Feeling guilty about being a couch potato instead of writing your novel? Although I’ve dedicated my life to writing, reading and editing written stories, I can’t help but resist the siren calls of the small screen. I must admit I have to fight against being a total television junkie and for good reason – there are some fantastic shows on TV right now. My favorites are Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, The Middle, Suits, Shark Tank, and The Nightly News.
So, how can you make zoning out in front of the TV productive for you as a novel writer?
If you love quirky comedies…
Are you in love with the characters of sitcoms like Modern Family, 30 Rock, or The Middle? One quality of a great character that easily enchants audiences is this: he or she feels like a genuine human being. Audiences get to really know a character’s quirks, mannerisms, catch phrases, and pet peeves, and even deeper things like a character’s dreams and fears.
Try this: Take a favorite quirky character and put him or her in a scene of your novel. Even if your novel is a completely different genre from Modern Family, switching environments may revitalize a sagging scene. This can be a nice break and a helpful way that opens your mind to the choices you can make as a writer. Here’s another exercise: Pick a character, and look for key traits you can steal for an original character in your novel.
If you love dark, gritty dramas…
These intense, often violent dramas are all the rage among television junkies. As some of you may have noticed, I write a lot about Breaking Bad in particular. The characters are complex, morally gray (which is so intriguing to watch as they face one challenge after another), and continually develop in a way that I never see coming.
Try this: Mesmerized by Jesse and Walter’s relationship? Ask yourself how you can apply such chemistry and complexity to your own character relationships. If so, find ways to unbalance their power — and then have the balance continually shift throughout your story. This not only keeps your characters off-kilter, it keeps your readers on their toes.
If you love stand-up comedians…
Anyone who’s had aching ribs after watching a round of brilliant stand-up knows that great jokes stem from masterful storytelling. And, from hilarious cynics to goofballs, every comedian knows how to harness his or her point of view to shed light on aspects of society.
Try this: Listen to how comedians put together the stories in a joke. How do they lead into a it? Pay attention to rhythm, repetition, exaggeration, and build up. I love how Demetri Martin plays on language to surprise his audience — making them realize the punch line was there all along. Have one of your characters tell a joke. See how his point of view affects his humor.
If you love period pieces…
Costume dramas are taking off right now; the painstakingly-researched, detailed worlds of Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, and Merlin whisk audiences away into another time and place.
Try this: If you want to write a novel set in the past, it is critical to take a cue from the creators of the above shows and hit the books. Observe details, down to the kinds of buttons your characters might have worn to the words they exclaimed when they were upset. The key is making the era come alive in every aspect. In some cases, skipping research can even turn readers off to your novel, or can distract them from your plot, or can discourage them from caring about your protagonist.
If you love the news…
Writers can find great story ideas by watching the news. Specifically, pay extra attention to those smaller stories that are sometimes used as fillers or as end-of-the-broadcast, feel-good stories. I particularly like NBC’s “Making a Difference” segments.
Try this: The news is full of hard news stories, but it’s your job to ask questions in a way that gets down to the human element of each slew of facts that flash across the screen. If you see there was a recall on spinach, for instance, ask yourself how this is affecting spinach farmers, vegetarians, and chefs? See what tangents you could explore that may reveal an interesting angle of the situation — or even better, a new character or theme in your story.
So, the next time your spouse, roommate or snarky child sees you camped out in front of the TV and asks, “Aren’t you supposed to be working on your novel?” you can say, “I am!”