Tuesday, May 13, 2014

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

In yesterday's post, I talked about how good TV shows can help writers develop their story's beginning.

Today, I'm concluding with a short talk on how those same TV shows can help writers develop their "commercial breaks" in fiction. What are fiction's commercial breaks?

Chapter and scene endings.

Just like TV writers need to hook viewers to keep them waiting through commercial breaks to see what happens next, fiction writers need to write riveting chapter and scene endings so that readers will want to flip the page to the next chapter or hurdle their eyes over white space to rush to the next scene.

Make those commercial breaks count...
In The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts, writer Ellen Sandler states that a scene needs a narrative structure and that this structure contains three interconnected elements: the setup (beginning), the power switch or turning point (middle), and the arrow (end). The arrow is what I want to focus on here.

When I edit stories, and this is something I've said in previous BRP posts, too, one thing I tend to focus on is how well chapters and scenes end. Sandler states that the arrow is "the element that drives you to the next scene" (p. 118), and in writing further about scenes, she states, "Each scene should have a compelling reason to move on to the next one. We want to see how your Central Character recovers if he lost power, or we're waiting to see if he can keep it if he gained power. That's what keeps your audience hooked in, and that's essential in a TV show" (pp. 119-120).

I would say this is essential in fiction, too.

Which of these scenarios would compel and propel you to read the next scene?
  • Scenario 1: In this scene, the main character is having an argument with her friend, and the scene concludes with that argument ending.
  • Scenario 2: In this scene, the main character is still having an argument with her friend, and though the argument concludes, the end of the scene focuses on how this argument ties into the central conflict of the story, either providing a sense of angst or a sense of joy for the main character moving forward.

More often than not, I see the former scenario presented in earlier drafts, and an edit of that scene wouldn't necessarily be a major overhaul. What the writer could do is go back and consider the story's purpose, the main conflict, the minor conflicts, and ask, "How does this scene tie into the central conflict of the story for the main character?" An answer to that question can aid in developing a scene ending that is strong, that will make a reader see the white space at the end of that scene and want, need, to move on to see what happens next.

Think about when you're watching a great TV show (right now, I'm smiling and thinking about Fox's reboot of 24), and the show cuts away to a commercial, and you're left groaning and frustrated as you yell, "These commercials need to hurry up. I need to see what happens next."

Yeah. Make your readers feel that way about your story as its scenes and chapters conclude.

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


Sandler, E. (2007). The TV writer's workbook: A creative approach to television scripts. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

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.


  1. As someone once said, "If a reader can put a bookmark in at the end of a chapter, the writer's not doing her job properly."

    1. I love that, Elle! Never thought about it that way, but it's definitely true.

  2. This is why we continue reading a good book long after we intended to turn off the lights and go to sleep. A book doesn't have to be an action-packed thriller to use this technique. The slowest literary novel can make us anxious about the outcome.

    1. It definitely doesn't, Diana. I think sometimes, there are writers who think the drama has to be so outrageous because that's what keeps readers on the page, but like you said, it doesn't have to be the action-packed thriller - just well-paced conflict and tension that rises... in however way it needs to rise for your story.

  3. When I finished my first draft of my first book, I wasn't even using chapter breaks. I figured I'd put them in later. When I did, almost every chapter ended with someone falling asleep or driving away. But one thing I learned was that if I backed up a few paragraphs, I found the 'real' ending. However, my manuscripts still have notes that say "FIX ENDING" at the end of many chapters. But at least I know what I'm trying to do.

    1. And the "knowing" is so important, Terry, and of course, that comes from consistently writing and learning and knowing what you do well and what you know you need work on so that you can better it in revisions.

  4. As an editor, I have counseled numerous writers on the best ways to end a scene or chapter. As a writer, I work hard to practice what I preach.

    This may seem like a small thing — the compelling end that won't let the reader turn off the light and go to sleep until she finds out what happens next, as mentioned by Diana — but it's huge in keeping the reader (or viewer) engaged. When the writer does his/her job well, the reader identifies with one or more of the characters and gets immersed in the story. This creates a fan, one who will watch the next episode or buy the next book. That's success.

    Loved these two posts, Shon. Parallels between TV and book writing are often overlooked, but we have so much to learn from our scriptwriting counterparts. Thank you for this "mini-series"; it's a keeper.

    1. Thank you so much, Linda, for the comments. I appreciate them. And you're right, it seems like a small thing, but it's so not. When we read those reviews from readers who say they could not put a book down, we as writers know it's because some compelling characters and scenarios have been created AND that the pacing of the story's conflict and tension (and those great scene/chapter endings) pulled readers through to the end of the book.

  5. Not so much tv ... but cinema ... my tomes play out as a movie in my head.

    1. Movies do it for me, too, Christopher. There are particular movies, whether for dialogue, pacing, integrating of action, etc. have made me think about how I write a story.


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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