Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Better Writing Through Television

This round of the book definitely seems to be a "night" book. I was able to do some line editing during the day, but the real writing didn't happen until night. I don't know if it's the heat or the bright sunlight, so that the closest I can come to a nice, cloudy day is night, but I guess I'll just go with it. I've done the major surgery, and now I have to go back through and layer in some nuances. Today's cooler and a little cloudier, so maybe I can work during the day.

Because I sometimes revel in being contrary, I'm going to go against the advice often given to aspiring writers. I often hear that if you're serious about writing, you'll quit wasting time watching TV and instead spend that time writing. But I'm going to recommend that you watch some TV. Doing so with your writing hat on can teach you a lot of valuable lessons.

1) Showing vs. Telling -- This is something a lot of writers (including me) struggle with. On TV, unless there's a narrator or a character who has an internal monologue in voice-over, the only way they can convey information is by showing what characters say and what they do. They can't dip into a character's head to tell us what she's thinking or feeling. They have to rely on the actor's facial expressions, body language, vocal pitch, way of speaking, and actions to convey thoughts or emotional states. As a writing exercise, find a scene in a TV show that has almost no dialogue in it (those scenes underscored by a pop song that are so popular in dramas these days would work, but ignore the song telling you what you're supposed to be feeling) and try writing it in narrative while still staying out of the character's head. Just describe the expressions and movements the way another character in the scene would see this person. Then write it from the point of view of that character, but still avoid actually saying what she's feeling -- you won't be able to use facial expressions except from the perspective of what it feels to make them, but you can still work with the actions.

There are times when telling is more appropriate, when you need to convey information and the actual scene would be boring, and the times on TV when they tell by having a character just say what's happening are also times when telling would work in a novel. We don't need to see the CSI lab techs or the doctors on House run every test, just the ones where something unexpected or particularly interesting happens. Having a character report that they've run all the usual tests and the results were negative is more interesting than showing all those scenes. Save the showing for the test where the sample explodes or the result is dramatic.

On poorly written shows, they may resort to telling -- the dreaded "as you know" recap where the characters tell each other things they already know because the audience needs to know them or the character that other characters keep telling us is awesome or mysterious or whatever with no evidence of the character actually acting that way. When this happens, you'll probably find yourself cringing. That's something to avoid in your own writing.

2) Start off with a bang -- It's no secret that our attention span is getting shorter as a society, and if we're not hooked quickly, we lose interest. That's affected the way television episodes start. Twenty or so years ago, most television shows started with an opening credits sequence to tell us what we were watching, complete with theme song. Today, they jump right to the action, starting with an opening teaser before the credits -- if they even have a credits sequence instead of just flashing a title card and then running the credits over the beginning of the episode. Those opening teasers are a good way to get ideas for how to open a novel. On the procedural shows, they usually involve either the murder itself or the discovery of the body. On action shows, they either set up the danger the main characters will be in or they show the main characters in some kind of action or danger. Comedy shows may start with a "cold open" that doesn't necessarily relate to the plot of the episode but that is a funny standalone scene that shows us something about our characters. In other words, it's all about action -- characters DOING something. They're not staring out the window, thinking about their past. They're not traveling somewhere and thinking about why they're traveling or what will happen when they get there. Of course, it's hard to have a TV scene in which characters just think, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to start a novel that way (and I've seen way too many manuscripts that do).

If you tuned into a TV show and saw a woman on an airplane telling her seatmate about her tragic past and the reason she's traveling (the TV equivalent of the person thinking about the destination while traveling), wouldn't you be a bit bored and disappointed if all that happened was her getting off the plane at her destination and then going on to do the things she said she was going to do? You'd probably be expecting (even hoping) that the plane would crash soon, or the plane would be hijacked, or the pilot would keel over and the flight attendant would have to take over the controls, or a passenger in the next row would have a heart attack. If it's a comedy, you might expect them to pull a twist and reveal that our real main character is the seatmate who starts coming up with more and more elaborate ploys to escape the boring woman who seems determined to tell him her life story.

Action reveals character, so by putting our main characters in action, the audience can learn about them and start caring about them. Then once they're hooked, you can bring in the relevant back story. If they're not already hooked, they aren't going to care about the character's tragic past. The opening should make the audience want to know more -- where did that body come from, will they find the murderer, will our heroes be up to this challenge, what will these people do next?

3) Pacing -- Commercial television has a very clear act structure because of the need to put in commercial breaks. Each act starts and ends with a bang, with some rising and falling action in between. Analyzing the pace of action in a television episode is a good way to look at pacing a story so that the reader keeps turning the pages, since so much about television writing is based around keeping viewers from changing the channel. One of the best compliments an author can receive is "I couldn't put the book down," so you're trying to achieve the same goal of keeping the tension up and the questions flowing in such a way that readers won't "change the channel" by putting the book down and doing something else.

Another good TV pacing lesson is how to do chapter-ending hooks in the best way. Look at the way a TV series ends an act to go to commercials -- usually at the moment a major question is raised, so we have to wait for the answer; a major revelation is made, so we have to wait for the reaction; a major decision must be made, so that we have to wait to see what the choice will be; or a character is in jeopardy, so we have to wait to see his fate. All of this is designed to ensure that viewers will stick around during the commercial break instead of changing the channel. If the hook is strong enough, viewers might not even channel surf during the commercials, for fear of missing the hook resolution when the show returns after the break. The end of a chapter is the novel's equivalent of the commercial break, but without the ads. It's a spot where it's easy to put the book down without losing your place, so the author has to work even harder to make readers not want to put the book down. Using a good chapter-ending hook is the way to do that. The technique also works for scene breaks in multiple-viewpoint novels with parallel or interwoven plot threads. When you end with one thread, you want to make sure readers are eager to get back to those characters, but just as eager to see what's been going on with the other characters.

I've also learned a lot about writing from discussing TV series online, so next time I'll talk about what my Usenet and Television Without Pity obsessions have taught me.

In other news, it looks like the full range of e-book formats for Don't Hex with Texas is now available. They're showing up at Fictionwise and at eReader. However, searching for the title at eReader doesn't seem to work, but if you search by my name, all four books come up. Now those of you waiting for e-books can get them!

No comments: