Thursday, September 12, 2013

Learning From Episodic Television

I believe that if we find a television program that hooks us immensely, it is worth it to study that program and see what makes it so gripping to us as an audience.

What can it teach us about writing, you ask? Plenty!

For starters, an episode of television has a finite amount of time to tell a story. Usually this amounts to about forty-five minutes during which it must give us a beginning, middle, and end. That means the hook needs to grab us in the first thirty seconds or we will tune out. As an example, I have been re-watching the first season of American Horror Story and am amazed that once I get a minute into the show, I'm hooked until the credits roll.

What else can we learn from a show like Horror Story? Well, we can learn about structuring overall story arcs. If you're like me and you want to write a trilogy of novels, you need to have a beginning, middle, and end for each book, but you also need to have a beginning, middle and end for your entire trilogy. That makes those books feel like a complete story. What good would a season of television be if we only felt the need to watch a single episode and skip to the end? All those episodes need to fit into the overall story that the writers are telling, and the same can be applied for your series of novels.

Last, but not least, episodic television teaches us that we don't have to tell everything all at once. Watch Downton Abbey. Our first impressions of Lady Mary are that she's a cold, selfish woman. After three episodes we learn that there's so much depth to her as a person that we can't help but sympathize with her as she struggles with her place in the world. We need to harness this ability to reveal only what is absolutely necessary in small chunks in our own novels. We don't need to tell the audience our protagonists whole life story in the first chapter. We have an enormous number of chapters to utilize as we slowly pull back the layers of our characters to reveal their heart and soul within.

So, the next time that someone gives you guff for watching an episode of television, tell them that you're studying!