What novelists can learn from TV writers

Now, I have heard writers, novel writers, complain about the horrors of tv. It shrinks our audience, and turns people into zombies. Well, that might all depend on what you’re watching. While it’s true that someone clocking in hours of reality tv like Christly Knows Best, Honey Bobo, Teen Moms, Survivor or any of the other millions of shows that prey off of our baser desires to see someone fail should have their personhood card revoked, I’d say the same for anyone who reads Twilight or anything that’s got a half naked couple on the cover.

Let’s compare that to things like Dr. Who, Star Trek, Marvel’s Agents of Shield, Newsroom or Ray Donovan. These are great stories well told, and there are things that we, as novelists, can learn from these writers.

TV writing is more character driven.

Quick, who’s your favorite Dr. Who companion? I bet you know. Mine’s Donna, by the way. The reason why we know is because we care about the character. We root for them, or against them, depending. Tv is very character driven. We don’t just want to see what happens next, we want to see what happens next to that person. The world, and the story line are shaped around the decisions the main character makes.

This is something to emulate in fiction. A story about a magical world is all well and good, but it’s so much better if it’s from the point of view of someone interesting.

You’ve got to learn to work with people.

Tv writers do not work alone. They discuss and colaberate with everyone. While this isn’t the best way to get a book written, it is important to learn that you might have to take some criticism and ideas from other people if they’re offering them. Your agent, editor or publisher will have suggestions.

Also, the thought of a colabertative novel has worked well for several writers. Steven King and Peter Straub write a wonderful ghost story together. Basically, you just don’t want to sink too far into the ‘I made it, it’s mine, don’t you touch one word,’ mentality.

Three kinds of stories, season plot, series plot, and monster of the week.

Any time you watch a show, there are actually three different plot archs. There’s the series long plot arch. An example of this would be in Dexter, where he spends the whole series trying to hide the fact that he’s a serial killer.

Then there’s the season story arch. Think the season of Dr. Who when Bad Wolf kept showing up everywhere.  Something was mentioned almost every episode, but there were a lot of other things happening as well.

Then there’s the plot of the episode.  Sometimes these are all about the plotline for the season or series, but more often they are a story all on their own.  These are often called Monster of the Week episodes, coined for X-Files.

These three story arcs have to blend together so that ever episode tells a story, every season tells a bigger one, and the whole series tells the biggest one.  This is something that can and should be put to use when writing a book, or especially when writing a series.  We’ll look at a chapter like an episode, a book like a season, and a series like a show.  Basically, every chapter should tell its own story, but also fit into the whole story and whole series.

Fitting into the background

By a very wide margin, no one knows who tv writers are.  I know Steven Moffatt writes for Dr. Who because I’m a nerd, but a lot of people don’t.  The characters, the stories take center stage.  Tv writers aren’t household names, but their characters sure as hell are.

So, rather than looking down your nose at tv writers, consider what we can learn from them.  There’s a reason everyone’s got a favorite tv show, after all.


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