Saturday, February 18, 2012

What I learned from watching TV

posted by Teresa Slack
Come on, now. Let's be honest. Like me, you probably watch TV than you're willing to admit at gunpoint. Since most of us here are writers we can legitimize those wasted hours by calling it research. I bet you've learned a thing or two over the years about what works in storytelling and what is just plain stupid.

TV can be very predictable and boring and give a writer more than enough examples of what doesn’t work. But occasionally if you’re patient and watch closely enough, you’ll notice a few things that do work, even when they are done poorly.

Turn on your television and you’ll find plenty of suspense and cop dramas in which the bad guy is discovered because he coughed while driving to the victim’s house. Or the dog spit up on the carpet in 1998 after licking the wound of a victim and the DNA is still on the floor even though the carpet was used to wrap the body and burned in another state.

Nothing gets by these super-sleuths and investigators. I’ve been told by those in the know not to use prime time TV as research. Real life doesn’t happen that easily. DNA results takes months and local authorities seldom follow Fido around to see if he’s carrying a victim’s DNA in his digestive tract.

But you can pick up a few tidbits.

Successful TV dramas these days are high wire tension. But they don’t maintain the nail biting tension for an extended length of time. You must give the viewer—or in our case—the reader a chance to breath.

The next time you are watching your favorite nighttime drama be mindful of how they cut from scene to scene. Just as the high tension scenes aren’t long, neither are the ones that slow down the action and get into the personal lives of the participants.

It’s all about balance. Create a high tension, edge of your seat scene and end on a cliffhanger. Then just like they do on TV, switch to a scene where the hero visits his parents. His mother makes a stunning announcement. End your scene before he has a chance to react and cut back to high tension.

What about you? Have you learned anything from television--besides how to turn it off--that has helped with your writing? Even those guilty pleasure programs can teach us something if we look closely enough.

Happy Writing.


Molly Noble Bull said...

Great article, Teresa. I like your writing, too.
I also like movies, but not the kind they make now days. Thank goodness for Turner Classic Movies and other places we can see old, well made movies.

Teresa Slack said...

Molly, you're not missing much by not watching today's movies, tho I do see a good one now and then.

Jessica Ferguson said...

I do watch TV but I have specific shows and nights I watch. I can't remember learning much here lately except -- don't do anything stupid in public because everyone has a camera phone. :)

Good post.

Teresa Slack said...

Jess, so true. I mostly TiVo shows that aren't being made anymore. But there are a few out there I like. Prime Suspect is the only one I can think of right now. Don't know what night it's on, but it's a cop show with a blond detective. I like it. She & her cohorts aren't as annoying as most TV crime busting teams, ie: CSI.