We’re in a day and age where we have an abundance of television to watch. From commercial stations to Netflix, gone are the days of just watching ‘whatever is on’.
But, what comes with an abundance of choice is the fact that we will no longer settle for a good TV show; it has to be great. After all, if we are going to commit to watching (or bingeing) a whole TV series it has to be worth our while right?
This is a challenge for scriptwriters. Mediocre just doesn’t cut it anymore. A series has to be brilliant. It has to be compelling. And it has to do that across every aspect of the show from production to casting, to sets and costumes, and of course, story and plot.
I’ve just finished watching all seven seasons of Sons of Anarchy, which isn’t for everyone. It’s dirty, violent, challenges morals and pushes boundaries. But just like a good book, I couldn’t put it down (or turn it off).
It got me to thinking… what makes aTV show, particularly a drama series, capture your attention and compel you to binge watch. And is it that different from a book? In reference to the second question, I believe the answer is no. There are certainly many things that writers of fiction can learn from the top TV shows.
When I think about my favourite TV dramas of all time four, in particular, come to mind. Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Good Wife. All excel in the key areas of character, plot, tension, pace and story arc, and also they also provoke thought – all the components that a great story – on the screen or in novel form – needs. And these are the five things writers can learn from great TV.
The key component to a great TV drama is the characters. Great characters drive the plot. They shape the story and keep it from veering off course. Great characters are real, flawed, multi-faceted, and most of all they have the ability to make the viewer (or reader), feel. Watching a TV show with great characters feels like stepping inside the set and walking alongside them. They make you invest in them. Your time, emotions, and commitment.
Providing casting is on point, it’s in many ways easier for a TV show to create compelling characters. Compared to a character in a novel, they have the added bonus of the visual element. The characters looks, their dress, their body language, unique quirks, voice, and emotions are clearly displayed. This is much harder but equally as important in a novel.
If you’ve seen Sons of Anarchy you’ll know the central character Jax. Jax is a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang and he walks with a swagger. The actor, Charlie Hunnam, does a stellar job of nailing Jax’s swagger. From the first time we see Jax, we can tell so much about him from the way he walks. As a writer, describing this walk in a novel will go a long way in allowing the reader to begin to create a character profile in their imagination and allow them to connect with the character. Remember, show don’t tell.
‘When Jax walked into a room he was larger than life. Jax didn’t walk. He swaggered. Confident and cool, shoulders back, stance open. Almost taunting you to take him on. ‘
The reader can now ‘see’ Jax walking into a room and commanding its presence without him even saying a word. They can picture so many things about his character just from this small description.
To be able to do this effectively, writers need to work hard to get to know their characters. To develop their unique quirks, their tone of voice, their common reactions, their habits, their body language, and develop a profile that is consistent in every situation you confront them with. As a writer, you also need to be able to demonstrate gradual, but significant change as the character progresses through the story and their character arc.
Concise plot with goal, motivation and conflict
Of course, it almost goes without saying that all good TV drama series’ need a good plot. The thing that is common, at least with the TV shows that are my favourites, is that the central plot is often quite simple, and htere is always a clear goal, motivation and conflict.
Let’s take The Sopranos.
New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling. (reference IMDB).
That pretty much sums up The Sopranos. Of course the plot and story-line branch out into subplots, but the central plot remains consistent. There is goal, motivation, and conflict.
Tony’s goal is to seek professional help to reconcile his two very different lives.
His motivation is to relieve the increasing pressures affecting his state of mind.
The conflicts are the issues relating to both is home and business life.
In any format of storytelling, every story needs a central plot – goal, motivation, conflict. And every major player in that story also needs their own goal, motivation and conflict.
A great exercise I’ve found helpful in clarifying this theory is taking your favourite shows and analyzing their main plot in terms of GM&C. You can also do it with books, films, plays, operas. Once you start looking at them, they will begin to jump out at you.
The bottom line is to keep the main plot simple yet effective and ensure there is goal, motivation, and conflict.
With good plot comes great tension. Tension is the thing that keeps you coming back for more. In a TV drama, it’s the gradual building of tension during each episode resulting in a climax which then leaves you on a cliffhanger so you can’t help but want to watch just one more! And before you know it, you’ve binge-watched the whole season!
In fiction, we call this rising tension. Depending on the genre how you deal with tension will differ, but the objective will remain the same. Engage the reader and make them want to read on. Make them want to know what happens next.
Treat each chapter like an episode of your favourite TV drama. Build the tension, give the reader a small payoff, and then slap them in the face with a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter.
On point pacing & story arc
Pacing is something that brilliant TV shows excel at. Think about your absolute favourite TV dramas. The ones that kept you coming back episode after episode. Were there any episodes that could be classed as ‘fillers’, where it seemed the story plateaus out? It’s very unlikely. Brilliant TV shows nail this. Each episode has a purpose for the overall story, and everything is relevant. Things are fast when they need to be, tension builds, the audience is allowed to breathe, but just for a moment, the story keeps moving, every scene is relevant, every scene has a purpose. The story progresses through the story arc, building and always moving forward.
Getting pacing and your story arc is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a novel, and as a writer it’s often a case of ‘can’t see the forest for the trees.’ Having someone else such as an editor read your story can be the best thing to identify any pacing issues.
They make you think
Not all great TV shows are meant to be deeply affecting, but they are all thought-provoking. Even a show like Seinfeld makes you think. I mean, what would you do if you were confronted by the ‘Soup Nazi’?
But back to dramas, great TV dramas challenge your morals and values. They make you question what you’d do in a particular situation, and they often make you question society on a whole. A show like Sons of Anarchy which portrays the realistic confrontations of outlaw motorcycle gangs with moral-poor characters doing violent and unlawful things, does the unthinkable – makes you empathise with the characters. They show, quite brilliantly, that the outlaws are still human. They aren’t completely morally corrupt, they value friendship, loyalty, rules (not necessarily the accepted society rules), respect, and most of all, family. The emotions this causes in the viewer is strong. It was hard for me to reconcile my distaste for the characters’ actions with feeling for them. Empathising with their conflicts. That’s what great TV does. And it’s what great writing needs to do.
Your novel doesn’t need huge world-changing themes to cause the reader to think. Sometimes it’s the most simple plots, with a light-hearted feel, that have the strongest reactions and connection from readers. And that’s what it’s all about.
As writers we often talk about having to sacrifice things we do in order to make time to write. I often hear giving up television as a common sacrifice. But, don’t. Sure give up Love Island or Masterchef, but don’t give up watching and learning from brilliant TV.