I don’t know about you, but I was told my whole childhood life that watching television would rot my brain. I was forced out into the outdoors (which I’ve never cared for..dirt, bugs, heat, cold..ew) whenever I spent too long curled up on the couch, staring unblinkingly at the TV. But now, as an adult, I realize the truth: television—good television, at least—can actually stimulate creativity, especially a writer’s creativity. Here are but a few of the important lessons a writer can learn from good television:
Dialogue can make or break a novel. You can have the most intricate, inventive plot ever written, and without snappy, unique, well-paced dialogue, your book will go nowhere fast.
For an example of how dialogue should be done, check out any of Joss Whedon’s creations. Whedon is an absolute master of dialogue. His characters’ conversations are quick, purposeful—with absolutely no words wasted—and are never used as an exposition dump. His dialogue can be powerful enough to give you a serious case of the feels, or funny enough to make you laugh until you pee your pants a little.
There are literally thousands of examples I could give between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly alone. I chose this one from Buffy almost at random because it was between two of my favorite characters, Willow and Spike:
[In this scene, Spike has just discovered that he is unable to bite anyone, having just attempted to bite Willow.]
Spike: I don't understand. This sort of thing's never happened to me before.
Willow: Maybe you were nervous.
Spike: I felt all right when we started. Let's try again. [Tries to bite Willow and is hit with intense pain] Grr! Damn it!
Willow: Maybe you're trying too hard. Doesn't this happen to every vampire?
Spike: Not to me, it doesn't!
Willow: It's me, isn't it?
Spike: What are you talking about?
Willow: Well, you came looking for Buffy, then settled. You didn't want to bite me, I just happened to be around.
Willow: I know I'm not the kind of girl vamps like to sink their teeth into. It's always like, "Oh, you're like a sister to me," or, "Oh, you're such a good friend."
Spike: Don't be ridiculous. I'd bite you in a heartbeat.
Spike: Thought about it.
Spike: Remember last year? You had on that... fuzzy pink number with the lilac underneath?
Willow: I never would have guessed. You played the blood-lust kinda cool.
Spike: I hate being obvious. All fangy and "grr!" Takes the mystery out.
Willow: But if you could...
Spike: If I could, yeah.
Willow: You know, this doesn't make you any less terrifying.
Spike: Don't patronize me! ... this shouldn't be happening. I'm only 126!
Willow: You're being too hard on yourself. Why don't we wait a half an hour and try again?
It takes a lot of guts for an author to kill off a fan-favorite character, but sometimes, it’s just gotta be done. Keeping a character around when the audience demands it, instead of when the story demands it, would be a huge mistake.
A great example of fearless writing is The Walking Dead. I mean, really, how many main, beloved characters have they killed off in 6 seasons? Dale, T-Dogg, Shane, Andrea, Sophia, Beth, Hershel, Tyreese, Bob, Noah, Lori (well, no one really loved Lori, I guess), Deanna...I could go on, but you get the point.
The show is absolutely fearless in its writing. No one is safe. And that’s what keeps people coming back week after week. Fearless writing will also keep your readers coming back book after book.
Bad guys you can love
Any writer can create an evil character that everyone hates. But a villain that readers can relate to? That’s much more difficult. Difficult or not, though, interesting villains sell books.
Good TV examples are everywhere, but NetFlix is particularly complex-villain-rich these days. Wilson Fisk (aka: Kingpin) in Daredevil and Kilgrave in Jessica Jones are scary, have psychotic tendencies and can be exceedingly cold and lacking in empathy.
But at the same time, they both had deeply troubling pasts that shaped the monsters they grew into, and gave them reasons (not excuses) for their actions. They both also showed a softer side by falling in love (fairly stalker-y in Kilgrave’s case, but still) and demonstrating that they were willing to sacrifice, well, pretty much everything and everyone for the women in their lives. It’s their complexity that makes Fisk and Kilgrave seem more...human. Relatable. Without that kind of complexity, your characters will seem cartoonish, and it will reflect in your book’s reviews.
Good guys with issues
Your villains aren’t the only characters in your books that should be complex and relatable. Just like you don’t want your villains to be cartoonish, your heroes should also have quirks and flaws (just like real people do). If they’re too good, readers won’t feel like rooting for them. I can’t think of two better examples of complex heroes than Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.
Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones) is one of my all-time favorite heroes. He’s super-smart and quick with witty one-liners and wise words. He’s also brave (i.e. the battle of Blackwater) and fiercely loyal to those he loves (like his brother). At the same time, he also has a serious drinking problem and he kind of...well, he murdered his father and ex-girlfriend, OK? But I don’t hold that against him. Why? Because I feel for him. His character is that well-written.
Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy) is also a complex guy. He’s a killer. An ex-con. A gun-runner. A porn-purveyor. He’s not, by the classic definition, a good guy. But I rooted for him for seven full seasons. For all his flaws (which also included some pretty intense daddy issues), he had a good heart. He fiercely loved his kids, his brothers and his wife. He did everything he could—often at the expense of his own safety—to protect them and give them a brighter future.
Long-story-short: complex heroes are beloved heroes.
When in doubt, make 'em laugh
You can never go wrong by making your readers laugh. Even dark, twisty tales need a little comedy to break-up the intense emotion. Without it, even if the writing is beautiful, your readers will just end up feeling exhausted and, well, depressed at the end of your book (I’m looking at you, The Road).
A great example of the use of humor, even amidst dark subject matter, is Supernatural. Dean’s one-liners and pretty much every scene that includes Crowley are so witty and well-written they effectively break-up the intensity of the storylines, which almost always include bloody murders and nightmare-inducing monsters. And every now and then, the writers will thrown in an entire episode designed to make viewers hurt themselves laughing (see episodes Yellow Fever and The French Mistake). The point is that if you write a few funny scenes, your readers will thank you.
What about all you author types out there? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line and let us know what you’ve learned by watching TV or even what your favorite shows are.