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.
3) The perfectly-timed commercial break
Besides being the thing that pays for broadcast television, commercial breaks can teach storytellers about perfect timing. No murderer has ever been caught, confession made, or baby’s father revealed before going to a commercial. That’s the power of perfectly-timed writing. Studying television and what happens in the minutes leading up to commercial breaks can help us determine where to end our own scenes and chapters.
4) Speaking of commercials…
This commercial for gum is a love story told in under two minutes. It’s a lesson in how the mundane (gum) and the predictable (they fall in love—duh) can still be charming, and it reminds us that it’s not just what happens that’s the story, but how it happens.
5) This episode of Friends, comedic timing, and Ross’s emphasis on one word
It’s the episode where Ross needs help moving furniture and it’s one of my all-time favorites. The scene hinges on David Schwimmer’s delivery of a single word at around the one-minute mark, and it’s a lesson in the power of simple writing combined with a great delivery.
What are some TV shows and moments that have influenced your writing, and how have they influenced you? Have any “guilty” TV pleasures?
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