Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Learning to Write Through Watching TV

photo by KAZ Vorpal, via Flickr

I stopped watching commercial tv on December 21st, 2007. I did it for two reasons. One, 2008 was an election year and there is nothing I hate more than political commercials. Two, I could no longer handle the time suck that was taking me away from writing. Yes, I traded in my TV set for my keyboard, and I’ve never regretted the decision.

Of course, I’ve never regretted the decision because I didn’t stop watching TV entirely. When I watch now, it’s on DVD or Amazon Prime, and nine times out of ten, I’ve paid for what I’m watching. I don’t mind paying either, because as horrific and distracting as most TV is, sometimes a good show is pure gold to a writer.

How can watching TV or movies make you a better writer? Wow, there are so many answers to that question. Both movies and episodes of TV shows are the most brilliant, time-sensitive ways to study the three-act structure, for one. Paying close attention to the arc of the segments between commercials can teach you tons about dramatic structure and about hooks. Watching an entire season of a show will provide a wealth of lessons about character development and story arcs. But what I really love is watching adaptations of my favorite books into movies or TV series.

Take Jane Austen, for example. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an adaptation of every one of her novels. Some of those are movies and some are epic mini-series. They’re all the same stories. It’s not like the outcome is a mystery. So what value does watching some screenwriter or director’s interpretation of your favorite novels have?

I remember when Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility hit the big screen. I read an interview with her where she said that the toughest part of writing the screenplay was knowing which bits of the novel to include in the movie and which to leave out. Hearing her talk about those decisions was like a light bulb going off for me in terms of my own writing. Sense and Sensibility is full of wonderful scenes that drive the plot forward or add color to the lives of the characters, but which bits are truly necessary to carry the spirit of the story across to viewers? What aspects of the book represent its heart? 

This is why I love adaptations of novels. They are master classes in taking apart the pieces of a story and digging to the heart of it. If an adaptation is done right, everything that makes that book what it is will shine through on the screen and the juicy but less important details won’t be missed when they’re missing. Even thought the screen version is boiled down and condensed, if it’s done right, the screen version will contain almost all of the magic of the original prose.

You can learn from the example of book-to-screen adaptations to study your own writing. Watching well-known stories played out within a limited space of time and paying attention to how well or how horribly the adaptation was done is the ideal way to practice identifying the key points of your own work. Watch how quickly screen adaptations introduce the characters. Note how little or how much of the back story they give you in episode one or the first ten minutes or before the first commercial break. Pay attention to what kind of details you remember from the book that never show up on screen, or to which minor characters are cut or combined. There are abundant clues about what aspects of story hold an audience’s interest and what elements of the plot need to be highlighted for viewers.

Now take that back to your own writing. If someone were to make a two-hour movie from your book, what scenes or characters would you insist they leave in? Which parts could be left out without damaging your story’s integrity? Why would you make these decisions? Pulling your plot and characters apart to find out what is truly necessary can be a fantastic tool for tightening your prose and boiling down your storylines. If you’re having trouble deciding where your story should go, it can be a great way to get to the marrow of what you’re really writing about. So many of the truly great books of the world are about one or two simple ideas that flower into complex works.

So start learning craft by watching other books being broken down on the big or small screen. Not only can you learn valuable lessons, chances are you’ll have a great time doing it.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

10 comments :

  1. This is a great piece, Merry, full of good advice. I feel I must add one observation, however: many films are made using short stories as their basis. In a novel, the selection shown on screen may well reduce a passage of emotional description to a simple expression on an actor's face. In other words, gifted actors can express in a moment what an author may need to convey in many words. So, if using this idea to reduce the length of a novel, a writer needs to be aware that certain passages in a book are necessary, when they may only be used as guidance for the writing of a script. Miss out descriptions of feelings, and the novel may become flat.

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    1. Exactly, Stuart. I feel like by watching a variety of adaptations, of both short stories and novels, you can begin to get a sense of what nuances you would need to highlight in your own work. Know what I mean?

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    2. Years and years ago, I started a trial writing course. One exercise involved writing a synopsis to use for a screenplay of Pride and Prejudice. At the time, I thought I'd done a pretty reasonable job. Then I watched the brilliant adaptation by Andrew Davies for the BBC. Brilliant! True to the whole feel of the book without missing anything vital from the story. Mind you, the actors and direction made the whole thing the superb production it remains today. Worth watching if you haven't seen it.

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  2. Good thoughts, Merry ... but no TV since 2007? I started exhibiting withdrawal symptoms just thinking about that.

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    1. Yep! Well, no live, commercial tv. I still watch stuff on dvd or online (Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Game of Thrones, The Mindy Project....). Actually, I kind of miss the good commercials!

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  3. I just bought my first TV in 25 years so I could watch DVDs - just to get the hang of dialogue and pacing for scriptwriting. Diana, I'm on the path behind you. Could use some tips on how you actually watched/outlined. 15-minutes segments or how did that actually transpire?

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  4. Very helpful post, Merry. I use television and films to hone my writing and my acting and directing skills. We can always learn from someone who is doing the craft well. I think it is easier to be analytical about the work of someone else, so analyzing what we watch makes sense.

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    1. Absolutely! Although I'm in the school of thought that says we can learn a lot from people who do things really badly too. ;) But learning from the masters is a wonderful thing!

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    2. Boy, I agree with you on that one too! Great post, Merry. I still think a bulleted lesson plan on how to actually analyze a show or film could be useful.

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    3. I agree. Would love to see that lesson.

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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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