How TV Helped My Writing

The SuckI did an author interview a few weeks ago and mentioned that I drew lessons and inspiration from television and the interviewer asked me: “Television…really?”

Want to be a writer? Here’s your first lesson: Learn from everything.

And that includes TV.

Don’t get me wrong, I love books. There’s nothing like dipping into a great mystery, horror, fiction, historical nonfiction, anything. My shelves are filled with piles of them and choosing a new book to read is both a joy and a burden. I stare at bookstore shelves sad in the knowledge I’ll never be able to read everything I want before they drop me off at the coroner with a toe tag and my fillings in a sack.

But as far as guilty pleasures go, I love me some television! Oh, there’s nothing better than blowing off a night out in lieu of watching a couple reruns of Seinfeld, Northern Exposure or Frasier. When talking about sitcoms or other television with someone who writes, you often get an eye roll, as if to say: “Well, Kafka would never have spent the evening watching Golden Girls.”

And that is bullshit.

If you don’t think television can teach you a thing or two about writing, then you are probably a snob who takes himself too seriously. Back in the days before television, James Joyce, heaviest of the heavy authors, used to read everything. Everything. He read the Ladies Home Journal; he lost himself in gossip magazines, fashion pages of newspapers, romance novels, hunting manuals. He read everything, surely knowing that inspiration and little lessons are everywhere, not just in the pages of Middlemarch, War and Peace, and Ulysses.

There’s no doubt that if you want to write books, you have to read books, but television surely has its place in terms of helping you advance your writing. Here are some examples of how television helped me as a writer.


In case you aren’t familiar with the term, exposition is basically background or information important to the plot. Or, in a porno it’s when one woman says to her friend: “Let’s order a pizza…with sausage!”

However, exposition isn’t usually such an easy thing to get across and doing it badly reeks of amateur writing.

Have you ever seen The West Wing? It’s about a fictional White House and depicts the President and his staff dealing with daily issues at the White House. Well, to do this with any kind of authenticity, it sometimes has to be extraordinarily complicated, or deal with incredibly complex themes. And we’re not even talking about plot; we’re talking about how the writers of The West Wing can give the audience the crash course in foreign affairs that they need to even understand this episode.

And that’s where Donna comes in.

Donna is the assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff and, though talented and intelligent, doesn’t know the inner workings of governmental process as would a political operative. So she asks questions, and as she gets the gist of the background from her boss, so does the audience. This happens with various other characters in the show and in various other ways.

Obviously a television show can’t stop in the middle to give them background. A good show does this cleverly with conversation and other forms of dialogue.

The lesson: Utilize the extreme power of dialogue and other tools. There are clever ways to drop in exposition and background without just telling the audience. Hints can be dropped, innuendo made, mild references, etc. There is a world of power that comes along with useful dialogue.


Monday nights in college meant watching Northern Exposure with my two roommates. We’d have elegant evenings with Natural Light beer, chewing tobacco, and passing the bong…I mean cheese tray around until we were so full of cheese that the television was soon asking us for beers and singing 1980s cartoon theme songs.

Northern Exposure is arguably the mother of the ensemble casts that are so typical of today’s television. Northern Exposure revolved around Jewish doctor Joel Fleischman exiled from New York City to the miniature (pop. 815) town of Cicily, Alaska, whose inhabitants were the absolute definition of quirky and unusual.

Rob Morrow played Joel Fleischman to perfection; nasty, irritable, grumpy, sarcastic, embittered to be uprooted from Manhattan and sent to this rural purgatory. And as a result Joel Fleischman was insanely unlikeable for about two years of the show. Sure, there were occasional glimpses into his soft, likeable side, but most of the time we rolled eyes at his constant complaints and growled at his sardonic personality…while trying to remember inane details from ’80s cartoons.

Fleischman grew in miniscule increments, and when he finally became someone humanoid, we felt a genuine sense of accomplishment for him. But it wasn’t an easy transformation. Other characters who have undergone a similar, slow transition are Niles Crane and Charles Winchester. Two people who started as unlikable, finicky characters and made a long crawl towards humanity.

The lesson: Trust your audience.

If you’re writing, it’ll be readers. Trust them to know that these characters – yours – are worth something even though they might not be presenting that worth just now. Moreover, fully develop your characters, and trust your readers to know who to invest in, even if they are ‘bad’ guys. Allow some glimpse into their whole character, show them talking to their mom on the phone, not throwing baseballs at kittens.

Alternatively, don’t force it! If you try to make us love or hate a character immediately, we will sense it and resist, disbelieve, or lose interest. If you transform this character too quickly, it’ll be transparent and unnatural.

There was a show called The Class of ’96 about a bunch of college kids who were graduating…yes, in 1996. OK, in the first episode, the two main characters sleep together, have lunch where they agree they shouldn’t be together, and then decide to become best friends. Yes, best friends. It took them 22 minutes and lunch for what usually takes 22 months and a lot of shouting, discomfort, and stress for the rest of us.

I didn’t buy it for a second, as I’m sure others didn’t and the show was off the air before the second semester.

Hurt the ones you love (Season 3 Walking Dead Spoiler)

One of the great joys in writing is creating a character that people love and respond to. It’s such a joy because it’s your damn job to create real characters, which people can relate to. He laughs like my grandpop, she smiles like my little sister; you make people love them. And then you throw them to the walkers and eviscerate them.

The lesson: Your characters live in the same universe as all the others in your work and have to abide by the same rules. So despite the fact that you have developed attachments to them, bad things can and should happen to them.

I screamed when T-Dog and Dale got theirs in The Walking Dead, and they didn’t get it off screen or heroically. They were eviscerated, ripped apart, and eaten on screen. Just like all the others who got caught by the walkers.

This also reinforces the characterization lesson: fully develop all of your characters, even the ones you are going to kill off. Dale and T-Dog were not nameless, red-shirted ensigns going to their doom on some planet; they were main characters who people loved. If they had been nameless, their deaths wouldn’t have mattered that much. Give them attention, since you need to draw a reaction from your audience and if your doomed characters aren’t developed, your audience won’t care when they are sent to the walkers.

Sum up

There are lessons everywhere for your writing. Surely, these lessons exist in classic literature. They are classics for a reason. But don’t disregard the education to be found in Harry Potter, Maxim, or Seinfeld.

Lesson: Read a lot of stuff and watch a lot of stuff.

Oh yeah, and add zombies.

  1. #1 by Kelly on June 24, 2013 - 7:25 pm

    Yes! I’ve written all kinds of things but a number of years ago it was mainly TV series that I was developing. With very little success I might add. And by little, I mean none. Anyway, I would always call watching TV “doing homework”. Which worked out because I love watching TV so this made me an extremely dedicated student. Good TV teaches you how to show and not tell as you mentioned about exposition. I love pointing out bad exposition BTW. I was watching a movie with Kevin Spacey once and his secretary or someone in the office said “Geez boss, don’t you ever take a day off? Or burning the midnight oil again?” Or some lazy shit like that and I remember being like “Oh I get it! He’s a workaholic! I never could have deduced that through other less obvious inferences. Good thing they hit it right on the nose there.” Anyway. Good post.

  2. #2 by Andy on June 24, 2013 - 11:11 pm

    I was so pleased to find Fraiser, Season 1 at my local used book/cd/movie/etc store for $20. I thought to myself, “this and a bottle of Rumple Minze would make the perfect, random gift!” Until I remembered that the dvd was Region 1 and that the Rumple Minze leaks like crazy when handled by postmen. Hope you enjoyed the gift that never left my front door, man.

    • #3 by Damien Galeone on June 25, 2013 - 8:13 am

      It was fabulous. Sorry about that Rumple hangover you got that was meant for me, though…those are brutal!

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