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.

How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 2)

Television shows are a blessing and a curse. A chance to escape, a chance for education, a chance for adventure. While people tend to watch television for different reasons, the characters bring them back to the same television shows. If you don’t like the characters of a show, you aren’t likely to give that program a second chance. Last week, I discussed three heroines whose characters sparked imagination and became favorites of viewers. As writers, learning from television characters can help with our own writing. Lucy Ricardo had goals and wanted stardom, Mary Richards had heart and formed a family of her friends and co-workers around her, and Jessica Fletcher found more conflict and more dead bodies than any of us would ever want to encounter but we loved watching anyway. Today, I’m going to delve into secondary characters, three sidekicks who writers can learn from in how the complement or create a foil for the main character.

Dan Fielding (the womanizing foil). In the eighties, I loved being able to stay up past my bedtime and watch Night Court. Yes, Judge Harry Stone was a great main character with magic tricks up his sleeve, Mel Torme on his record player, and wise decisions flowing from the bench. However, Dan Fielding was the reason I kept watching. A perfect foil for the optimistic prosecutor Christine and for the magician judge, Dan Fielding had a pick-up line on his lips and a swagger on his step. A great deal of Dan Fielding’s character is owed to the acting skills of John Larroquette, for it would have been easy to play Dan Fielding as a pure womanizer who didn’t care about anything or anyone besides himself. Yet underneath those smooth lines and leering looks, there was something about Dan that compelled you to keep watching, compelled you to see past those lines and hope his cynicism was just that – a foil to the other characters and a mask to the world. And the finale proved it. For when the gang split up, Dan himself had the biggest surprise up his sleeve. He was following his heart and going after Christine. Her rose glasses and optimism struck a chord in his womanizing heart, and he didn’t want to let her out of his life. The romantic in me who thought all those years Christine and Harry should get together was much more satisfied with this. The foil and contrast of the prosecutor and defense attorney and judge trio kept the show going and kept me tuning in. What could have been a stereotypical character was transformed into a breathing person.

Niles Crane (the stuffy relative). I still remember when Cheers was about to pour its last drink and go off the air. I read an article that said there was going to be a spinoff. I waited with anticipation about which supporting character was going to get his or her show. Would I get to meet all of Carla’s crazy relatives? Would I at last see the elusive Vera? Would Woody leave the bar? None of the above. The spinoff character was going to be my least favorite Cheers character, Frasier Crane. I was hesitant about tuning into the first show. While Frasier had been the center of my all-time favorite Cheers episode (the one where the incomparable Emma Thompson played Frasier’s ex-wife, Nanny Gee), I wasn’t sure if I’d like the new show. Then I watched the first episode and fell in love with Martin, Roz, Daphne, Eddie, and Niles. The producers had created an ensemble cast for the ages. Writers can learn something from each of these characters: how a physical handicap didn’t stop Martin, how a romantic spirit led Daphne to keep looking for love, how to be a strong woman in a male-dominated workplace like Roz. Yet the character who could have been a stuffy relative and nothing more was fleshed out and became likable anyway. Underneath his pretentious mannerisms, Niles longs for love. He’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a toothpick of a wife, but he doesn’t stop yearning for a caring relationship, both with his family and with the woman of his dreams. And by the end of the series, Niles has a son of his own with the woman of his dreams. Layering your supporting characters and making sure they go beyond a stereotype can enrich your writing.

Marie Barone (the meddling mother). Just thinking about Doris Roberts’ portrayal of the meddling Marie brings a smile to my face. The writers didn’t hold back punches with Marie. It was clear she played favorites. It was clear she had opinions of her own about how Ray’s wife should put him on a pedestal. And it was clear she had aspirations of her own when she tried her hand at sculpture. Had the writers just stopped there, Marie would have been the stereotypical mother/mother-in-law character, but fortunately they layered her character with such richness that Doris Roberts sunk her teeth in the role and made her very memorable. How did they layer her character and go beyond the stereotype? They latched onto everyday topics and magnified the humor. In the pilot, Ray tells Marie and Frank he bought them a gift: he enrolled them in a “fruit-of-the-month” offer. Marie and Frank replied they didn’t need it and what became a seemingly minor, run-of-the-mill topic was magnified for laughs. The writers did the same thing for canisters, salmon, and sculptures.

By layering your supporting characters and going beyond stereotypes, you can perk up your writing and make those supporting characters all the memorable. Who are some of your favorite television supporting characters?

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