Monday, May 12, 2014

How a Good TV Show Can Help You Write (and Edit) Your Novel - Part One

Two things I almost always comment on when editing a client's manuscript are a story's beginning and chapter/scene endings. When I comment on these two story components, I tend to discuss TV shows and make the suggestion that we borrow what successful shows do and apply it to our novel writing.

Today, I'll offer insight on how TV shows can help you develop your story's beginning.

In the beginning...
We all know how important a story's beginning is. Because a story has a beginning, middle, and an ending, some writers start their story at the very beginning, meaning, they use their first chapter to set us up with who the main characters are, where they live, and what they do. Toward the end of that first chapter, we might get a hint of conflict. Many times, especially in early drafts, we don't. When you consider the reader of said first chapter, that would be a problem.

William Rabkin, in his book, Writing the Pilot, states that "what you're doing in the pilot is establishing the characters, situations and, most important, conflicts that are going to drive your next hundred stories. You've got to introduce all these elements to your audience and do it in a way that feels natural" (p. 67). He mentions two types of pilots: the premise pilot that "directly sets up the franchise by showing the series of events that puts the characters and conflicts in motion" (p. 66) and the regular episode pilot that is an episode that "could conceivably be aired at any point in the season" (p. 66).

Rabkin uses the show Lost as an example of a premise pilot as he states that this episode MUST go first in that it sets up characters and the major conflict - the plane crash. "Nothing that happens in the series could conceivably come before that episode" (p. 66). He uses the hit show Mad Men as an example of a regular episode pilot in that it "picks up with Don Draper in the middle of what will obviously be a typical kind of crisis for him - in this case, the need to come up with a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes now that Reader's Digest has declared tobacco to be a carcinogen" (p. 66).

How can these ideas of premise pilot and regular episode pilot help you in developing a stronger beginning for your novel?

From the two types of pilots, we get two good points:
  1. We need to put the characters and conflicts in motion. We need to set up our world, the important people in that world, and the conflict(s) that will drive the story forward [premise pilot].
  2. We need to not be bound by starting our story at the beginning [regular episode pilot]. As Rabkin states on the regular episode pilot, this particularly pilot could technically be shown at any point in the season. This is good in a way because it allows you to break away from the notion that you must always start at the beginning. What if in examining the trajectory of your story, you realize that in starting at story-zero (the very start to which your story can begin), you will take your reader to nearly the middle of your book before any type of conflict arises? This realization would call for a major edit because most readers will not trudge through half a book for pretty visuals and dialogue and action that contain no bite or substance.

In revising/editing your story, it's a great idea to print out your first chapter, go find a quiet place to read, and plow through the chapter, checking to make sure that you've done some developing of time, place, characters, and a conflict or two. While doing that, also make sure that you examine whether your story's starting point is an effective one, conducive to getting readers to the conflict early so that they want to know what happens next, and next, and... well, you get the picture.

In part two, I'll talk about how we can use TV shows to help us develop strong endings to our scenes and chapters.



Do you think about TV shows/writing when you're developing your novels? Do other forms of media help you to write your books?


Reference

Rabkin, W. (2011). Writing the pilot. Pasadena, CA: Moon & Sun & Whiskey, Inc.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment.

14 comments :

  1. I use techniques gleaned from TV shows all the time in both writing and editing. Usually the questions I ask myself are "Why am I so invested in this particular character? What are they doing to stimulate that investment?" and "Why do I love this story arc, but hate the other one?" and "I love this theme (the latest one is 'the redemption of evil') - mental note to come up with a story that uses this theme.".

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    1. Ha! I love that theme, too, Elle!

      Those are some good questions to think about, for sure.

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  3. Although they take different forms and have some differences in format, television, film, and books are all about telling stories that people enjoy and care about. I learned as much from dissecting movies and television shows as examining books. My husband and I pick apart the shows we watched. What did we like? What did we hate? Why did we yell at the screen that the characters were all morons? :) Every story has a heartbeat. I like to dissect them to find the beating heart, the lungs, and the vessels that bring lifegiving force to the rest of the story. I highly recommend dissecting a story you love (in any medium) and look at what drives each beat. You learn as much from failures as successes.

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    1. I LOVE this response, Diana. I do the same thing with the picking apart of movies and TV shows, books, too.

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    2. Absolutely right, Diana. I've learnt a lot from TV shows that have "lost" me.

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  4. I watch so little TV that I don't think about it when I'm writing, but I do think about writing when I'm watching TV -- especially when a show starts with an 'exciting' scene, then the screen flashes a "Three Weeks Earlier" caption, and I wonder why I bother watching, since I now know what everything else will lead up to. However, even Hubster is starting to pick out things like conflict and tension (although he hates 'personal' sub plots), and since we watch everything on DVR, he's learned to anticipate when there's going to be a commercial break (chapter ending)

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    1. You know, Terry, I'm not the biggest TV watcher myself; I tend to watch more older and a few new shows on Netflix, but I love how a good TV show is paced, and I love trying to mirror that kind of pacing in my fiction.

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  5. My guiding light from television is more like Gilligan's Island ... a 60 second theme song provides the entire backstory ... and, boom, we're in the action!

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    1. You know something, Christopher, that is SO true. Have that theme song in my head now, and it's like the perfect summation of backstory.

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  6. Great discussion about the importance of compelling beginnings. Rarely will I read a book that hasn't hooked me from the first page of chapter one. Make me care about the character(s) by inviting into the middle of a conflict or a crisis—and keep me caring all the way to the end (more comments on this after the post on endings). :-)

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    1. We all want that hook these days, Linda. I remember stories I read just ten years ago from some authors who were a bit heavy on the exposition and description early on in their stories and how now they have brought the characters and conflict(s) right from the start.

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  7. TV programmes, movies and plays are terrific for demonstrating strong (or weak) dialogues. Even the best actors can't save bad writing. However, they have an advantage novelists don't have - the setting, clothing, etc. are right there, before their audience's eyes. Not to mention the added advantage of music underscoring certain scenes. But for dialogue? Tremendous tool. I worship at the pedestal of Aaron Sorkin. My dialogue doesn't sound like his (unless I'm doing it on purpose) but dang it, that man can write.

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    1. You are so right about Sorkin, Elspeth. His writing is top notch.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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