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 Friday Night Lights. Potential spoilers follow. Loosely based off of H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book that follows the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers and the subsequent 2004 film, this show weaves together great characters and themes with terrific writing, portraying life in small town America for teenagers and adults alike.
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
June 20: House, MD: Crafting Smart and Compelling POVs in Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know, Friday Night Lights follows Coach Eric Taylor, a high school football coach in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and his wife Tami, a guidance counselor and later a principal. Taylor is the first year coach of the Dillon Panthers, a team that has won multiple state championships and has a large, crazed fan base. The players' lives intertwine, as they navigate typical high school issues while surviving the pressures to win big for this small town. The starting quarterback dates the Taylors' daughter. There's on-again, off-again relationships. Football recruiting. Cheating. Divorce. Absent parents. Abortion. Death. By the end of the first season, Taylor is declared a miracle worker by winning the state championship after losing his star, starting quarterback to a devastating spinal chord injury in the first game. But with rising expectations, he's later fired after his third season. He becomes the coach of the newly formed crosstown East Dillon Lions and takes kids who have never played football to a state title by the end of his second season.
1. Consider Your Storytelling Method
Football is the method for gaining access to the Taylors' and these kids' lives. Without high school football, there would be no need to explore life in this small Texas town. Football is what puts pressure on these kids to succeed, to live up to unrealistic expectations. Matt Saracen goes from a nobody to one of the most important players on the team, and thus a star in the town, when quarterback Jason Street goes down with a spinal chord injury. Saracen is forced into the starting role, without a single game of experience. Brian "Smash" Williams carries the weight of the team and town on his shoulders, as Taylor leans on his legs to drive their offense. He also bears self-created responsibility to care for his mother and sisters, trying to earn a scholarship to college so he can make a run at playing pro football. Tim Riggins routinely shows up to practice drunk, hungover, or incredibly late, garnering the ire of Taylor. But, without him, Williams isn't as effective and the offense struggles. Football gives the viewer access to their lives, and access to their stories.
Find an avenue or a reason for telling your story. Why should readers care about your characters? Why should they care about their story? Why are they going to read your story? You can have phenomenal characters, write stunning prose and beautiful, realistic dialogue, but if there isn't a reason for following these characters, you're not going to hook the reader. Life in small town American is interesting, but not necessarily compelling. Life in small town American where kids are using football as their way out, while feeling the pressure of fans who only care about winning, is compelling. And that makes their individual stories compelling and interesting. Football is the way into this story. What's the way into your story? Find it, and that's your inciting incident.
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2. A Mixture of Showing and Telling is the Best Combination
Just because football is the avenue for getting into this story doesn't mean that football is what Friday Night Lights is really about. There are so many stories and issues to cover that football is never the sole focus. Instead, it's just a piece of the puzzle. But since each season covers a whole football season, they need to cover the ins-and-outs of the football team and each game. That doesn't always mean showing parts of the game, though. Instead, the writers find clever ways to show the results of games without actually having to show each one. They also find a way to check the town's pulse and feeling around the team. One way they do this is by showing Coach Taylor driving around in his SUV, listening to sports talk radio. Host Slammin' Sammy Meade frequently takes callers that complain about Taylor, or he'll recap the score of the game and maybe something key that happened. Another method is through highlights on TV in the background. For example, in a later season, Taylor subtly smiles seeing highlights of Williams playing for Texas A&M.
Sometimes, I think, the phrase "show don't tell" gets tossed out around too much. There needs to be some exposition in your fiction, otherwise it can be a nauseating, confusing blur of scene after scene. You need strong pacing, and using a solid mix of showing and telling is a good start. Doing so can help get the story moving and keep it going. Friday Night Lights would be impossible to watch if they showed entire football games. Instead, football never takes up more than 35-40% of an episode. It's usually far less than that. They make up for the gaps in action with exposition in clever ways. Think of handling your telling similarly. You'll have to inform the reader of certain things, but you can do it smartly. Newspaper headlines. Blog posts. Overhearing a breaking news announcement. Smart telling equals smart writing.
3. Develop a Relatable Theme
Every story needs a theme, some kind of message that is universal. There are a number of these in Friday Night Lights, but I'll stick to the ideas of family, overcoming adversity and redemption. There are examples of each of these themes throughout the series, in every season, usually in every character. Let's take Riggins. A known trouble maker, Riggins often can't get out of his own way, constantly making mistakes and creating issues for himself. As mentioned, he shows up for practice drunk. He skips class and refuses to do his own work. He drops out of college. Yet, he's still a good guy. He takes the fall for a chop shop that his brother Billy starts. And he still toasts to his brother at the end of the series, "Texas forever," a phrase that Tim uses as a promise to friends and family. Riggins proves that family is more important than anything to him, willing to go to jail for his brother, who has an infant son. He earns redemption for all the women he uses by being there for a relative stranger, Becky Sproles, when she becomes pregnant. And Riggins overcomes the view that everyone has of him: that he's a no-good drunk, doomed to follow in the mistakes of his absent father. Despite being treated as a nobody, Riggins is a good kid. Coach Taylor says that he has more heart and character than anyone he's ever coached.
Themes are generally universal. If your theme isn't, then it should be. How else can a reader relate to it and want to actually read your story? There's something in Friday Night Lights for any viewer. And it's not like these themes are unique to just this show. Spend some time reading other books or stories in your genre and watching movies or TV shows that follow similar lines. Take notes on recurring themes you see. What's the message that the author is trying to convey? Record patterns. How are similar themes treated in different subject material? Are there similarities? Differences? You'll see fundamentals that don't change. Any theme you're writing about is not new; but that doesn't mean you can't find a way to retell it in a new way.
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4. Make Your Theme(s) Pervasive
Themes in your story need to be represented in every character. Your primary characters should be intimately tied to your theme. Matt Saracen lives alone with his grandmother, who suffers from dementia. As a teenager, he's the man of the house and must provide (family, adversity). Coach Taylor is fired at the end of season three and he's given the job at East Dillon, which is being reopened as part of a zoning issue in the town. He deals with kids who have never played football before, and some who may end up in a juvenile detention center, while having insufficient funding and facilities (adversity). By the end of the season, he's brought these kids together, and they upset the Dillon Panthers, eliminating them from playoff contention. The Panthers' loss leads to the departures of the booster and coach that ran him out of the school (redemption). And at the end of the series, Taylor's offered a five-year contract to return to Dillon, whose team has merged with East Dillon due to funding issues. He rejects the offer, instead following his wife's career, as she accepts a Dean of Admissions job at a small college in Philadelphia. After 18 years of chasing his career, he knows it's time to follow his wife's (family). You can do this for every character in the series. Williams wants to go to college to support his mother and sisters (family), but blows out his knee in his senior season and must work his way back to just have an opportunity as a walk-on (adversity). I'll spare you more analysis.
The easiest way to make a theme pervasive is to develop strong characters. You need characters that are strong in their convictions, and strong in heart. (I suppose an antagonist can be both of these things, in his own mind and way. Remember, a good antagonist will be acting in a way that is justified to him.) If you have characters who know who they are and what they stand for, you can run your themes through them. It won't feel contrived, if you handle it properly. In this method, it's okay to develop themes with little bits in each character. You can vary them, too, as you would see the various themes in different books. Think about the theme of family in Friday Night Lights. It's not the same for every character. Saracen has a rocky relationship with his father, who is serving in Iraq, and hates his mother for abandoning him. He loves and supports his grandmother. Williams wants to find a way to support his mother and sisters. Tami Taylor supports her husband through years of turbulent times in coaching, all the moves, and threats, including mornings and nights when dozens of "For Sale" signs are planted in their yard. And Coach Taylor gives up one of the best opportunities of his career to help Tami pursue her dream. There's different elements of the theme of family in each character. Family means something different to each character, as it does to each of us in real life.
5. Antagonists Aren't Always a Single Character
Oftentimes there isn't a true antagonist in Friday Night Lights. Vince Howard, the star quarterback in seasons four and five, struggles with gang members and his father, who returns home after being released from prison. Riggins faces down a meth dealer. In season three, Taylor deals with a new booster Joe McCoy and his son, a promising quarterback. McCoy pressures Taylor into starting his son over the senior, Saracen. Taylor eventually makes the move before ultimately benching J.D. McCoy after a poor half in the state championship. Because of that move, and Taylor's refusal to guarantee J.D. the starting job the next season, McCoy runs Taylor out of Dillon. Beyond this, there aren't always true antagonists. Instead, you have ideas and themes as antagonists. It's this small town. Different characters describe Dillon as a drug. When outside of the town, you see it for what it is. But it always lures you back, and you can't resist it once you're back in Dillon. Characters do everything they can to escape the town, using football as their path. The writers and producers play on this idea, playing the song "Devil Town" at two different points in the series: after Taylor's first state championship, during the town parade, and as they prepare for the state title game in the final season. The lyrics are poignant, and describe exactly how themes and groups can act antagonistic: I was living in a devil town / didn't know it was a devil town / Oh lord it really brings me down about the devil town / All my friends were vampires / I didn't know they were vampires / It turns out I was a vampire myself in the devil town.
There needs to be conflict in your story. But your conflict doesn't need to be man versus man. There are hundreds of other ways to go about this. Think of your themes and what might be the opposite. Those polar opposites can be represented in a character, or a group of characters, or the general atmosphere of your story. You just need something that stands in the way of your characters achieving their goal(s). If a teenager isn't going to get into college because of her grades, the conflict there isn't an antagonist—it's herself, her actions, and her grades. What's preventing her from making the grade? It doesn't have to be a bad relationship, making the boyfriend the villain. Use more abstract ideas rather than traditional antagonists, if you can. It will help your story stand out and enrich the theme. But you'll still need to sprinkle in a few antagonists here and there.
Are you a fan of Friday Night Lights? 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.