Five Writing Lessons I Learned From TV

I used to spurn TV. Why would I waste all that time sitting in front of the tube when there are so many other things to do in life? Why not spend the time writing, instead?

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Well, despite that lovely black-and-white vision of the world, I now watch the occasional TV series. Why? From a writer’s perspective, there are numerous reasons to indulge in this visual form of storytelling:

1. Keep up with what’s current—in fashion, language, hot topics, humor…the list could go on. If you’re writing fiction that occurs in the present, you need to keep abreast of current trends.

2. Character. Although I’m a great fan of people watching for helping to create my characters, analysis of characters in a movie or TV show lets you see how the writer/actor creates a clear, complex character with relatively few details. Next time you watch a movie, pick a character to analyze. What is that character’s archetype? What details does the filmmaker provide that lead you to that interpretation? It may surprise you how little information the actor and director use to create an incredibly clear character portrait. That’s what we want to do—what we need to do—when writing fiction.

3. Plot structure. I love watching the series Castle, in which a mystery novelist (the magnificent Roger Fillion) partners with a NYC homicide detective inspire his writing—and the more I watch, the more I start to see patterns in the structure of the episodes. The first suspect is never the bad guy…except when the director decides to stand the plot on its head. The second suspect will seem to have insurmountable evidence stacked against him—until a clever plot twist reveals that he, too, is innocent. Richard Castle will always face some sort of dilemma on the home front, which parallels and provide insight into the main story line. Analysis of movies and TV episodes can give you ideas to strengthen your own story line.

4. Tension. I’m surprised at the ways actors and directors evoke tension on the screen. It’s never the big disasters that get me—a mushroom cloud, although devastating and frightening, is impersonal until you show its impact on the individual. On the other hand, one person reading a message—a bad report—might move me to tears. As you watch, learn to identify the ways directors build tension. Back at your desk, experiment with their techniques in your writing.

5. Broaden your idea pool. As writers, everything we see, read, watch, or imagine has the potential to inspire our writing. When I’m stuck with a plot conundrum, reading a novel will often provide the needed spark to get me going again. When a character refuses to cooperate on the page, watching a similar character on the screen can help me figure out what isn’t working.

6. Theme. The best shows, in my opinion, are those that explore fundamental truths about the human condition. Theme seems like a tricky and nebulous concept, but pay attention to the next show you watch: at some point, one of the characters will probably state the episode’s theme outright. The pared-down context of a TV episode is a great place to identify theme and how the writer explores it in the course of the story. 

TV and movies can be brain-numbing, if you approach them mindlessly; they can also give you a glimpse into how other creatives solved problems of plot, setting, pacing, and character. Try enjoying story in a different sort of format. You might be surprised by the results!

Do you have a favorite TV series? What makes it “work” for you?

The Bad Boy: Girls Really DO Like Them Best

The “bad boy” has a long-standing place in YA literature. He’s mysterious, alluring, dangerous, sexy—and it’s deliciously thrilling to experience the vicarious thrill of a heroine falling for him, whether it’s a good idea or not.


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But I’ve always thought that, in real life, women wouldn’t find the “bad boy” image quite as appealing. It turns out I’m wrong.

A new study from the University of British Columbia suggests that women find happy guys less sexually attractive than either moody or arrogant men. From the press release:

In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes).

The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident.

I’ve wrestled with creation of two different “bad boy” characters in my writing. In one case, I wanted him to be a smooth-talker who wins the girl, but is a jerk underneath; in the other, I wanted the guy to seem street-smart and untrustworthy, but be gradually revealed as a sweetheart. I want to create characters who are romantic—maybe even a little dangerous—but also real. I DON’T want to glamorize a stereotype, when real life bad boys aren’t necessary good relationship material…but reading about them can be fun.

What do you think? Do you write about the bad boy character? Is “bad boy” a veneer or a true-to-the-core description of your character?

The Writing Life: Using the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you’ve stopped by my blog lately, you’ve probably noticed that things have been a bit quiet. Between a sick kiddo and an exceptionally large amount of freelance work, my blogging time has been sadly limited.


I’ve also had little time to write—but I’ve been so busy "living life” that without realizing it, I’ve filled up with ideas and inspiration that are now itching to emerge on the page. I’ve been collecting bits and pieces over the past weeks: characters, settings, conversations, emotions and how I experienced them physically. I feel like my creative pond has been restocked, even though I wouldn’t have expected a time of stress and busy-ness to recharge or refresh my muse.

Jody Hedlund has a fantastic post where she discusses the fact that life—including the tough parts—enriches our writing: How to Reap Benefits From the Painful Moments of Life. Here’s a taste:

Keep life in perspective. It’s short. We don’t have forever. Remember the things that matter most, especially when we’re discouraged by rejections, low sales, or stinging reviews.

I know one of my writing strengths is that I’m a passionate person. I’m passionate about life, about cats, about baby squirrels, about my family, about many things. I feel things deeply, which comes with the deeper heartaches but ultimately higher highs.

Hopefully, the more passionately we feel things, the more passionately we can live out the time we have on earth, and the more life we can bring into the stories we write.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: When we write, we pour out our hearts and souls; when we live, we fill our hearts back up.

Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss the painful or stressful or too-hectic parts of our lives as obstacles to writing. I find it incredibly encouraging to remember that everything I experience enriches my words. Everything informs the stories, characters, settings, and plots that I create. Even the crazier parts of life.

What about you? Are there parts of your life that you feel don’t enrich your writing? Or do you feel like everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—enriches the stories you have to tell?

*Photo courtesy of Lel4nd on Flickr Creative Commons

The Writer’s Survival Mode

Kelly James-Enger has a rule for never missing a freelance writing deadline: she never, ever, ever accepts more work than she can handle.


So far, that’s seldom been an issue for me. I mean, I stay plenty busy, but most of the mix consists of my own, more flexible projects—books, queries, article ideas, reading (mustn’t forget the reading pile). Not so at the moment. Right now, I’m swamped. I’ve had a steady stream of freelance work this year plus a host of unexpected family-related things, and (like a true freelancer who is dependent on work for bread), darned if I’m going to ask for anyone to cover my freelance projects unless I can’t complete them.

Except that burnout ain’t such a great thing, either.

I like to think of myself as having a “Survival Mode”, where I prioritize resources and tasks and shut off power to all nonessential systems like laundry and cleaning, and even, sometimes, writing, exercise, self-care, and other things important for mental and physical health. It works in the short term, but not on a long-term basis. I am very, very, very happy to report that although I’m still busy, I’m back to writing. It feels like waking up.

All this makes me wonder: what do other freelancers do when life descends and they can’t meet a deadline? Even for the most-organized, it has to happen sometimes.

Has this happened to you? Do you have a “Survival Mode” for times when you feel overwhelmed? Does Survival Mode backfire if it goes on too long?