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 The Office. Potential spoilers follow. The detail in this series—from character personalities and backgrounds to seeming minutiae in the plot—are what make The Office laugh-out-loud funny and completely lovable at the same time.
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
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know—and if you don't, get out from under your rock and go turn on Netflix!—The Office is a comedy series shot as a mockumentary (a single camera setup, without a live audience/laugh track, to give the appearance of a documentary). The fictional camera crew follows the day-to-day activities and lives of office employees at a fictional paper sales company, Dunder Mifflin, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Characters at the center of the comedy include regional manager Michael Scott, who is absolutely inept as a manager; salesmen Dwight Schrute and Jim Halpert, who have a running feud that's driven by Jim's constant pranks; receptionist Pam Beesly, Jim's crush in early seasons and eventual wife; and a variety of characters featuring different personalities.
1. Every Little Detail Matters
The Office is the best at getting the little details right. From the very beginning, you can see the quick glances and smiles between Pam and Jim, and their inside jokes. (Though this story line is made pretty obvious from the beginning of the series, even though Pam may not know until later.) There's the small conversations between Dwight and Angela Martin, an accountant, who later engage in a relationship. Small breadcrumbs are left to hint at these, which develop into larger story lines as the seasons progress. Granted, the show sometimes makes these things obvious by focusing on them, or having other characters talk about the potential relationships going on. But there are signs present in episodes before the show creators want the audience to focus in on these story lines.
The relationships between Pam and Jim, and Dwight and Angela are the two longest running story lines in the series. And they're treated with the significance that they both deserve. For example, when Jim draws Pam for Secret Santa in the second season, he gets her a teapot filled with little items that are inside jokes between them. He also includes a card/note to her about how he really feels. At the last second, he removes the note. We never learn what he's written, but the note reappears in the series' penultimate episode, seven years later. Pam begins to worry that she's holding Jim back in Scranton, as the sports marketing business he started in Philadelphia with Darryl Philbin has started to take off. Pam thinks she's not good enough for Jim. To comfort her, he enlists the help of the camera crew to put together a DVD of the highlights of their relationship. The DVD ends with the scene of Jim taking the note out of the teapot, which he then presents to Pam. He explains that everything she'll ever need to know is in that note.
Want to make your fiction stand out? You need details like that. A seemingly innocuous moment from an early season plays a significant role in their relationship at the end of the series. There's a payoff for remembering details. And even if the viewer doesn't remember it, the writers cleverly remind everyone with the use of the DVD showing that scene. Details matter in fiction. I'd argue that they're the most important thing about your story. I want to remember and savor moments. I want specific detail that I can easily recall. That's what makes The Office so good—specificity. It's easy to remember and differentiate each and every one of Jim's pranks on Dwight because of the detail, and because of the excitement that Jim has in planning them and seeing Dwight's reaction.
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2. Create Character Depth with Misdirection
Michael is an awful manager, lacks significant social skills, and just often makes everything into a terrible, awkward mess. Jim even creates a pie chart to demonstrate how Michael spends: 80% distracting others, 19% procrastination, and 1% critical thinking. Yet, he's a strong character, if only because of how awkward, but humorous he is. And because he's painfully miscast as a manager. But, what takes Michael's character a step further is that he's actually competent at something—sales. He won consecutive awards as best salesman; Pam and Ryan Howard are impressed by his abilities when he leaves with them to start The Michael Scott Paper Company; and he even claims to have acquired half the branch's client base. While Michael is a terrible boss and makes it near impossible to work under him (sales associate Phyllis Lapin comments to a new employee that they have to find little times during the day to be efficient, working around Michael's antics), he's a good salesman. Even as his superiors think he's worthless, he strikes a deal with a client at a Chili's restaurant using humor as his boss, Jan, fails, and later gets a deal done with Hammermill at a conference. The best is Michael talking to the CFO, as he tries to convince them to buy out his new paper company, after having left Dunder Mifflin:
"I'll see you a situation, and I'll raise you a situation. Your company is losing clients left and right. You have a stockholder meeting coming up and you're going to have to explain to them why your most profitable branch is bleeding. So they may be looking for a little change in the CFO. I don't think I have to wait out Dunder Mifflin. I just have to wait out you."
Michael may be a complete idiot at times, but he's also brilliant in other matters. The quote above reads as cold and calculated, something far beyond what you might expect from Michael's character. Your characters don't need to appear to be an idiot, only to actually have moments of clarity and genius. But you should surprise your readers with hints of a different side. If you're writing about a character who's tough-as-nails, you should show his softer side. Maybe he has an ailing mother or sister in a nursing home; or you could write a scene where he's gentle with his toddler on the playground. Give your reader a multi-dimensional character. There's added depth in characters who are more than meet the eye.
3. Even Your Supporting Cast Needs Detail
Any story needs a supporting cast. And these characters cannot just fade into the background. Find a way to make each and every one of your characters stand out. In Just Write, James Scott Bell talks about how someone as simple as a doorman could actually be a doorwoman. She could wink as the hero walks by. Or, if a character is in a hurry and needs to get across town in a cab, the cabbie could be the kind of person who is going to talk his ear off about some inane subject. However you want to make your characters standout, make them unique. Sprinkle in the smallest of details to even the smallest of characters and you'll create a living, breathing world.
The Office is far from one-dimensional, existing only in the office building in Scranton. We see characters in their home life and in relationships, or struggling to make ends meet, such as when Michael is working as a telemarketer to make extra money while his girlfriend (and former boss) Jan drains his bank account working on her candle business. More importantly, there's depth in the minor characters. Take, for example, Dwight's strange cousin Mose. At one point, he's seen running alongside Jim and Pam's car as they pull up to the beet farm. At another, Dwight explains that Mose has had nightmares ever since "the storm," never explaining what that event was. This is a character that appears in just a handful of episodes, but through second-hand accounts and a few character-to-character interactions, we get a sense for him. He actually is strange.
Or there's more developed secondary characters like Toby Flenderson, Scranton's HR rep who is habitually berated and despised by Michael. Toby is a mild-mannered guy who sometimes has difficulty voicing thoughts and feelings, and genuinely tries to keep Michael in check to prevent his antics from having a negative impact on the workplace. While Michael hates him, it's hard not to feel bad for Toby. He has a crush on Pam, but is too nervous to act on it after Pam calls off her wedding with Roy at the beginning of season 3. Later, when he awkwardly puts his hand on Pam's leg after she laughs at his joke, Toby freaks out and announces he's leaving for Costa Rica before running out of the office. In a later season, Toby correctly answers facts about Pam that Jim doesn't know. These details make the viewer feel for Toby as an awkward individual, but someone who cares and pays attention. He's generally a good person, even if people don't like him. These kinds of details are given to every character, which is what makes The Office such a strong show.
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4. Dialogue Can Be About More Than Words
It's going to be difficult to replicate in written works, but one really memorable thing about The Office is how the characters communicate beyond dialogue. It's the exasperated looks that every character gives the camera when Michael or Dwight does something ridiculous. It's Jim's shrugs and knowing glances towards the camera—which is even commented on, in a meta fashion, by Karen Filippelli after Jim transfers to a different branch. There's Stanley Hudson's eyerolls, Phyllis's looks of disappointment or embarrassment, Angela's disapproval, etc. The facial expressions, groans, and even the tone of how things are spoken are just as—if not more—important as what's said.
Obviously you don't have the luxury of a camera when writing fiction. But you have the ability to create action in your dialogue tags to go with your speech (and, no, I don't mean something like he spat, she laughed, or he said, exasperated). Your character can be frowning or twirling her hair. He can stare off into the distance. Think of how you or a friend might react during a particular conversation. That will go a long way to helping you define how your character might act as she delivers a line. Also, make use of silence and pauses in dialogue. Does your lead fidget? How does he handle silence? How can you convey anxiousness, fear, or disgust without outwardly writing those words? That's what separates great dialogue from good dialogue. I don't want to just hear your character when she's speaking, I want to see her.
Are you a fan of The Office? 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.