About seven years ago when I started thinking seriously about fiction, I took an online course offered by Gotham on fiction writing. It was a great course that led me to sit down and get busy working on a novel. I wouldn’t have finished the book though, without reading a lot of great writing books (two of my absolute favorites are Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and On Writing by Stephen King).
The one thing I didn’t do was watch a lot of TV. Bad move.
Now don’t get me wrong, if all you do is watch TV and movies and you never sit down to write, you’ll never get any work done. Instead, you will reside in couch potato land.
However, there is a way to make your viewing pleasure into your own private writing course, if you know what you are looking for.
Of course, you learn how to write well mostly by reading good writing and through writing often. You can’t neglect those actions. You can however, watch examples of good screenwriting in order to gather gems of wisdom on how to start a story, learn elements of a rich character, end a story, and listen to the rhythm of good dialogue by watching shows and movies that include this.
For all great shows and movies, the writers did their homework.
For bad shows and movies, you know…when the writing AND the story sucked. Ahem…you get the point.
What can you do?
Do your homework based on their homework. If you’re going to watch TV, be intentional about it.
Study good writing when it comes to the screen. Pay attention to the nuances of character. What turned you on? What turned you off when you witnessed an action sequence, a conversation, or a climactic scene?
Here’s a hot list of character and stories I’ve studied and they have helped me to create a better storyline. You can study these on-screen writing examples and learn how to create…
- A non-stereotypical bad character: Omar Little from television show “The Wire”
- A fully transformational character: Walter White from the television show “Breaking Bad”
- A tension-filled scene with humor: The dinner table scene in the movie “Why Did I Get Married” (by Tyler Perry)
- Good Dialogue: “The West Wing”, “Moneyball” or anything by Aaron Sorkin (recommended by author and speaker, Cec Murphey)
- A good-natured main character not so squeaky clean that you want to smack him: The book and movie, “Blue Like Jazz”
- A way to jump right in with the story: The television show “Breaking Bad”
- A sympathetic bad guy: Tony Soprano from the television show, “The Sopranos”
- A sweet story with conflict and heart: Any of these movies: “Finding Nemo”, “Monster’s Inc”, “Up” and “Wreck-It Ralph”
- A voice: The movie “Fight Club”
- A way to let rip in the writing: The book AND the movie “Fight Club”
- A way to mess up a perfectly good ending: The movie “Why Did I Get Married II”. (All I’m going to say is, The Rock? Really? Seriously?)
- A way to mangle a complex plot full of multiple characters: The television show “LOST”
- A way to succeed with a complex plot and multiple characters: The television shows “The Wire” and “The West Wing”
Now, this is just my hot list. And I find great writing in lots of shows and movies now. I find I think of the elements of those characters and they help me shape mine. For example, in the show “The Wire”, the character Omar was a gay hardcore criminal and thug – but he also did not curse or do drugs, he had on older man as a father figure, he only robbed and murdered other drug dealers, and he reserved every Sunday morning to take his grandmother to church. In the hands of a bad writer, that character would have had no good qualities whatsoever, and the character would have been an inner city stereotype. With good writing, the character became a real person, not a hack job.
What shows or movies and characters have impressed you or shaped your writing?