Watch TV, become a better writer

Veronica_Mars_season_3I think we’d all like to justify our excessive  TV watching.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Redbox give us easy access to our favorite movies and TV shows. We spend hours glued to our TVs, phones, or computer screens watching episode after episode. And we feel guilty because it’s time we should have spent writing instead.

Here’s the thing: we shouldn’t feel guilty, because there is much to be learned from TV. And if you watch with a writer’s mindset, you can simultaneously enjoy the entertainment and improve your writing skills.

The writer’s mindset, of course, is the key. Below, I’ve listed the things you should pay attention to as well as a few questions you could ask yourself as you watch.

1. Observe character relationships and character growth.

Ask yourself this question: What has captured my attention? Why do I watch this show?

There may be several reasons, but I’d be willing to bet it’s your love for the characters that’s first and foremost.

We sympathize with the protagonist. We enjoy being a part of their story world. Their every-day conflicts are engaging and interesting. And, most of all, we want to watch them change and mature. The completion of a character arc in a novel is often difficult to accomplish. On screen, the completion of character arcs seems effortless.

What does the protagonist want more than anything? What is their motivation? What gives them purpose? What is his/her goal?

You need to be answering these questions for each of your own characters. It’s a learning exercise, however, to answer these questions for the characters of a favorite TV show because it could shine some light on what you’re missing or could strengthen or improve.

It isn’t all about the protagonist, of course. Sometimes I watch a show solely for the sub-plots. Two supporting characters are falling in love. The protagonist’s best friend suddenly has his own goal, his own conflict. Pay close attention to the protagonist’s relationships with other characters.

Did the protagonist’s perceptions of someone change? Has the protagonist been betrayed? Who does the protagonist trust, and why?

Let me touch briefly on TV romance. Yes, it can be cliché. But I think it’s especially helpful to see how a romance gradually builds, because rarely do two characters fall immediately in love.

whitecollar2. Take note of the carefully constructed plot.

TV shows are unique because the typical episode runs between 30 minutes to an hour. This is a short period of time for problems/conflicts to be introduced and resolved.

Therefore, episodes follow a formula, which may or may not be easily identifiable. This is similar to structuring a novel. We recognize the importance of structure, because without basic elements our stories would collapse.

So…what plotting techniques do you believe you could use in your novel? What worked for that TV show?

On the other hand, be sure to ask yourself what you would have done differently. Maybe you felt the conversation the protagonist overheard was a bit too convenient. How could you have made it less hackneyed?

Please, whatever you do, don’t overanalyze. I’m merely suggesting you turn your TV-watching time into an opportunity to be productive.

Get Smart (the old TV show), White Collar, Downton Abbey, Elementary, Covert Affairs, Chuck, and Veronica Mars are the TV shows I’ve been addicted to at some point or another in the past several years. I watched episodes back-to-back and nothing could stop me. But I’m currently writing a spy novel, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to mystery and crime on TV.

You tell me – what are your favorite TV shows?

2 thoughts on “Watch TV, become a better writer

  1. Brooke Younker

    *lightbulb* next time I’m watching Alias and my parents ask what I’m doing (which is usually actually avoiding homework), I can tell them I’m researching! 😉

    Good post, though––you’re making me think. Alias is my favorite show (it’s about spies––might want to check it out), plus The Bachelor/Bachelorette (I’m a sucker for romance, however contrived), Survivor, and Arrested Development. And I’ve watched a couple episodes of Chuck… 2 to be exact. But I like it. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    1. brooke Post author

      I’ve never seen Alias but I’ll definitely look it up! And yes, “researching” is definitely an appropriate answer. It’s a phrase my parents have heard multiple times, which is actually one of the reasons I decided to write this post! 😉


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