How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 3)

Television is more about than great characters. It can also transport you to places around the world: the outback of Australia, the islands of the Caribbean, the peak of Mount Everest. While cameras, technology, and budgets sometimes allow for on location shooting of some shows (think Downton Abbey or Death in Paradise among others), many television shows are still shot on a set in a different part of the world. Yet a good show gives a sense of the setting, and the setting enriches the show’s atmosphere, tone, and mood. Writers too can use the setting of their book to provide a rich layer, almost to the point of creating a character.

Atmosphere. I didn’t watch every episode of Downton Abbey, but from the time the dog appears on the screen and a rolling list of actors’ names flickers on the screen, the viewer gets the sense this is not a sitcom. The lack of bright colors, the staid splendor of the upstairs, the stark contrast of the kitchen all point to high drama. Writers of historical romance can evoke a similar tone with details of a world long gone. Writers of women’s fiction can evoke the setting and use the weather and time of day to layer in more sensory details. Mystery writers especially can use setting for atmosphere. A cozy mystery heroine is far more likely to inhale the smell of old books or coffeehouse coffee whereas a hardboiled detective may note the smell of a police precinct or inky coffee from an ancient coffeemaker. Don’t lose a chance to evoke atmosphere with sensory details such as the smell of the setting, the weather surrounding the characters, or the feel of objects around them.

Tone. Theme songs can often tell a lot about a television show. For decades, catchy theme songs often set the tone for the show. Who could forget that Gilligan was on a three-hour tour? Or not laugh at petite Lurch, neat Uncle Fester, or sweet Grandmamma Addams? Books, however, don’t have theme songs, but a writer’s voice and pacing can add to the tone. Fast, action scene? Your theme song then has punchy, short sentences. Other times you might want long, lyrical paragraphs when it’s a longer piece of exposition with description.

Mood. I’m not a huge fan of overbearing laugh tracks, but when someone else laughs, it’s easier to laugh along with them. When Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) picked himself off the floor after falling over the ottoman, all while having a smile on his face, we knew we could laugh with him at whatever happened to Laura or Ritchie or Sally or Buddy. When a character laughs at himself or shows his or her sense of humor, we can laugh along, and in romantic comedies, that’s a plus. By setting the mood through the characters’ actions and by their surroundings, a writer can help the reader bond to those characters and relate all the more. When Penny and Leonard and Sheldon all share takeout with Bernadette and Raj and Howard, the viewer knows it’s okay to laugh. When Beckett was called to a crime scene with Castle on her heels, the viewer knows she’s not going to rest until the real killer is apprehended and justice is served. As writers, establishing the mood and the tone can set the stage for the reader and hook the reader into the story all the faster.

Watch your favorite television show and notice how the writers incorporate the setting to create atmosphere. Whether it’s the Addams’ museum of a house or Central Perk or the Caribbean shore, the setting will help tune the viewer in to what type of show and add layers to the show, making us appreciate the show all the more.

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