What I Learned About Writing From Watching TV

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By Gail Z. Martin

I stopped following new shows on TV back in grad school because my crazy schedule meant I could never keep up with the latest episodes (yes, that was before DVR and Netflix). I spent the 90s watching a lot of TV but it was PBS Kids and Magic School Bus, with a few exceptions like Babylon 5 and a little bit of ST:NG (I missed Firefly the first time around).

So it’s only been relatively recently that I’ve gone back to catching up on shows on Netflix and video, and following some that are still running. (For a while, I was afraid to get hooked on a show still in production because as soon as I fell for it, it got cancelled. Lookin’ at you, Beauty and the Beast with Linda Hamilton!)

I can’t completely take off my author hat as I watch shows. I’m always looking under the hood to see how the writers do what they do. Sometimes that’s in appreciation (I see what you did there!) and sometimes not (WTF!). I also am blessed with a viewing partner with a low tolerance for stupidity and who keeps count of how many times certain characters get knocked out in fights, which makes some episodes challenging.

As authors we angst over plot holes and continuity. Our editors hold our feet to the fire when there are inconsistencies and poorly explained twists. We obsess over how to create suspension of disbelief, and our beta readers, fans and reviewers knock us upside the head when we fail. So I can’t turn off that deeply ingrained habit when I watch TV, and too often, it’s painful, even in shows that I love and enjoy. Let me repeat: I love the shows and the characters, and I’ll do my best to grit my teeth and overlook issues. But I can’t turn off the writer-brain, so I’ve decided to learn from what I see.

Over the last couple of months watching a number of series, I’ve come to a few conclusions about TV vs. novels, and gleaned a couple of things that I now keep in mind as I write. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  1. Pretty sure many TV viewers will overlook gaping plot holes, canon inconsistencies and continuity errors if the main leads are hot enough. (This is a distinct advantage that TV has over books, and completely unfair.)
  2. Unless you are intentionally retconning (and have provided a good explanation for doing so), don’t ignore canon. It bugs your uber-fans and looks sloppy. If the fan fiction writers can have their canon straight, the folks being paid to write the official stuff should do as well. It’s a matter of respect for the fandom—or in an author’s case, your own backlist.
  3. A little more on keeping canon. Respect the sacrifices that have gone before. If someone had to die to overcome a villain in an earlier season, don’t make a joke of that sacrifice in a later season by having the returned villain require little effort to dispel. Characters can certainly gain powers and experience and strength and discover new weapons so that they can do things later in the show that they couldn’t early on, but vanquishing the returned villain should still have a cost or it should be an explicit point about how much the hero has grown (at a cost).
  4. Be consistent. If a character is a genius in one episode, don’t have him/her make stupid mistakes in the next. If a character has superpowers, don’t flick them on and off like a bad lightbulb every time you need someone in peril. (Better to build in limits than have to continually come up with flimsy excuses about why someone can’t do something in episode 5 that they did easily in episode 1.) If a character has amazing ninja combat skills, he/she shouldn’t be easy to sneak up on, hit over the head, or beat in a fight.
  5. If it’s not a soap opera, be cautious with interpersonal drama. Why do TV writers think that we only want to watch characters fight with each other? There’s enough of that in real life. Part of the appeal of a good story is watching friends, partners, lovers and family that remain loyal and true through thick and thin, because that isn’t something you encounter every day out in the cold cruel world. Angst can become a cheap plot device, and it gets old when characters don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. A little goes a long way. The older I get, the less patience I have with it, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
  6. Don’t have characters make obviously stupid and out of character decisions just to contrive a situation. There’s always more than one way to arrive at your plot destination. Finding a plausible way to achieve the same end is much more satisfying and doesn’t have to require any more time than doing it in a weak/implausible way. Don’t have cautious characters suddenly ‘forget’ to lock doors or have military ships or installations that somehow just allow visitors to wander around into the most vulnerable sectors. Seasoned characters should be wary, so don’t have them just go off with a stranger and be surprised when it doesn’t end well.
  7. Don’t introduce a big ‘this changes everything’ plot twist and then ignore it or sweep it away to go on to the next ‘OMG you won’t believe what happens next’ twist. I’m seeing a lot of this in multiple series, and it really annoys me. If you’re going to bring a character back from the dead or reveal that a character has a secret former life, then have everyone deal with it. Let’s see the impact on individuals and relationships. It should be a key plot driver. If someone loses their powers, they don’t also lose their essential self, so someone who is badass with superpowers/magic shouldn’t suddenly be wimpy and inept without it. In fact, you might see that de-powered character showing more bravery and cleverness to achieve through brains or brawn what they used to do easily with magic or powers. If you’re going to introduce a new really bad villain and there’s a big build up on how totally powerful and awful he/she is, don’t get rid of the threat in a single episode.

I know that TV is driven by ratings in a way books aren’t (although we’ve still gotta wow the reviewers), so the new-bigger-badder issue is hard to pass up if it gets people to tune in. I’ve heard that TV writing is very rushed (although book deadlines for most authors are pretty grueling nowadays too). But still, viewers expect screen writers to do their homework enough to know the show and the characters and their history, and it would be nice if someone was watching over the whole thing for consistency’s sake. TV series are like a shared world concept in books, where you’ve got multiple authors with their hands on the plot/characters, which is different from a single author guiding a storyline. At the same time, anyone who has written for a shared world or a licensed property knows that there are plenty of rules that come with the deal to assure canon consistency.  Surely TV could do the same.

Maybe it’s different with the written word because we see what the point of view characters are thinking, where on TV we only usually see the actions but not the inner thoughts. (This may also explain the appeal of fan fiction that strives to fix the continuity/canon/character inconsistencies in the show.) I just know that as a viewer, those problems throw me out of the moment, and I don’t want to do that to my readers. (Not to mention the fact that my editors would hand me my ass if I tried it.)

As an author, I’ve gotten attuned to mistakes I don’t like to see as a viewer, so that I can watch out for them as I spin out my own plots and world-building. I see the cost of taking short-cuts and going for the easy way out. I am reminded of the importance of individual book and overall series arcs, as well as how vital consistent character development is to believability. And I value the readers who care enough about my books to know the canon and the characters well enough to keep me accountable. That is a rare and precious trust, and I always want to create stories worthy of their belief.

What’s new! 

Death matchA brand new Jonmarc Vahanian Adventure novella—Death Match!  It’s the first of three novellas that will wrap up the backstory arc. Jonmarc’s capture by Nargi forces will seal his fate as a warrior, and put in motion events that will change the Winter Kingdoms forever.

Two new Deadly Curiosities Adventure novellas—Predator  and Fair Game. Shapeshifters, serial killers, haunted objects and old curses make Charleston a supernatural hot spot!Predator

Trifles and Folly—Now in print and ebook! A collection of the first nine modern-era Deadly Curiosities Adventures.

Journeys anthology—Ever wonder what happened to Cam in The Blood King? The Last Mile tells his story. Free on KindleUnlimited, .99 to buy. Stories by Juliet McKenna, Juliana Splink Mills, John Gwynne, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Julia Knight, Jacob Cooper, Samanda R Primeau, Steven Poore, Davis Ashura, Dan Jones, Charlie Pulsipher, Anna Dickinson, and Thaddeus White.  Coming Feb. 15

Baker Street Irregulars—Retelling Sherlock in very different ways. Mine is a transgender Sherlock (Shelly) set in the Deadly Curiosities universe.

 

Trifles and FollyFair GameJourneys sneak peekBaker Street

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