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TV Watching Does Not Waste Writers' Time

by Noelle Sterne

As writers, we probably won't feel guilty about watching primetime television shows if we've written eight straight hours and churned out 50 pages. If we haven't, we feel (a) we should be writing instead of watching, (b) choose only educational programs (research), (c) at least multi-watch, knocking off anything on the massive list of undones we've neglected for writing, or (d) punch off the TV completely and force ourselves back to the computer.

If we can't ditch the guilt, we have a great rationale for watching TV. As I've learned from my own (admittedly guilty) primetime TV watching, it can teach us a lot about what to avoid in our writing. Some TV dramas and movies are well-crafted and hold our interest. Others offer many lessons. Here I'll share examples, lessons, and remedies for six: unbelievability (two types), overlingering attention, heavy-handed foreshadowing, lazy language, and groaning predictability.

Unbelievability A: Where Did She Learn That?

Everything that happens, especially in crises, must be prepared for. Otherwise, credibility is sorely strained. Maybe you don't consciously realize it as you're watching and become engrossed in the plot and/or characters' struggles, but your inner editor is ever lurking.

Sometimes, well after a two-hour TV movie ends, I've got questions popping up: "How did he know that?" "Where did she learn that?"

Case in point: A Hallmark movie called Mending Fences(2009) takes place on a ranch. One of the main characters is the grandmother, whose eyesight is seriously failing and who has little use for today's electronic gadgets, including cell phones. When she and her city granddaughter take a horseback ride out to the edge of the property, they encounter a violent storm. The granddaughter has just learned to ride and her horse spooks, throwing her to the ground and knocking her out. The grandmother, panicked, reaches into the girl's pocket and grabs her cell phone.

In the dark, with rain pelting, the grandmother holds the phone and, with one press of a button, reaches her daughter, the girl's mother.

Help arrives quickly.

Okay -- how did the grandmother (a) know how to use the phone, (b) know that a speed button would connect with the mother's phone, and (c) see the right button in the dark with her failing eyes?

Lesson: The writers gave no preparation at all for the grandmother's day-saving actions.

Remedy: Plant, plant, plant. For example, early in the movie, when the granddaughter first arrives from the big city, the grandmother can grudgingly admire her cell phone. The girl admonishes her, "Like, it's the 21st century, Gram. See, it's easy." And with a flourish she shows off, pressing the speed-dial button and instantly hearing her mother answer.

Unbelievability B: Too Much Talk

A major technique of hour-long shows is the last-minute figure out/tie-up/confessional, especially mystery shows. Murder, She Wrote is famous (or notorious) for these. I confess I'm a Jessica addict and still marvel that I haven't seen all twelve years of the late-night reruns. In the crucial three and a half minutes before the hour's end, Jessica always nails the murderer with a nonstop exposition that rivals an auctioneer's spiel.

It generally goes like this: With the local police ready nearby, Jessica surprises the murderer breaking into the office to destroy the incriminating file or evidence. When she confronts him or her, the murderer denies it boisterously ("What a wild imagination!" "This woman is crazy!" "You have no proof!").

In her gentle but firm way, Jessica replies, "No, Cliff, you're wrong. You . . . ." And she begins the long, involved narrative of what really happened, her confident voiceover recounting every detail while the screen shows every step of Cliff planning and carrying out the deed.

How in Holmes' name did she figure all that out?

Lesson: The parallel in your writing to all this talk is too much exposition. You need some, of course, at the start of your story or novel and a few points along the way. But don't rely on a stuffed-in, long-winded, over-detailed explanation at the finale. It just ties everything too neatly and, as with Jessica's soliloquy, strains reader credibility.

Remedy: Like the previous version of unbelievability, one solution here is to keep planting. Granted, it's a challenge and an art to plant enough clues subtly enough so the viewer or reader doesn't guess the murderer too early.

Possibilities: Show the murderer interested as if naturally in the victim's life or possessions -- a special ceramics class, a custom-engraved pen, an old beloved upright piano with a wobbly leg (but show other characters interested too). Brush on these potentially important pieces of evidence (broken bowl shard for throat slitting, pen for chest stabbing, piano leg for head clobbering) once or twice near the beginning and at the middle. But see next flaw.

Overlingering Attention

In an episode of another series, as the attractive young woman enters her hotel room, the camera pans in and remains on a folded envelope on the coffee table. As she leaves the room, the camera follows her but stops again at the coffee table, honing in on the envelope. When the maid comes in to clean the room, in dusting she knocks the envelope to the floor. The camera hovers over it. Why didn't that envelope get star billing?

Your viewer or reader has more than gotten the idea, and even the whole plot. Sure enough, the envelope will figure materially in the killer's unconvincing alibi.

Lesson: In your narrative, watch how long you linger.

Remedy: If you absolutely need that envelope to further your story, tread lightly. Don't describe it at length ("a crisp white envelope, addressed in flowing, definitely feminine script, postmark barely showing, the only indication it had taken the torturous route through the cross-country mails a telltale wrinkle in the lower left corner").

Instead, as your character crosses the room, she could brush against the envelope. It falls to the floor, and she absently puts it back on the coffee table. You've gotten in the crucial envelope but in a natural way, without undue or overlong attention.

Heavy-Handed Foreshadowing

This flaw, like the previous, risks early obviousness. Literary foreshadowing has a long and vibrant history. Masters do it -- masterfully: Shakespeare in the opening of Hamlet, Shirley Jackson in "The Lottery," Updike in "A&P."

Back to TV. When the main character in a teen movie suggests his buddy ask out the class fat girl, the buddy exclaims, "Over my dead body!" Oh, oh -- you just know he'll get it in the locker room. And 14 minutes later, he does.

In an episode of The Closer, a drama about the Los Angeles "Major Crimes Division," the white-haired senior squad member, Lt. Provenza, arrives late to the crime scene, a suburban house. He stammers that he went to the wrong address, mistaking 23rd Court for 23rd Place. His team members shake their heads and roll their eyes; age has caught up with him.

I knew instantly this wasn't just a long scene of comedy relief. At Provenza's error, I couldn't help crowing, to my husband's annoyance, "Watch! That will be important later!"

It was. The entire massacred family were victims of the killer's same mistake -- the hit man went to the wrong house.

How do you lighten the heavy hand?

Lesson: Study the masters. Analyze openings; dissect them. Subtlety is most often the key, and not lingering too much on the "hint." The teen protagonist could preface his suggestion with a twist: "You may kill me for saying this, but . . . ." In "The Closer," Provenza's mistake and explanation should have, and could have, taken half the camera time.

Remedy: Embed a word, a phrase, an oblique metaphor, or make the hint integral to the action. Shakespeare does it in the first few lines with Hamlet's opening speech, the dank winter night, and a palace guard's unexplainable uneasiness. Jackson does it in the second paragraph, with the children's apparent innocent collecting of stones that will become the inescapable and ghastly vehicles of the lottery. Updike does it in the first line of "A&P" with two crucial words: "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits."

Lazy Language

Once in a while, a show teaches directly. In an episode of Raising the Bar, a law series about public defenders, a lawyer defends elderly twin brothers who have illegally cashed a deceased friend's Social Security check. Instead of discussing their case and acknowledging its seriousness, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.

One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, "Doc, just take my underwear." The other brother shouts, "No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier."

Lesson: He's right. How can you get more specific?

Remedy: Say you're writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You've supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced to rob a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, "Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door."

Given Jeffrey's poor circumstances in a freezing Chicago night and his motive for his choice of robbery, the story is enlivened and our sympathies deepened when we know what kind of jacket he pulled on. His personal situation contrasts radically with what he's robbing: "Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door." Or, better: "Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door."

Groaning Predictability

Even if you weren't a sensitive, incisive, editorially savvy writer, you'd likely guess the story arc of most of the popular shows, especially movies. Take love, a timeless, worthy subject. The young city girl with great hair and tight jeans goes West to sell the ranch her father left her. She encounters and battles instantly with the gruff foreman, who's loyal to the ranch and what it stands for and is adamant about not selling. (Of course, he's handsome and tall in the saddle.)

Settings may change:

  • City department store at Christmas with lonely saleswoman (with great hair and conservative tight suit) and out-of-work-executive Santa.

  • Novice idealistic reporter fresh out of women's college (with great hair and tight slacks) and cynical veteran, chain-smoking Pulitzer winner.

  • Impassioned first-time female race driver (with great hair and tight jumpsuit) and multi-Indie-winner misogynist team lead driver.

Count on it. The more it's hate at first sight, the more you can bet they'll end up in an open-mouthed clinch.

Did you know there are only 36 dramatic situations? Nineteenth-century French writer and critic Georges Polti identified them and chronicled multiple examples and sub-situations from literature, with extensive, entertaining commentary. (The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, by George Polti.) This classic book, with many later imitations, is worth a place in your library, for ideas, intertwining of subplots, and cliché-checking. My examples above are variations of Polti's Number 28, "Obstacles to Love," and (E) "Incompatibility of Temper of the Lovers."

How can you use them freshly?

Lesson: Love, in all its exasperating twists, is certainly worth writing about. But when you do, although you'll inevitably be using one or more of Polti's variations, see how you can freshen it, make it relevant to your time and your experience.

Remedy: Look at Shakespeare, of course, and fine films. The African Queen (1952) portrays a masterful mismatching gone sweet. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) shows us clashing environments, social classes, and lifestyles. When Harry Met Sally (1989) illustrates the terror of letting love in. And the excellent and moving Gran Torino (2008) shows us a broader kind of love, of humanity, beyond prejudices, and between generations.

When you write about love, consider different approaches. College or marriage? Which location? In the small town you grew up in near your grandparents' homestead or on an island in Melanesia, with unknown languages and no cable? How to balance love and its responsibilities and follow one's bliss? How to overcome lifelong discrimination and let love in? How to triumph over past poor relationships and take the heady leap? What hard choices have you or others made? How have they resolved them . . . or not?

Talk to family members too. You may get astonishing surprises. Often grandparents and other relatives have had remarkable experiences of love they never shared and probably would love to (in prison camps, wartime, poverty, other dire circumstances). Yes, love is one of the most timeworn of plots, but it deserves to be written about always. With your immersion in the story and deepest honesty, you will write a love story in which the ending can't be predicted by any regular TV watcher.

The End

TV is great for relaxation, relief, and escape -- and we deserve it. But if our guilt lingers, remember that we can learn from television. And sometimes the lessons hit us right in our popcorn-stuffed faces.

Next time you plop down to watch, pay a little more attention. You'll notice a lot about unbelievable sequences and scenes, cameras that linger too long, obvious foreshadowing, imprecise language, and endings you can call three minutes into the show. So when you finally force yourself to click off the remote and punch on your computer, you'll use the lessons from your TV watching to improve the creations on your own screen.

Copyright © 2012 Noelle Sterne
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 250 published fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. She has contributed many guest blogs and writes a column in Coffeehouse for Writers, "Bloom Where You're Writing." With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation -- Finally -- and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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