to find their voice and be in a rhythm with the words flowing. When you have that rhythm, switch to your story. It will make writing that chapter in that voice much easier.
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Are you a fan of House? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there’s simply too much to cover in just one post. If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.