Lamar Giles
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TV won’t rot your brain (I hope)…

I love television.

How much?

When I was a kid I had a TV Guide subscription. While other kids memorized baseball lineups, I anxiously anticipated Fall premiers. I could recite the prime time schedules for every major network better than my classmates could recite their ABCs. I was a boob tube junkie, and heard more than once that my brain would rot from all the hours I logged in front of that screen.

It didn’t though. In fact, I learned some valuable writing lessons from the so-called ‘idiot box’. Don’t misunderstand, watching television is no substitute for reading, as I mentioned in my last post. But, television shows have to be written before they can be filmed, and I learned a lot once I took time to understand the correlation between visual and written mediums.

Pay attention. You might learn something, too.

Commercial breaks = Chapter breaks

An hour-long television drama isn’t really an hour. It averages 45 minutes to make room for commercials. In the days before TiVo you had a couple of choices when the screen faded and the Charmin ad started. 1) Get up for a bathroom/snack break then hurry back 2)Sit there and amuse yourself with all the catchy jingles (remember jingles?) 3)Change the channel.

To keep you from choosing Option 3, the greatest tool that the television writer employs is the cliffhanger. The final scene before the commercial break gives you some juicy unexpected piece of info, puts the hero in danger, or otherwise shocks you into needing to know what happens next.

The compelling writer will do the same with their section/chapter breaks, enticing the reader to keep going and find the next hook that pushes them forward. Changing the channel isn’t a threat for a novelist, having the reader put down the book is. And that’s much, much worse.

‘Show Don’t Tell’ is pretty easy when you’re using a camera

Good writing should help the reader visualize what’s happening. Television writers have the benefit of actual visuals, so it’s a little less arduous for them, but there’s still a lesson to be learned.

The words you use, the phrases you choose, should be a vivid as Hi-Def Television.

The images some cinematographer or special effects wiz puts on the screen shouldn’t be able to touch the pictures you can conjure in a reader’s head. Whether you like it or not, you’re competing against visual and interactive mediums.

Yet, despite the amazing things you can see through your television (and there’s some great stuff on TV these days), how many of them can’t hold a candle to your favorite book? My favorite novel ever is Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson and I don’t think there’s enough money in Hollywood to do Wilson’s apocalyptic vision justice.

And that’s how good you have to be.

Shut off that homework and do your TV

“Being a writer is like having homework everyday for the rest of your life” ~ I don’t know how said this…but I guess it’s true.

If it is, I say take a break. Watch a little TV. Try to understand how you can apply techniques from popular shows to your own writing. There’s definitely a benefit to learning how to hook your audience, and really, that lesson is more important for you than the scribes writing those weekly episodes out in Hollywood.


Books don’t have reruns.

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