Six Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television
Two weeks ago, I delivered a lecture to the MFA students at Western Connecticut State University. (I teach in both this program and the undergraduate writing program.) The lecture was called Watching Fireworks on TV: The Uneasy, Exciting Relationship Between Television and Literature. I’ve always been a TV person as well as a books person, and I could never understand the many, many, many writing teachers I had who hated the thing they also refused to watch.
The point of my lecture was to talk about the ways (some) television has grown away from its roots in radio and stage drama into a new form of visual literature, full of complicated, character-based, long form storytelling. The Shield and The Sopranos and Freaks & Geeks, I argued, are like novels. Hell, David Simon has said outright he was trying to make the Great American Novel with The Wire.
TV and books are not the same, of course, and I included plenty of examples where they diverge. DON’T WORRY. But because this was a crowd of MFA students, I wrapped up the lecture with what Socrates called “easy learnables”: What we (as students of writing) can learn from television. Because this is primarily a writing blog, I thought I’d include those here. You’re welcome.
1. Characters are everything. TV gets this. What was the USA network slogan for years?
There are new high-concept, premise-driven shows every year, and they nearly always fail. They don’t fail because they lack a strong enough hook, they fail because people, in the end, want to hang out with a show’s characters. That’s why Criminal Minds puts the gang all together on their Crimeplane every episode.
Burn Notice, while being a premise-heavy show, was smart enough to create a mix of interesting characters you wanted to hang out with week after week. Ditto CSI. There have been a dozen shows that tried to replicate the mix of sci-fi and mystery that seemingly made LOST a hit, but the secret to LOST was this: People came for the crazy premise, they stayed for the characters. The writers took time to show us exactly who Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, and Claire were. In fact, the flashback structure LOST used from the start was there explicitly to deepen the characters, which the creators knew would then keep us invested in the mystery. People watch because they love to become invested in characters. They love to know them, they love to worry about them, they love to be surprised by them.
[Note: By this point in the lecture, I’d already talked about TV’s old habit of keeping characters from growing too much, a hallmark of episodic television. The Burn Notice crew can only change so much, and if there are changes, they’re strung out veeeeerrrryyy slowly over the course of a season. Show to show, though, they’re resetting back to square one. This is not a bad thing – you don’t want Rockford or Monk making enormous gains in their emotional lives -- but it’s different from what happens on a serialized drama like Breaking Bad.]
Well, guess what? This goes for all characters, on the screen or on the page. One thing TV does is drill to the heart of a character to find what will make him/her irresistible and fascinating. A weak character rarely ends up on TV. As I tell my fiction students, you can’t just tell the story of Some Guy. You have to tell the story of THE Guy Who….
Again, even on a show as formulaic as CSI, the lead character is Gil Grissom, a brilliant pathologist who also has a hard time relating to other people, has failing hearing that he’s trying to keep a secret from his co-workers, and has a strange personal connection with a dominatrix. That’s not bad. That’s also about as far as they take it with Grissom, because CSI really is about its premise. Taken out of the confines of CSI, a lot could be done with that character.
2. The best characters are always obsessed, always broken. Related to the character issue, but going deeper, is the fact that the best TV characters are also the most driven and the most damaged. This should be a basic tenet of literary characters, too, yet I see again and again the same passive characters popping up not just in student work but in “legitimate” impressive published work.
Let me ask you something: what’s that TV show about a guy feeling sad and empty, wondering how his life had gotten away from him, but he can’t seem to do anything but wander around his town and kinda let stuff happen to him? What’s that show? Oh, right. There isn’t one. No one would watch that. Then let me ask you this: Why would someone want to read it?
Active doesn’t mean always happy, or manic, or illogical. Active means a character who wants something, who does things relating to those wants — oftentimes when that is exactly the wrong thing for them to do. Good rule of character writing, actually: Bad for them? Great for everyone else.
3. You’re writing for an audience, always. I’ve known people who’ll say things like, “I don’t write for other people, just myself.” These are not people who write poetry for their own pleasure, these are people I’ve met in my travels as both a student and a teacher. And to them I say, then stop writing. You’re doing it wrong. You’re abusing the privilege. We’re here to write things for each other. Most of us in this world are readers, some of us are also writers. The writers write for the readers. It’s part of the deal. TV understands this, sometimes to a fault. (Talk to a TV writer about network notes some time.) We’d do better to understand it even a little. It’s wonderful and necessary to be insightful and brilliant. And it’s as necessary to also be entertaining. Our most beloved pre-20th century writers all knew this. Tolstoy could be entertaining as hell, and he damn well knew it. Entertaining doesn’t mean pandering, so why are we so often convinced it’s a sin?
4. The audience likes to do some of the work. Don’t explain everything, don’t be greedy with the insight. Leave spaces for your reader to fill in.
This is the final image of the last scene of The Sopranos, which I hated the second it happened. Now I think it’s the most brilliant last scene in any television show ever. I think a lot of people had either the same reaction, or the exact opposite, which is, for my money, as sign David Chase was doing something right. The Sopranos, from the start, was a show that demanded you not only pay attention, but that you play a part in what it was doing. It kept pushing you, in particular, with its roster of likable sociopaths and psychopaths: Is this really a good guy? How about now? And it knew that the most exciting thing for the viewer was to be left to make a connection between what you just saw onscreen and what you’ve come to know about the people in that situation. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are, arguably, even better at this.
Shows like these (and Boardwalk Empire, and The Wire, etc.) leave key information up to the audience to figure out. Look at the image at the top of this post, for instance: Don and Peggy from Mad Men. If you don’t know the show, you might assume they’re in love, or that he’s even proposing marriage. This is not remotely the case. If you do know the show and have seen that episode, that image probably hits you in the gut. Why that shot, and that scene, is so effective is because that’s where you and the Mad Men writers have met in the middle.
This is something that’s been part of the author-reader relationship for hundreds of years. It’s part of the magic of what we do. I see a thing in my head here in 2013, I translate it into words as best I can. You read it, maybe in 2013, maybe in 2213, and you complete the vision by adding yourself to it. Know this: Television will never do this, not the way books do. But it’s up to the author to leave in those spaces – in the character descriptions, in the dialogue, in the scenes, in the moments of revelation.
5. Structure is the other everything. I can’t tell you how many times I heard in grad school, and in countless author interviews since, “Oh, I don’t worry about plot.” Or even: “I hate plot.” To which I always want to say, Then why are you submitting your work to an audience? When you ignore plot and structure*, you’re saying they don’t matter. Why not just write on your own and then read it to yourself and chuckle at your brilliance at thwarting a thing that’s worked for thousands of years? And while you’re at it, why don’t you go shit on Jane Austen’s grave?
If you ever said, in a television writers’ room, that you don’t worry about plot, they would eat you. They would literally eat you. Because structure matters. Why? Because that’s how you tell a story. That’s a fairly big part of why we read: To hear a story. And while television has a bad (and well-earned) reputation for overreliance on formula, the great shows know that structure does not have to mean repetition, and that it’s a framework. What goes on that framework is what makes something either great or crap.
* Different from subverting plot/structure. If you know the “rules” and know what you’re breaking and why, it can be thrilling for the reader.
6. Stop writing things forever. There’s a great podcast called the Nerdist Writer’s Panel. I’ve listened to every episode, some of them more than once. They interview almost exclusively groups of television writers, though somehow I was on once, too. I remember one writer talking about how he learned to stop being precious about his words and start working faster to produce more. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) he realized that come Friday night, TV was getting made with or without him. When he realized this, it not only made him write faster, it made him write better.
I’m not advocating being sloppy or shortsighted, but I also know way too many writers who spend forever rewriting and rewriting. I know writers who will say, “I spend hours just trying to get one sentence right.” I hope that person’s either being hyperbolic or over-dramatic. Too little rewriting is bad, but too much can become a problem, and it’s often one of avoidance. (“If I don’t finish this thing, I won’t be able to put it out, and it can never be judged. But as long as I’m working on it, I get to call myself a writer. Win-win!”) Prose types don’t have the production deadlines and rigid schedules of television – but maybe we ought to. Writers often don’t deal with accountability until they have an editor. I know way too many good writers who may never get to that point because they’re forever taking forever.
If you set goals for yourself — this many pages per week; I will show my chapters to Jane by X date; I will send my stories out to 20 publications by March 1 — you’ve got accountability. If you have a friend or group of fellow writers expecting to see X pages by X date, you’ve added another layer of accountability. David Copperfield, one of the best damn books there is, was doled out 32 pages at a time over 19 months. At the end, Mr. Dickens had a finished book. If you really want to write something, don’t just wait for November and NaNoWriMo to come around.
Watch TV. Learn from it as you learn from books, movies, poems, plays, and blogs. Then go be your own writers’ room, your own production studio, your own cast and director and DP and set decorator. And be even better than anything else that’s out there. That’s all!