Television and the Craft of Writing Fiction

Hi, SEers. This is one of those months with a fifth Friday. You know what that means… time for another group post! This time, we thought we’d address the subject of what fiction authors can learn about craft from television series. (We’ll try to keep it short because there are six of us.)

The Spin-off (Stargate Atlantis)

Stargate Atlantis wallpaper image courtesy of WallpaperCave.com

Ciao. Staci here. I chose to look at spin-offs because I’m currently writing a spin-off (the Nightforce Security Series, spun off from the Medici Protectorate Series) and wanted to explore what makes a spin-off successful. I chose Stargate Atlantis because it’s a brilliant spin-off of Stargate SG1. Each series was strong in its own right and solidified the Stargate franchise as a force to be reckoned with in the sci-fi world.

So, what’s to be learned from Stargate Atlantis? I have three tips.

1.    Use existing (popular) characters to introduce the new series and to keep it going.
In the first episode of Stargate Atlantis, fan favorites from the original series (SG‑1) had guest starring roles. Viewers who loved Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson tuned in to see what happened with them and trusted them to introduce a new world. Throughout the lifetime of the series, certain SG‑1 characters would make guest appearances, ensuring fans of the original would tune into the spin-off and hopefully become fans.

I used the four male leads of the Medici Protectorate Series (and to a lesser extent, the four female leads) to bridge the gap between my original series and my new one. Early readers were happy to revisit their favorite characters.

2.    Use a secondary character from the original series to be a lead in the spin-off.
SG‑1 had a character in a recurring role (Rodney McKay) who was a big personality. He stole the scenes he was in, or at least, he held his own against the beloved stars. He became one of the leads of the spin-off, lending a familiar face to the new series. (The same is true of Elizabeth Weir, although it was to a lesser degree.)

In the Medici Protectorate Series, I had a background character named Danny. I didn’t even print his last name at the time. But he was a good guy, and he easily had enough charisma to carry his own series, so he became the lead in Nightforce. Readers respond to him because he’s already part of the family.

3.    Set the spin-off in a different world.
Stargate Atlantis took that bit of advice literally. In fact, they went to an entirely different galaxy. It’s important to have a different story world because if you stay in the existing story world, there’s no reason to develop new characters. You could have stayed with your current stars.

The Medici Protectorate Series took place in Western PA and then moved to Italy. The characters were billionaires whose lifestyles reflected their vast wealth and resources, and there were supernatural elements at play. When I spun off and wrote Nightforce, I came back to the US, and I eliminated the supernatural angle. I also brought things down to a more relatable socio-economic status. We have links to the first world, but we’re most definitely in a new setting.

So, those are the tips I learned from TV, particularly from Stargate Atlantis, regarding how to craft a successful spin-off series. If you’re interested in discussing this further, just let me know. There are other tips, too, but these are the big things to consider, and I need to give everyone else a chance to talk. 😉


Short Fiction (The Twilight Zone)

Craig here. I chose this one, because I’m partially known for my short fiction. I love good short fiction, and TZ has some neat lessons to teach. I am the oldest one here, but TZ was in it’s own twilight when I was an infant. I remember being ushered from the room when it was on.

I bought the boxed set of DVDs as an adult and watched almost the entire thing. Let’s get to picking the carcass.

1.  Show the real world as an observer might see it.
Twilight Zone had a wonderful way of showing what a casual observer might see. We saw a man who liked libraries, or someone trying to keep a small town newspaper afloat. It’s an important part of the story, because we gain a sense of familiarity. Remember, TZ only had half an hour minus time for advertisements. They still dedicated time to this part.

2. Introduce the problem.
TZ is kind of far out, but you have to include a problem to have a story worth telling. I remember door to door salesmen, whose working years were dwindling. Spaceships so damaged they couldn’t return home. Real problems.

3. Distract.
This is the part where your readers are hooked, and willing to go along with you. This planet is like the garden of Eden. My new reporter knows things before they even happen. Look how wonderful life is.

4  Reveal the world through a different lens.
That new reporter is the devil, and he has an agenda. You signed a contract with him, maybe you’d better read it again. That 50 gallon drum you drive past every day holds the remains of a teenage girl who went missing a decade ago.

Short fiction can be tricky, but don’t skip steps to make it short. Some can be a page long, others will need a dozen pages. If they could do it in 30 minutes, you can use the recipe to write short fiction.


The Series (Grey’s Anatomy)

Grey's Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy Image courtesy of wallpapercave.com

Hello everyone, Harmony here. I’ve chosen the series Greys Anatomy because there seem to be a lot of series running and running and running, and for me, you have to know when to stop. I started out loving it, but after twelve or thirteen series, I grew bored. The characters and plot just became repetitive. The show seemed to have nothing new to offer. When you reach that stage, why continue on and on and on? Recently, I’ve watched a couple of short series (of only 6 episodes or so) that have gripped and ended well. I hate when you’ve invested lots of time in a series for it to do one of two things: A) End without an ending or B) Not ever finish.

So, related to books and writing, what have I learned from this? 

1.  Strong characters take your series a long way, but only so far.
Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series ran for a long time, and I have all the books. I loved it. As with Staci’s take on spin offs, Anne McCaffrey started with one character, and then based her subsequent books on other characters introduced in preceding books. It worked so well. 

2. Good plots, no matter how good, still need lots of variation.
Repetition, for me, kills it. Stops it dead. If you run out of fresh ideas, I don’t see the point in flogging the original imaginings to death. In the UK, we have a number of Soaps that have ran for decades. My next statement says a lot about me, I suppose … I don’t watch them. The same people with the same tragedies over and over again. It just isn’t for me, lols. How many stabbings, kidnappings, extra-marital affairs, heart attacks, etc. etc., ad infinitum can you watch or read? While I’m getting more forgetful as time goes on, repetition still goads me.

3. You have to know when to stop.
The best epics, whether on TV or in the realm of books, all have an end point. They all knew when to stop. Take Lord of the Rings, along with Anne McCaffrey, and other greats. On the other hand, we have George R R Martin who has so far left Game of Thrones unfinished. The TV has picked this up and run with it and now the TV series has gone way past where the last book ended. So bravo to HBO for getting on with this hit. I am so frustrated that years on, we have no new books to round it off. I invested so many reading hours on the first seven books, and was appalled when it dawned on me, finally, that yes that was it. I’m guilty of this with Elemental Earth, book one in an intended series. One of these days, I’m either gonna have to finish the next book or pull the first one. Lesson learned: don’t publish until I have at least the sequel written in draft form. This is for me, not for everyone, and it was my first stab at a series. This is me having to learn when to stop too! 


An Ensemble Cast and Multiple Plot Threads (Once Upon a Time)

Cast members from the TV series Once Upon a Time standing among the trees in a dark forest

Once Upon a Time wallpaper image courtesy of WallpaperCave.com

Hi, SEers. Mae here. You might have known I’d pick a series with other realms and the occasional beastie, right? 🙂  Actually, fantastical elements aside, it’s the plot threads and characters in series I want to focus on.

1.  Building character relationships builds interest.
I got hooked on OUAT with the launch of season two. The more the series developed, the more tangled the web of character relationships grew. As an example, Rumplestiltskin, the son of Peter Pan and the Black Fairy is grandfather to Henry, father-in-law to Emma Swan, and magical mentor to Regina. Regina’s adopted son is Henry, and her sister is the wicked witch of the West–who happened to have a daughter with the Robin Hood, the man Regina loved—but that happened when Zelana (the wicked witch) was disguised as Marion, who Robin stayed with out of loyalty, even though he loved Regina. Got that? 

Sound a bit like a soap opera? Well, I guess you could look at it that way, and the example above is just the tip of the iceberg. The point, is all of these character lives overlapped in some way or another. I’m not suggesting you write a plot with a dozen characters who have some sort of connection, but you can venture beyond the usual H/h by . . .

2. Building multi-layered plots.
To a degree, this will be connected to the genre you’re writing. A simple straightforward romance normally relies on putting obstacles between the H/h, having them overcome those obstacles, and reach an HEA at the end. Sometimes there is a small subplot to play along with that.

Other genres will allow you to branch into multiple subplots. I learned early in my writing career that I wasn’t cut out to write romance when several reviewers complained of too many characters and two many plot threads. After my first two books, I ventured into romantic suspense where it was more acceptable. As an example Eclipse Lake had four lead characters. By the time I started writing mystery/suspense with my Point Pleasant series, I knew I didn’t have to limit myself with plot threads and characters. Whereas the number of each I had in the past was considered a negative, my desire to build a web of plot threads and characters was now a plus.

3. Find your strength and run with it.
We don’t always know our strength the first (or even the second) time out of the publishing gate. It may take a while to find your “fit” and discover your strengths. Will you appeal to every reader? Heck, no! But there is/was an audience for Once Upon a Time with its tangled web of plots and interconnected family tree. If that’s your style of writing, use those strengths to your advantage!


JAG

Joan here. I’m not much of a TV watcher so I chose an older show. Billed as a mix between A Few Good Men and Top Gun, JAG ran from 1995 – 2005. The show also produced a spin-off during its eighth season. NCIS has already ran longer than JAG and has two spin-offs of its own. Here are three things that I learned from watching JAG

1. It’s okay to have a little romance.
When I began writing, my plan was to write strictly mystery and suspense. But when I wrote the first draft of Unseen Motives, romance began to weave its way in. By the time I wrote Unknown Reasons, I knew I wanted to write romantic suspense. With the introduction of Catherine Bell playing the part of Sarah (Mac) Mackenzie in the second season of JAG, there was chemistry between her and the male lead, Harm (played by David James Elliott). Although the show’s genre was action/drama, the touch of romance worked.

2. Never tell when you can show.
Yes, you’ve heard this time and again, but showing is always best. One of my favorite episodes of JAG  takes place during Mac’s engagement party. Instead of spending time with her fiancé, she and Harm stay outside talking about their relationship. They all but admit their love for one another. In the final scene, someone has just toasted Mac’s upcoming marriage. She and Harm are standing side by side. Even though Mac’s fiance is to her left and Harm’s girlfriend is to his right, their hands are almost touching. The camera then cuts and we see their faces. They are miserable because they have resigned themselves to the fact they’ll never be together.. Granted with television, we have had the benefit of cameras and good acting. However, don’t tell me your male lead is angry. Show him storming out of the room. Don’t say a female character is sad. Let me “see” the tears.

3. Don’t drag out the action too long.
Viewers of JAG waited almost nine years for a resolution of Harm and Mac’s relationship. Then all we got was the last eight minutes of the final show. I realize producers kept teasing us for the sake of keeping ratings up, but come on. Eight minutes? As writers we should never add words or scenes for the sake of achieving a certain word count. A novel should be as long or a short as it needs to be in order to tell the story. And don’t tease your readers too much or keep them guessing too long. Otherwise, they might lose interest.


Does your writing need a thrilling, action – packed bite? Try watching some episodes of The Walking Dead and you just might learn a lot from a bunch of zombies. Seriously! Several years ago the show aired in reruns on local TV. While flipping channels I came in on the middle of an episode and decided to watch since I never had previously. I was immediately engrossed.

I’m not necessarily a huge fan of zombie movies and horror. But there are a few in that narrow genre which have captured my attention in the past, 28 Days Later being one of them. But The Walking Dead immediately grabbed my attention and held it throughout the entire episode. I walked away impressed with the writing so much so that I watched the rerun episodes for the next two years as I thought about the writing. I was in the middle of my own fantasy series which had a completely different tone so I was not immediately able to incorporate what I learned from my viewing, but I’m working on that in some of my current series, especially the ones which are LitRPG and require more action.

Here’s my summary of the initial episode I watched. Perhaps you’ll recognize it. Daryl has taken it upon himself to look for a lost member of the group of survivors with whom he travels. While riding a horse, the animal is startled, throws him and he rolls into a gorge. He’s not only injured from the fall, but one of his crossbow bolts has gone through his side to complicate the situation. He tries to climb out of the gorge but begins to hallucinate and sees his brother, Merle, who enjoys taunting him but whom he thinks is dead. Daryl is unable to climb out and falls back into the gorge where he hits his head. He lays stunned upon the ground beside a creek.

As Daryl lies stunned, he further hallucinates and begins having a conversation with his brother. Then Merle grabs his foot and starts telling him it’s time to get up. At this point, Daryl realizes his brother is not there and something has a hold of his foot. This realization shakes him out of his stunned state to find a zombie trying to bite his foot. It’s time for action and Daryl must fight off not one, but two zombies while injured. Daryl escapes, though dazed and bloodied from his falls. He limps back to his friends  and is at first mistaken in the distance as a zombie. As the others run out to investigate, a slip of the finger on the trigger leaves Daryl shot in the head. That ended the episode but the next one revealed that he was only grazed.

There are several writing points which are illustrative from The Walking Dead, but all revolve around setting. As you consider the basis for the show, you realize that the zombies are an integral part of the setting, one which can literally rear up out of nowhere and bite a character. Anything can happen at any moment, but the show is written so that you cannot predict when it will be the zombies or when it will be something else. The writers clearly understand the setting is a fantastic tool to keep viewers on edge throughout the show. In a sense the zombies are both setting and antagonist at the same time. Being able to use an unpredictable environment can add tension to your plot as your characters battle to survive their adventure against defined foes, a lively setting and friends who may suddenly look out only for themselves.

Thanks for reading our thoughts about lessons from TV shows. We hope you found them entertaining and look forward to your comments. What shows taught you something about writing? Have you been able to use what you learned?

48 thoughts on “Television and the Craft of Writing Fiction

  1. TV shows have always been a big influence for me. Being a present tense author, they operate in a similar way to my style in terms of action and pacing. I get an idea for fight choreography when I watch action and humor with comedies. Drama is always a tough one though because it seems a lot of shows follow the same paces, especially the cop procedurals my wife loves. This is one reason I like ‘Instinct’ because it’s not doing the ‘male and female leads will have a romance’ possibility. Not really sure what else to say since I’m about to publish a one-shot spin-off and I tend to do series with an ensemble cast, so there’s a lot of points for me to take in. Honestly, the best piece of advice for that is what was said about knowing when to bow out. I’ve seen too many TV shows go way beyond the point of entertaining. CSI is a good example, which was great and then gradually lost what made it interesting. I don’t know if it was all the characters leaving, every episode being one case instead of 2-3, or the criminal being either the most obvious one or a person you never saw or heard of until the end. It just felt like something went wrong and they didn’t bother to pull out of the dive.

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  2. Pingback: Television and the Craft of Writing Fiction — Story Empire | tabletkitabesi

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