Classic TV as an Inspiration for Contemporary Fiction

Bruce Banner and Incredible Hulk

By CBS Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ciao, SEers. Today’s topic is a bit different for me. I hope you’ll give me a little leeway.

These days, I don’t have much free time for television or movies. But at night, when I’m winding down for the day, I do watch a little TV if my eyes are too tired to read (which they have been lately).

There are a few series I watch, but because it’s summer, most shows are repeats. I’ve started watching reruns of older shows. Particularly shows from the 1970s and 1980s.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so I find I like these shows as much for the nostalgic pleasure as the actual quality of the stories. I’m also learning some helpful tips about storytelling by watching them, particularly shows like The Incredible Hulk and Planet of the Apes (1970s) and The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team (1980s).

Okay, I’m the first to admit, the acting fell a little short of Emmy-worthy and the plots were predictable. But there were some really cool elements common to all of them.

  1. The Anti-Hero
    The protagonists in all these series were not the paragon-of-society-type hero. They were more anti-heroes. Each of them was chased by the authorities in their respective shows. That’s not to say the authorities were beyond reproach and the protagonists walked that fine-line between righteousness and vengeance. In all cases, the authorities were either mistaken or straight-up the “bad guys” of the story. But it was the darker nature of these heroes that made them so compelling.
  2. The Plot
    One of the things that struck me about these shows is that each protagonist put his freedom and safety on the line to help others. Moreover, these aren’t family or friends the protagonist is helping—they are strangers. That’s what, to me, elevates those stories. The high stakes and the increasing conflict.
  3. The Moral
    These days, morals sometimes take a backseat to special effects or action sequences. Not that there’s anything wrong with cool makeup or big explosions. (I enjoy a good sci-fi or action thriller as much as anyone.) In those aforementioned shows, though, the morals took front and center. It wasn’t just that the protagonists solved problems for the guest of the week. They shone a light on racism, sexual harassment, corporate or government corruption, etc. While the quality of the shows themselves is dated, the messages are actually refreshing.

These days, the trend is toward reality TV, which I don’t watch and don’t find remotely realistic. The few contemporary fictional shows I watch focus more on witty banter (which I love) or shock-value crimes (which are quite enjoyable in their own right). I know many of these programs have moral messages, but it’s so easy to lose them in the creative and artistic expressions that rise to the surface.

Okay, you’ve given me enough latitude. What’s the point of all this? Other than to show how old I am and my strange affinity for old television shows?

Story craft.

It’s 2017. Maybe I’m still living in the 70s and 80s, but I think I learned a lot from that era and the stories of that time.

  1. Characters

    By Julie Scott [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

    I’m not suggesting all protagonists need to be anti-heroes. You may think Batman is more interesting than Superman (and I refuse to weigh in on this one), but each has his merits. What they both have in common is that they’re bigger than life. So, while we shouldn’t write parodies or excessively-exaggerated protagonists, we do need to craft memorable ones. Give them quirks, complicated backstories, problems to resolve. Consider issues that aren’t fully addressed in one novel (television episode), but rather take a series (television season or series) to work through. This will help you create compelling characters with long arcs that can be sustained throughout a saga.
  2. Plot
    Yes, today’s plots are more intricate and complex than they were a few decades ago. But there was a purity in the simplicity of those shows. These were straight-up David versus Goliath shows—a person or small team against a large, powerful adversary. What made the plots stand the test of time (well, my test, anyway) is what these characters risked and what they had to overcome. When we write a story, we should always be asking what would add drama, what would make things more dire? Is it enough to pit man against man? Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if we pitted brother against brother? What about brother against injured brother? How about brother against injured brother lost in the wilderness? We haven’t strayed into an unbelievable realm, but we have upped the stakes, upped the conflict. And any way we can increase tension is going to add to the strength of the story.
  3. Message
    There’s a popular theory that literary fiction stands strong because it has a theme, whereas genre fiction sells out with its “lowbrow” tropes. I don’t agree with that statement. I think genre fiction has themes, too—if the reader looks for more meaning in the story than just the happily-ever-after or the whodunit. The theme may be as simple as love conquers all or crime doesn’t pay, but if we, as writers, keep a theme in mind as we write, I think we can see a poignant message emerge which will strengthen our work. Even genre work.

I don’t know if you’re as big a fan of classic television as I am, but I hope you can see that the shows do have merit and are relevant to writers even today. Maybe I’m just nostalgic (I am) or am a hopeless romantic (also true) or am just tired of a lot of today’s “reality” garbage (that’s a resounding yes). But it’s nice to see a crime get solved by a person’s wits and courage rather than with computer tech and a block of C-4.

What about you? Are you a classic TV fan or do you just think it’s cheesy? Do you see the merits in that kind of storytelling or are you only interested in contemporary tales? I’d love to know what you think. Leave a note in the comments, and let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo

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68 thoughts on “Classic TV as an Inspiration for Contemporary Fiction

  1. Oh, man, the nostalgia! And reading through the comments = more nostalgia! Like you, I grew up in the 70s and 80s. We used to watch everything from the Incredible Hulk and Kung Fu to the A-Team and Magnum PI–oh, so many great shows! And I never thought about the anti-hero aspect of so many of those shows before, but you’re right, there were a lot of anti-heros. And, it seems, a lot more moral themes. So many shows these days are so full of action the story sometimes gets lost in the chaos. Or it’s like the writers almost forgot to add the story, so they cram it in between gunfights and car chases. The older shows were slower in pacing, but at least there was a plot to the episode, and often an overall series arc.

    And reality shows? Just say no. Blech. The only “reality” show I ever enjoyed was Survivor, but only the first five or six seasons, when they really had to work to survive. In the later seasons they didn’t have to work as hard to actually survive against nature, just against each other. Not nearly as interesting. I mean, when they have to eat rats and watch their canisters of rice float away after a storm, that makes for good tension 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never watched Survivor. Or any of the shows like that. I’ve never seen the Kardashians (I’m not even sure I could name them all, and I know I wouldn’t recognize any of them but Kim). Why are they even a thing?

      I enjoy complicated plots, but lately, I’ve been watching a lot of older shows, and I realize that, despite their simplicity, I love them. I caught a few episodes of Barney Miller not long ago. Can you imagine they shot almost every episode entirely in the station? The show wasn’t about solving the crimes; it was about the inner personal relationships and making the right choices. It was funny and heart-wrenching and didn’t need the gun fights and explosions to keep my interest. It might be simple, but it was good storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  3. I record all the shows I like and then watch for forty minutes a day (It is all the time I have). My playback takes me through the summer hiatus. As far as the classics are concerned very few lived up to my original impression of quality. There are notable exceptions. I have to agree that there are a lot of reasons for writers to watch TV shows.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think as technology continues to advance, old shows will become more and more dated. Even now, many older shows are laughably bad by today’s standards. But I love the old ones for their purity. And for purely nostalgic reasons. I agree with you, though. Writes can learn from television programs, even the not-so-great ones.

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  4. Love this post! Like you, I don’t allow much time for television. The sexual puns and bathroom humor of today cannot compare with the shows from the small screen’s heyday… no matter how campy–or how many times B.A. Baracus said, “I pity the fool…!” 😄

    Story structure was a key part in the success of the old shows and their longevity. The writers and actors had to make us believe during the short journey we took with them… and we did. Tabloid Television, er…sorry… REALITY TV only has to occupy your attention with outlandish ‘real life’ drama–the wilder, the better. And it does which is why it’s so successful.

    I can’t be bothered. My idea of “reality tv” is an episode of ‘Snapped’ or ‘Wives with Knives’ – but I may have unaddressed issues. 😂😂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Confession time: I have a huge DVD collection of old TV shows from the 70s and 80s, even some from the 60s. I loved the simplicity of those shows, the good guys vs bad guys, the moral, the message. When you mentioned the anti-hero and the hero on the run I thought of Nowhere Man and Starman, both short-lived but two I immediately gobbled up when they came out on DVD. Of course, I have a ton of others and many of the odder ones (Dark Shadows, Night Gallery, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Beauty and the Beast) helped increase my love for the unusual and strange.

    As far as reality TV, I will sum up my opinion in one word—BLECH!!!!!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Seems like we’re once again on the same page. (I had forgotten all about Beauty and the Beast. That was another favorite of mine! I bought the soundtrack; the music was awesome. Wish I knew where that was, now. Might have been on vinyl. I can’t remember.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • While you guys are on the topic, scripted dramas are expensive. You have sets, scripts, talent, and much more. What do you suppose Sheldon earns per episode? Bones, etc? Reality TV is cheap. Lease a house for a month, pack it full of weirdos, and film. No script, but there is someone who will guide the participants on the fly. The problem is people watch it. They don’t need as big a following if they don’t spend anything to produce it. Television is all about profit. Part of this is why the good stuff has drifted to cable. They have subscriber fees to suppiment the advertising. Walking Dead would probably never exist on one of the main networks.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re right about the switch to cable, Craig. But there is quality scripted programming on the major networks, just a lot less than there used to be.As more viewers move to cable and scripted shows develop cult followings, maybe the major players will wise up. When most people pay more for their cable/internet per month than they do for their electric bill, its sad that pickings are so slim.

        Several years ago an online friend of mine “starred” in Wife Swap (I think that’s what it was called). She told me that although the show was supposed to be “reality tv” they were given lines to say, and other times what they said on the fly was edited or cut to seem different.

        I have such fond memories of the shows I grew up with. I feel bad for the generations that will look back on reality TV as the programs of their development and teen years. BLECH!!!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I dislike reality television in all of its forms. I support the idea of something for everyone, and I think you will see it ebb and flow. Now Netflix has its own original programming. ABC spends some money on SHIELD, and now the Inhumans are coming. (Softspot for Lockjaw the dog.) Many of those have the season long arch, which is great, but not in a short story concept. There is still inspiration from television, we just have to dig a bit deeper.

        Liked by 2 people

      • My sister-in-law knows someone who was on HGTV’s House Hunters. The person was an actor who played the part of one of the hunters because the actual hunters either didn’t want to be on television or weren’t photogenic enough. (How sad is that for a form of reality TV?) They were given lines to say. (Did you ever notice everyone wants space to entertain? I don’t know anyone who “entertains” that much in real life.) It seems even shows like that aren’t free of some behind-the-scenes manipulation.

        Mae, you’re right, networks do offer some good scripted dramas. And comedies. And action shows. But they seem fewer and farther between than before. When I was a kid, the television dial (yes, a dial) ran from two to thirteen. Of those twelve channels, three were CBS affiliates, two were ABC, two were NBC, one was PBS, one was what is now Fox, one was what is now the CW, and two were static. That’s essentially six stations, and there was ALWAYS something good on. Now, we have Directv (we need that to get the Steelers and Penguins), and we have hundreds of channels. Yet most nights, there’s nothing on. I watch the history and science channels as much as if not more than the networks.

        Long story short (not really short), I like the purity, simplicity, and messages of the old shows, but I concede there are some really good shows today, too. I take what I can from each era to improve my craft. I just wish, for the money I spend, there were more intelligent and entertaining options than are currently available.

        Liked by 2 people

      • You two are killing me with this conversation, LOL.
        I live for summer Sharknados. You haven’t seen a good cheesy scream-at-the-tv-for-the-stupidity-of-the-script-movie until you’ve experienced a Sharknado. I”ve seen them all. I love all the stupid monster/creature movies SyFy trots out and often DVR them. Some are beyond watchable and get deleted within a few minutes but others are worthy of a cheese-fest.

        Staci, I’m a bit older than you, but I remember when the major network affiliates and PBS were the ONLY options for TV (that was before Fox). After cable came Channel 100. Anyone remember that? We thought we’d discovered nirvana.

        I once tweeted Verizon and said something like “a bizillion channels on Verizon and not a single freaking thing to watch.”
        They actually tweeted back and asked if I’d tried On Demand.
        Of course most of what they put On Demand is the stuff I don’t want to watch when it’s on regular. The other stuff they now CHARGE you for.
        Seriously, I could do a soap box on this one.

        I’m waiting for the day when we (as consumers) can have a la carte channel selection. Until then, I spend most of my time in books!

        Liked by 2 people

      • The “now Fox” and “now CW” channels were just local channels whose numbers transferred to those networks when they became networks. Before that, they were just Pittsburgh channels. I don’t remember channel 100, but one summer we discovered if we put the knob between 5 and 6 (or was it 7 and 8?), we got the Mouseketeers at noon on weekdays. That was a good summer.

        Liked by 3 people

      • I grew up in a family of surveyors and engineers. We made fun of TI. It was HP or nothing for us. They had one game and you could try to land a rocket on the moon by doing some complicated math. Nerd family.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If you saw us sitting on the floor with a keyboard instead of a joystick, you’d understand the REAL meaning of “nerd family”. My mom used to yell, “Oooh, wait, wait, wait!” at the monsters on the screen. They didn’t listen. She always died.

        Ah, the good ole days, when my mom was funny and technology only bothered her instead of me.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Glad I’m not the only one hoarding…I mean enjoying an extensive collection of classic television. My kids keep trying to borrow Dark Shadows and Carol Burnett. I remind them a mother’s love has no boundaries, but my DVDs aren’t leaving the house! 😂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. One of the best post I’ve seen here. I love the way television used to tell a story in its specific time slot. They didn’t have season long plots, unless they were soap operas. One of which was Dark Shadows, and I loved it. It really helps the short story author in me to watch some of these. Twilight Zone is particularly good for that. I kind of want to find some old Love American Style episodes to see how they handled the lighter side in a short story. Old shows like Star Trek, Land of the Giants, and Dark Shadows were awesome. I have a soft spot for more complicated characters myself. You mentioned Hulk, and he’s tragic. He’s kind of a rip off of The Fugitive in a way, but a lot more fun. Wonderful post.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You know I like classic TV shows (my favs will remain nameless, LOL). Although I’ve watched a couple of reality shows, Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, I know there is a lot of “made up” stuff on these. And honestly, I can’t see what all the craze is. I’d rather watch a good comedy or drama from the 70s and 80s (even some from the 90s) than the stuff that’s out there today.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I have never thought of 70s / 80s tv like this before, BUT as I grew up watching a lot of these, it possibly / probably explains my fascination with anti-heroes and morality in my medium. Very interesting article and thank for making me stop and think.
    PS, batman is definitely much more interesting than superman, but Venom takes the prize as best good-bad guy 🤗

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I too grew up in the 70s and 80s and remember these shows. I don’t do reality TV at all. I love complicated plots and characters. Great post, Staci. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, I love complicated plots, too, which is something TV from the 70s and 80s didn’t really focus on. But I think if we learn the basic plot structure first (like you find in those shows), we can grow more complex from there.

      Still, I don’t want to give up those guilty pleasures from my youth. They might not be intricate, but they are fun. And nostalgic.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I’m a big fan of the old Batman series.

    I can see merit in both the old and new. A good plot makes the series. Whether suspense or comedy, if the plot is weak, I find little enjoyment in the story.

    I tend to pass on reality TV, but do like watching cooking and DYI shows. I use these shows to enhance scenes in my writing.

    Liked by 3 people

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