Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours for an hour so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, click here.
Okay, Ninja Writers. Today you have my permission to spend your writing time watching TV. It counts. I swear!
One way to become a better writer is to start taking in stories like a writer. You’ve probably heard the term ‘read like a writer’ before. But, watching movies or television, even listening to someone tell you a story orally, like a writer are all just as important.
To take in a story like a writer you need to pay attention to two things: What works for you and what doesn’t. And then you need to analyze the reasons why.
Get in the habit of doing this every time you read a book, watch a movie, or yes, spend an hour in front of the old Boob Tube, and you’ll start to see why it’s so important. You’ll start to see how you can incorporate what other writers do that works for you (and don’t forget, movies and TV are both created by writers) and how you can avoid the things that turn you off.
So, today I’d like you to watch an hour, or a half-hour if you’re into sit-coms, of television. It can be a re-run of a favorite episode (that’s what I’m going to do) or a random something you find on your DVR or your favorite prime-time drama. It doesn’t matter. Just put on your writer hat and sit down to pay attention.
As you’re watching, pay attention to what works for you in that particular episode. Think about character, pacing, setting, the story that you’re being told.
Then ask yourself what the writer did that made you so happy. How did they make that character that you keep coming back for? How did they draw you into that particular setting? What’s so awesome about the dialogue?
Also look for things that make you cringe a little.
What did the show writer do wrong in this episode? Was there something that just didn’t set right with you? How can you not make the same mistake?
I watched my very favorite episode of Outlander on Starz. The one I’ve re-watched, oh, A FEW times, while I wait mostly-patiently for the new season to start. The series is based on a book that I love, by Diana Gabaldon. This points out why this exercise is good to do on TV. That book is a bazillion (okay, maybe 800) pages long. It took me a week to read the first time. The episode is an hour long.
So the episode is called The Wedding, and not surprisingly it’s the episode where the hero and heroine, Claire and Jamie, get married.
What really worked for me:
This episode is really well paced. It shifts back and forth from the present (just after the wedding) to the near past (just before and during the wedding.) That adds to the surreal feeling of the whole situation–which is a woman from the 20th century marrying a man from the 18th century, even though she’s already married in her own time. What I learned from that is that getting creative with things like time in your story can have a positive affect.
It’s beautiful to watch. The setting is a church in 18th century Scotland. Claire is given a gorgeous gown by a brothel-owner to wear. Jamie gets to wear his own clan colors for the first time and just emerges as this beautiful man all put together for his wedding day. After watching this episode, I felt like I’d been at this wedding, with these people. All of this is a good example of how just having two people talking to each other isn’t enough. I need to remember to get out of my characters’ heads sometimes and use detail to draw the reader into the story and make them feel like they are a part of it.
I love the way the after-the-wedding part came together. They don’t know each other well, although there is attraction and a general friendship there. To save Claire from a vicious captain in the English army, they have to actually consummate their marriage. They take hours to bond first, which is kind of refreshing and also has the added bonus of letting the audience get to know both of them on a deeper level. The take away here is that sexy-times don’t have to be rushed into. The lead up can be just as tantalizing and exciting.
Diana Gabaldon has manage to create two characters that I’ve cared about for a solid twenty years. Everytime I go back to them, whether it’s a new book or re-watching an episode of the TV series, it’s like visiting old friends. I think it’s the chemistry she created between them that did that. I’m not sure I’d care as much about either Claire or Jamie alone. For my own writing, this reminds me that it takes more than just creating one compelling character. How those characters interact with each other matters a lot.
What I didn’t like as much:
Once the sexy-time part started, it went on FOREVER and was very graphic. I didn’t mind the graphic part, but around the third time they did the deed I was like–really, again? I found my mind wandering to how weird it must have been for the actors to film that scene. It actually pulled me out of the narrative dream of the story (something no writer ever wants to do) and slowed the pace of the story for me some.
Other than that, this is pretty much a perfect hour of television for me.
Watch an episode of a television show like a writer. Think about what worked and what didn’t.
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