It may seem like the only way to improve upon our own writing is through inhaling books at a rate of knots, however, there are simpler ways. If you are anything like me, it takes a very long time to get through a book, simply because you are a slow reader. Luckily, there is something that won’t take up *quite* so much time and will aid in story-telling.
TV shows and films can be useful tools for studying craft – so long as you are watching with an analytical eye, that is. Through these mediums we can examine things such as structure, foreshadowing, character, themes, and point of view.
For overall structure, it is probably best to use a film as your tool. As you watch, see if you can pin point major moments such as the Inciting Incident, the Turning Points, the Big Boss Battle etc. Being able to find these points within a film will aid in being able to define them within your own work. Further to this, you can analyse why these moments happen, and the consequences for the plot and characters. If you would like to know more about this terminology and the structure of stories, you can find more of my posts on it in the structure folder.
With TV shows, it can be a little more difficult to pin point such moments, particularly the ones towards the end such as the Big Boss Battle. But, it is still helpful to study them for structure. Only, it is more the structure of a scene rather than the bigger picture. Within scenes we have a similar structure to the bigger picture with an ‘inciting incident’ to kick off the scene and the rise and fall as we progress through it, with a conclusion, whether positive or negative, which then leads on to the next scene. On a simpler level, we have the ‘scene’ and the ‘sequel’. The scene is the action and the sequel is the reaction/reflection. So, a scene will start with a goal, and then we will follow them in their effort to achieve the goal, and it will end with either a positive or negative outcome. Let’s take my current TV Show obsession, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, as an example. In the first scene, we have Bai Qian entering Kunlun Mountain to become a disciple. Goal = successfully become a disciple to Master Mo Yuan. Obstacle = women cannot become disciples. Solution = disguise Bai Qian as a man and trust no one will see through the glamour. Problem: Mo Yuan sees through the glamour. Solution: Zhe Yan, who accompanies Bai Qian to Kunlun Mountain, is a trusted friend of Mo Yuan, and so Mo Yuan does not challenge him as to why he has brought her there. Problem: Bai Qian is to be made the most junior disciple, which she does not appreciate, so she kicks up a fuss. However, she must humble herself to the idea of being the junior disciple, otherwise she will not be taken in, and so she cannot achieve the goal of becoming a disciple.
So, through studying the scenes of a TV show, we can examine how to write scenes ourselves in our own stories. Though TV shows tend to have a more continuous structure, with more rounded, complete stories being a rarity by comparison, we can still use their structure for aiding in that middle bit of our book, to learn how to keep tension up and keep knocking our protagonist down with problem after problem.
This will work best with TV shows and films that you are more familiar with, that you have watched before and you know the story of very well. Since you know how things will turn out, look out for those moments that hint at what is to come – those moments that you questioned before but, watching it back, scream out what is going to happen. These moments are excellent to study for foreshadowing, as it is one of the most difficult balances to strike – giving enough information so the foreshadowing isn’t random, but not so much that it pretty much tells us the end without ever having to get there. The perfect foreshadowing hits us hardest when we reread or re-watch something. Find those moments and studying how they have been made so subtle for first time readers, yet so blatant the second time round. The key is to only give the last piece of the puzzle that will make the foreshadowing make sense wayyyyy after the foreshadowing itself.
TV shows and films can be useful tools for studying characters. Examine their motivations and goals, their paradigms, their personalities and what makes them tick. Look at how all this information is used to then dictate the choices they make, and the impact their choices have on the plot. This kind of examination of characters can aid in creating characters yourself, especially when it comes to having characters act true to their personalities and paradigms. Look at how their character arcs go, what their paradigm is at the beginning and how it changes throughout – how the characters learn more about themselves and attempt to enact change and growth within themselves. Or perhaps they are the kind of character who holds stubbornly to their beliefs and will not be moved, not even when they are proven wrong and everything collapses around them – in which case, we have a tragedy on our hands.
Let’s look again at Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms for an example (apologies to those who have no idea what this programme is – it is the best damn thing in the world, so go and check it out now!) Our protagonist, Bai Qian, is proud and mischievous, always up to something, always causing trouble. We see her character arc force her to examine her ways and alter her attitude and actions. She gradually (somewhat) humbles herself, becoming a devoted disciple and seeing how her actions, though meaning no harm, can have disastrous consequences. It is only through hardship that she can fully see that how she acts is not acceptable, and that she must change her ways unless she is to continue wreaking havoc for all those around her.
Themes are prevalent in most TV shows and films. Though they may not all have a central moral message, there will be some kind of theme that surrounds the story. This theme may develop through the protagonist’s own paradigm, or an ideology enforced by society. For example, in The Hunger Games (again, I know!) there is an ideology of the little people (from the lower districts) being incapable of standing up against the Capitol. This is something that is instilled in Katniss and her fellow people – to have your name called is certain death. Therefore, the theme pushes against this, showing that even one person can make all the difference, so long as they try and stand up for what is right. Katniss finds the one weakness of the Capitol in the end – there must always be a victor. To take this away from them is to send them into anarchy. To force them to name two victors gives more hope to the people. Katniss and Peeta stood up the Capitol and won. This makes the overall paradigm of ‘we are powerless against the Capitol’ shift.
Point of View
Point of View can be a tricky one – often it is difficult to know what you may be losing out on by telling your story in a certain way, with a particular point of view. As a general rule, I would say to tell the story from the point of view of the protagonist – this is always a safe option to go with. However, sometimes we get a whole other kind of story by changing up the point of view. For example, looking at books for a moment, Sherlock Holmes’ tales would certainly be told differently if not through the view of Watson. Compare with the BBC TV show, where we are more in the point of view of Sherlock, and it is certainly a different way of telling it (setting aside that it is moved to modern day etc.) Essentially, we must decide what is best for the story itself, and to most effectively tell it.
Multiple Point of View is something that most TV shows and films utilise but is something to be wary of in books. When handled well, it can be a very useful tool. And it must only be used when absolutely necessary. The point of view characters must have reason to be so, not simply because you want to be a certain viewpoint for a paragraph. Beware of head-hopping – only swap characters at a page break or new chapter. Once you have the rules down, studying how TV shows and films apply multiple points of view can be a great help in figuring out how to do it effectively. Using it a device for story-telling, to hide or reveal things to the readers, is a primary reason for such point of view. Viewing certain events through the eyes of a particular character can colour the perspective, controlling how the reader will interpret it. However, you must remember that in order to use this point of view, you must choose the characters wisely and give them plenty of ‘screen time’ so that they readers can get used to the characters and, most importantly, become emotionally invested in what they are going through. The more point of view characters there are, the less time they have, the less connected to them the readers will be – so choose carefully.
One thing to remember, books and on-screen mediums are entirely different, though both methods of story-telling. What can be told in two seconds on screen may take a huge amount of page space in a book. Likewise, some things that will work perfectly on screen will not in a book, same as the other way on. One does not equate to the other, and so they cannot be written in the same way. That does not mean that we cannot learn from both. Just remember to apply what you learn from TV shows and films to books, rather than expecting it to translate across mediums in the same way – because it won’t.
This post ended up being a bit longer than I thought it would! I hope it has been useful. If you have any thoughts or questions, please let me know in the comments below.