In my last blog post, I mentioned wanting to be a television writer, and how writing the episodic Pony Jumpers series is going a small way towards fulfilling that desire. So I thought I’d do another post about what it is that I’ve learned about writing from television – and from three shows in particular – and how they have helped me to write novels (yes, really).
Before I proceed though, there are a few general, hard-and-fast rules to learn from television:
The importance of a five-act structure – setting the scene, the turning point (which in the case of my Pony Jumpers books, is where the preview at the back of the previous book ends), the rising action, the climax, the falling action and denouement. (Here’s a good article on the five-act structure, complete with fun examples.)
No scene left behind – Every single scene in a TV drama has to have a purpose and drive the plot forward (preferably more than one plot point at a time, but sometimes that’s not possible depending on the length and purpose of the scene). Because when you’re shooting a TV show, time is money and you only have 42 minutes to tell your story, so you can’t afford to have filler scenes that don’t contribute anything to the plot (not in good TV drama, anyway. Watching bad TV drama is a whole other deal, but it’s a worthwhile one if you can stomach it. Maybe I’ll blog on that sometime.)
The importance of mixing action with dialogue – And when I say ‘action’, I don’t necessarily mean running or fighting. It could be doing the dishes, or setting the table, or mucking out stables. It’s something that is happening during the scene, to break up large swathes of dialogue. When you’re writing a scene between two characters talking to each other, it can be easy to get bogged down in what they’re saying, but it can become tedious to read. I try to imagine that I’m watching a scene play out on a TV show, and I ‘block’ the scene in my head as I go. (Blocking is when you run through lines and organise where each actor will stand and where they will move to etc. while they are acting out the scene. It’s crucial in TV for lighting and camera angles, and TV actors have very specific marks they have to hit, so they are standing in the right place, facing the right direction, while remembering to act convincingly at the same time.) Even if the action is minimal, such as someone shifting their position on the couch or scratching the back of their head or looking out of the window, it gives texture to a scene that might otherwise feel a little flat. Texture is everything.
So now we move on to the three TV shows that shaped the way I write. In no particular order, here they are.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
If anything completely revolutionised my ideas on writing (and made me want to write for TV) it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are many, many things about the show that I loved and thought were brilliant, and there is endless wisdom to be taken from series creator Joss Whedon, but probably the key thing that I learned from Buffy was how to balance dark with light. Whedon has a great quote that I came across years ago that lurks at the back of my mind constantly: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke”, and that really applies to any writing, but is particularly important when writing for a Young Adult audience. (J.K. Rowling is also a master at this.)
For example, when I look back at Dare to Dream, which has easily been my most successful book so far, it’s not exactly a bright and shiny story – the lead characters are orphans who are struggling financially, they build up their dreams then get them torn down, time and again, they lose the animals they love…there’s a lot of darkness in there. But amongst all of that is enough positive family dynamic and shared love for each other that it balances out the bleaker moments. In fact, I’ve had several reviewers wish that they could be part of the Carmichael family – which, when you consider that it wouldn’t be the easiest life to live, has to count as a success. As a writer, you can get away with a lot of dark if you temper it with plenty of light, and the banter and teasing between the sisters throughout the book give it a healthy dose of joy and hopefulness that balances out the sadder parts.
Which is something that Buffy did exceptionally well – it could be very silly, but it could also break your heart into a thousand pieces, often within the same episode, sometimes more than once. And, of course, Buffy herself was an awesome heroine. She was incredibly tough and incredibly fragile at the same time, destined to save the world but only ever wanting to be a normal girl and live an ordinary life – one she was fated never to have.
“So this is it. No family, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?”
“You can live in the wreckage and pretend it’s still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild. But if you’re like me, you’ll just keep chasing the storm.”
Since we’re talking about kick-ass blondes, let’s move right on to Veronica Mars. Veronica has often been compared to Buffy, but she has absolutely zero magical powers. She’s the furthest thing from being the Chosen One – she’s the one everyone has tried to ignore, or leave behind. When we meet Veronica in the pilot, she has just lost everything that is of utmost value to a teenage girl – her father has lost his job as the local sheriff, her mother has walked out on them and vanished without a trace, her boyfriend has inexplicably dumped her, her friends have all turned on her and made her into an outcast, she was drugged and date-raped at a party (the voice-over line “Wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I” is immortal in its brutality) – and if that wasn’t enough, her best friend has been horrifically murdered. Yet somehow, Veronica is not a tragic figure – quite the opposite. Because she is possessed of a massive amount of mental toughness – this is her weapon and she wields it fiercely. Sometimes she reaps the benefit of this. Sometimes it strangles her. Like Buffy, Veronica is not perfect. She makes mistakes – lots of them. But she tries. Veronica provides an excellent model of how to write a strong female character without having to make her physically strong. Her resilience in the face of an incredible amount of emotional pain is a defining characteristic, but it leaves its own scars.
But writing an awesome female lead is not the only thing I learned from Veronica Mars, and I think this second one is even more important. This is a show that has plot coming out of its eyeballs. Every episode contained a ‘Mystery of the Week’ as the A-plot (Veronica was, amongst many other things, a part-time private investigator), at least one (usually two) B-plots, which might be about her friends or boyfriend or another, smaller mystery that would inevitably tie into the larger one, or into the C-plot, the over-arcing mystery that encompassed the entire season (well, the first two seasons, anyway). Oh, and then there are all the layered character moments and call-backs to earlier episodes that fill in every gap. An episode of Veronica Mars is the kind that requires repeat viewing to really catch all of the nuances, and oftentimes I would find myself pausing partway through an episode and trying to work out the leaps of logic that she had made. Veronica’s mind worked swiftly, slotting things together like a jigsaw, but this wasn’t a show that could be bothered spelling it out for you like most procedurals will. You know how it goes, when the cop realises who the killer is, and then you cut to the interrogation room where they lay it out to the criminal piece-by-piece, sometimes accompanied by a flashback to that pertinent scene to Make. Sure. The. Audience. Understands. Veronica Mars never bothered to do that. You could almost hear Veronica herself snapping her fingers at the audience, and demanding that they keep up. This is smart, clever TV that expected its audience to be equally savvy.
I have always found plot to be the hardest part of writing. Characters come easily to me, and pacing is almost effortless now (somehow nearly every chapter I write ends up 10-12 pages long, without me even thinking about it), but plot was the tricky part, and weaving together multiple plot threads was overwhelming. Veronica Mars gave me the tools I needed to work out plot structures – what is the A-plot? (In the case of my books, that’s the part of the story that revolves around the pony, and that answers the question set up in the first chapter or two – will Katy get to keep Molly? What’s wrong with Tess’s sister? etc.) What is the B-plot? (For me, that’s usually the family side of things – Katy’s relationship with her father, AJ’s struggles with her siblings, Susannah dealing with her brother; or it might be the romantic side of the story – Tess’s developing relationship with Jonty, AJ’s unwanted crush on Harry. There can, of course, be more than one B-plot). And then there are the C-plots, the little loose ends, some of which are just there to add texture to the story (such as Susannah’s dealings with her classmates) and some of which are set-up, and will come back into play later (the most prominent of which is Bayard’s storyline. He’ll definitely be back.) Making sure with every book I write that I have the A, B and C-plots covered ensures that there is never a dull scene, and that we’re not treading water, because every scene in there leads to an overall arc. Remembering that each of these plots has to have its own resolution within that one book – and the girls do have their own over-arching themes that will cross all of the books about that character to keep in mind as well…
Veronica was nothing if not an overachiever, so it seems fitting that I learn such things from her as well.
“I think we all learned a valuable lesson about faith. You give it to the people you love. But the people who really deserve it are the ones who come through, even when you don’t love them enough.”
Which brings me to the show that would arguably be my favourite TV show ever. Friday Night Lights has a very simple premise, exploring the life and trials of a Texas high school football coach, and uses its small town backdrop to address many issues facing contemporary culture, including family values, school funding, racism, drugs, abortion, and lack of economic opportunities. Friday Night Lights is expert at giving exceptional realism to dramatic scenes that many shows might not consider necessary. I’ve never in my life been to Texas, but I walked away from this show with “Texas Forever” emblazoned on my heart. I couldn’t give a crap about American football (it seriously pales in comparison to rugby, which I love) but I still got excited during the game scenes in the show. (And it has a completely kick-ass female lead in Tami Taylor, who is the woman we all want to grow up to be.) But really, there were two key things that Friday Nights Lights did exceptionally well that I have learned from.
The first is the quality of the show’s texture, and its lived-in feel. During the five seasons that Friday Night Lights was on the air, I felt as though I lived in Dillon, TX. The way the show was shot, entirely on location with handheld cameras and with a lot of ad-libbed dialogue, made it feel so real that it was truly fly-on-the-wall viewing. And the tiny details that the cameras would capture – the way Matt’s grandmother tapped her slippers on the linoleum floor of their tiny house, zooming on a character’s wringing hands as they wait nervously – almost felt as though there was a writer in the background, quietly pointing these little details out. I mentioned at the start of this blog post that action is important in scenes, and so is detail. This is where once you’ve blocked out a scene in your head, working out what the characters would be doing during a scene, you then work out what the camera would notice if you were filming it. What details would be important? What would the camera zoom in on? Friday Night Lights is not particularly subtle in its camera movements, but that’s part of its charm. Each scene in the show was shot on location with mostly natural lighting and on several hand-held cameras. Yes, several. That’s not one static camera, that’s two or three camera operators moving around the scene, sometimes crouching on the floor to get the shot, sometime standing half behind a pillar, sometimes shooting from the side or from behind a character as they talk. (This show is beautifully edited, I might add, because you almost never notice this.) This is in contrast to the way most shows are shot, with static cameras or steadicam, with every movement planned and blocked out. (A quick example: here’s a scene in an early episode outside a church where the camera operator is filming unobtrusively from the middle of a group of people, angling the camera over someone’s shoulder. Then one of the extras walks into the shot and stops in front of the camera. The camera operator just shifts to the side slightly and zooms in on the character that are being filmed. Talk about feeling like you’re in the middle of it!)
How does this relate to writing? I’ve had quite a few reviews saying that readers feel as though they’re “standing ringside” during the scenes, and I think part of this comes down to the way that FNL incorporates the smaller details into the action. This is perhaps best explained with an example. There’s a scene in Five Stride Line where AJ is talking to Jonty while she watches her friends walk the course for the Pony Grand Prix. As well as the primary motivation for this scene, which is to have AJ try to get information out of Jonty (which relates to the previous novel), she’s also thinking about how she wishes that she was out there walking the course too (which calls back to the book’s A-plot – and AJ’s overall plot arc for the series) and she’s also wondering how Tess is feeling about jumping these big fences, because she’s a nervous rider who’s never shown an inclination to jump this high before (which also calls back to Four Faults, and is a typical character moment for AJ, who is always worried about how other people are feeling). On top of all that, she’s watching Tess closely throughout the scene, and this is what the camera would be focusing during a pause in the dialogue:
I followed the movement of his arm to see Tess in the middle of the arena, pacing out the distance between fences in the treble combination. All of the jumps came up past her shoulder, and you could’ve fit three of her standing side-by-side between the front and back rails of the last fence.
As I watched, Tess said something to Katy, who mimed sitting up tall and checking her pony. Tess mimicked her, committing the need to half-halt to muscle memory, then nodded.
The other big thing I’ve learned from FNL is that there is no storyline too small or too mundane to find the emotion within it. Not all moments have to be huge ones – we don’t have to vanquish demons or solve murder mysteries to have a compelling plotline. As I mentioned above, this is a show that’s not afraid to tackle real issues, and to do so head-on and in a realistic fashion. Moreover, the show often came at a story from a slightly unexpected perspective. When Matt’s father dies while in active service in Iraq, everyone sees him and remembers him as a hero – but to Matt he was still the man who walked out on him years ago, leaving him to look after his increasingly senile grandmother. When Matt told him it was too hard and asked him to come home, his father refused. For years, Matt felt abandoned and put all his anger and hatred onto his father “so that I don’t have to hate anybody else. So that I can be a good person to my grandmother, to my friends…” The complexity of his grief and his own warring emotions over how he feels about his loss makes it so much more heart-breaking than it would be to simply have had his father die a hero. Because he did die a hero to his country…but not to his son.
Ultimately, Friday Night Lights is not a show about football. It’s a show about life, and community, and the all-too-real struggles that we all go through. It’s about learning and falling down and not giving up, and the football gives it a very effective backdrop because the raw joy and triumph of a sporting victory can take the edge off a very difficult life. (Again, Dare to Dream springs to mind as an example here of how I’ve used this in my writing.)
I am always, always looking for authenticity. I want characters to feel real, no matter how fantastical their setting. This show, more than any other, represented a true cross-section of life and showed us just how hard things can get, and how hard it can be to pull ourselves back up, and how much more triumphant victory is when it has come at such a price.
“I said you need to strive to be better than everybody else. I didn’t say you need to be better, but you gotta try. That’s what character is. It’s in the trying.”