Television gets a bad rap. Some of it is deserved—I’m looking at you Sharknado—but some of it comes by way of the rarified air some writers breathe. You know the air; it smells a little like antique books and pretension. It’s the air that convinces some of us that if the masses consume it, it can’t be any good.
Sharknado notwithstanding, there is good television out there. There are widely-known, critically acclaimed shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and there are lesser known shows, some long-canceled, like Firefly and A Different World, that changed the way viewers engaged with each other and the world. What these shows have in common is their ability to entertain, and we can learn a lot about writing—and our writing careers—from studying them. In an effort to keep this post from being the length of a novel, I’ve focused on a showrunner, two shows, and commercial breaks to provide examples of how television can inform the way authors write and share stories.
1) Shonda Rhimes and the power of a recognizable brand
If you’ve watched anything on ABC over the past few years, you’re probably familiar with Shonda Rhimes. Her shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away with Murder, have been rating powerhouses for ABC, reshaping the network’s evening lineup. But what we can learn from Shonda extends beyond powerful writing. If Shondaland, Rhimes’s production company, is associated with a project, viewers know to expect strong but flawed female leads, a diverse cast, and soap opera-like drama. This is Shonda’s brand on ABC, and she delivers it faithfully to her dedicated fans. Know your audience, create what they enjoy, brand it, and repeat.
2) The West Wing and characters we care about
This Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning TV show is a master class on pacing, dialogue, and creating characters people care about. Here’s a scene that accomplishes all three.