Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Better Writing Through Discussing Television

I completely forgot to mention that Romance Junkies has named Don't Hex with Texas a Blue Ribbon Favorite -- one their reviewers liked best for the month. I even get a nifty little ribbon icon that will go on my web site when I get around to updating it. (If I were my publicist, I would fire me.)

On the last writing post, I talked about things you could learn about writing from watching TV. I think there are also things you can learn from talking about television. I'll admit that the main reason I first waded into the Internet was to talk about and analyze my favorite TV shows. I'd read an article about all this great conversation taking place on the X-Files newsgroup, and I had to be there, even if that meant finding a way to get the VAX system we had at work to let me read newsgroups. TV discussion is still one of my favorite procrastination techniques, but I think I've also learned a lot from it that I apply to my writing. Some of these are actual writing lessons, but others are about what really gets audiences excited.

1) Talking about the things you enjoy and what you enjoy about them is a good way to get a sense of what really speaks to you. If you find yourself talking more about certain types of stories or certain types of characters, then maybe those are the kinds of stories and characters you should be writing about. Even if you don't get into a discussion group, try being conscious of the elements that really get you excited and make you want to talk.

I think this is one of the biggest benefits of discussing television. It's very easy to fall into "shoulds" when you're writing or even discussing books because your brain can get stuck in that industry place where you're always analyzing what's selling, what editors are looking for, etc., and you can lose track of what you really like. Since television is removed from that, it's a little easier to focus on what appeals to you. In discussion, you talk about what struck you and what didn't, what gets you excited, which characters you love and why, and you have to defend your positions. That gives you a good insight into what elements you might want to use in your writing so you can break away from the "should" mindset.

2) Awesome is as awesome does -- This is one of those "showing" vs. "telling" things. If you want to make audiences hate a character, tell how awesome that character is without letting that character actually do anything awesome. If all the other characters talk about how sweet and smart the character is, but her behavior is bratty and stupid, then the hate squads will form. It's far better to let the actions speak for themselves without the on-screen fan club telling us about it. Even better, if you want to make audiences become fiercely loyal to a character, let the character act in truly awesome ways while the other characters don't seem to notice or appreciate it. We can't help but pull for the underdog, so telling us someone is useless and then showing them rising above that to save the day is a lot more fun than having the person we all know is brilliant and awesome save the day. Plus, when it feels like no one in the universe of the show is on the character's side, it makes us want to rally around him all the more.

3) Character love is often strongest when it's really earned -- A character who's clearly on the side of the angels and who has her act together from day one may make a great heroine, but if you want to build a character who has a fan club, let that character start out as annoying, antagonistic, even a bad guy, and then let him redeem himself by struggling to do better and working to earn our love (and the love of the other characters). It can be difficult to do that with a main character since this kind of character usually isn't the protagonist at the start, but it's a great way to build a star out of someone who starts as a secondary character. Who doesn't love a reformed bad boy, or even just a jerk who's seen the light?

4) A session of online nitpicking is a good way to learn to spot plot holes -- or what audiences perceive as plot holes. You'll get a sense of what people are willing to buy, and what sets off their "no way!" alert. Characters doing things out of character is a big one. If you need to make a character do something he would never do, you'd better provide really strong motivation or audiences will scream.

5) People like to be kept guessing, whether it's about the feelings between two characters or about what's really going on in the story -- as long as it isn't dragged out forever. I would guess that there are more discussions (and more fanfic written) about characters who are not overtly romantically involved than there are about established couples. While there is a faction that would like nothing more than to see their favorite two characters entwined in each other and expressing their devotion, for the majority, it seems like having plenty of touches, glances and gestures that require reading between the lines to figure out what their feelings really are is a lot more fun, up to a point. It's the same with the big plot -- unanswered questions keep us interested, but you do have to answer them eventually. The X-Files is probably the best example for both of these (how to do it for the first few seasons, how not to do it for the last few). This also works with individual characters -- having some mystery about them is a good way of keeping them interesting.

Of course, all this talking about TV is a good way to put off writing, so it's best to remember what your real priority is. But if you find yourself creatively stuck or so mired in the "shoulds" that you've lost touch with what gets you excited, this can be a fun way of inspiring yourself.

1 comment:

wrigleyfield said...

Admit it... you watched Smallville! (At least, I figured your discussion of characters they tell us we should love, but we all hate, was about Lana.)

Thanks for these posts!