Thursday, December 6, 2012

Storytelling: Watching TV

I have a guilty pleasure. As a writer, I'm just a little embarrassed by it. I hide my predilection from my writing buddies, sneaking my fixes in between writer's groups. My family knows. How could they not? My husband sighs, shakes his head and leaves the room. I'm indoctrinating my daughter in my shameful ways. I try, but I can't break my TV habit. What's even worse is my taste runs to lowbrow. I'm in heaven this time of year with all the made for TV Christmas movies and holiday episodes of the shows I watch. This is what I tell myself: I'm studying plot and character. Yes, that's what I'm doing while I'm ensconced in bed eating popcorn and watching Holiday in Handcuffs, slowmo-ing the scene when Mario Lopez is naked to the waist.

All kidding aside, my friend and fellow writer, Rich Redman, regularly posts about TV shows he is watching, why he is watching them, whether he will continue to do so. He spends quite a bit of time writing about plot and character. I really enjoy his blog and have found some cool new shows to watch on his recommendation. I have also developed x-ray vision when it comes to watching TV shows and even movies.  Each one is a lesson in plot, conflict, character development, and dialogue and I usually come away with either an insight or a reminder about writing an effective story. Two examples come to mind when I think of shows I've watched recently, the CW's Beauty and the Beast and the movie Red Tails.

Full disclosure here: I am a romance junkie. I read romance novels, watch romantic comedies, and am drawn to TV shows that have a romantic elements. I'm writing a novel with heavy romantic themes. I'm into it. When I heard that the CW was going to resurrect my favorite romantic series from the late '80s I was in. I watched the first episode of Beauty and the Beast with the updated Catherine, AKA Cat, and Vincent, and decided it was worth watching another episode. Now, I'm hooked. What keeps me coming back is the sexual tension between the characters - a must in good romance - and the use of conflict by the writing team. The amount of obstacles the team keeps throwing at the two main characters is admirable. At first Vincent refuses to be near Cat for fear of her safety, then there is a misunderstanding, now there is a physical reason they can't be around each other. Add in the curious partner, and a newly suspicious ME and things are about to get very interesting for Cat. As an audience member, I know that ultimately Cat and Vincent will be together. Every episode I wait to see if we will get the first kiss. Not happening. As soon as I think things are resolved and as "normal" as things will get for the lovers, the writers throw a new wrench in the machinery. I have to watch the next episode to find out how the problem will be resolved. After every show I am reminded not to be nice to my characters. Giving them what they want makes for boring reading and TV watching. Inspired by the show I went nuts on my characters. Maybe having sniper fire and a barn burning in a twenty-four hour period was over kill, but at least my characters are not sitting around on their keisters.

On the other hand, Red Tails, was a great example of what not to do. Caricatures rather than characters, moral lectures instead of dialogue, a predictable plot line all contributed to a movie that I would give a C at best. None of the conflicts seemed to be that big of a bump. There just wasn't enough drama, enough nail biting, enough asking "how will they make it?" The cardboard cut out characters didn't help either. If I were black, I'd be offended that the brave men of this squadron were reduced to the cigar chomping father figure, the young firebrand colonel, the angry black man, the man struggling with his relationship with his father, and finally and so much the worse, the guitar plucking, backwoods talking, Smokey. Really? Smokey? The writers were way too easy on the characters and didn't ask them to step beyond these stereotypes. In comparison to Beauty and the Beast, which is not supposed to be high art or have any kind of big message, Red Tails was poorly written and missed it's mark widely.

Admittedly, Beauty and the Beast doesn't have a high mark to hit, but there is wisdom there. Know what you are trying to accomplish. If you are writing for a show on the CW that is all about romance, sexual tension, and the police procedural, that's what you write. Don't try to make it more than it is. There is no shame in writing a good story. Red Tails became too engrossed in the overall moral and forgot to tell the story. Once again, I am reminded my job, my charge as a writer is to tell a story, not  to impart a moral lesson. A well written story will entertain and get the point across without beating the audience over the head with a post.

TV and movies are like little intense writing courses if you pay attention. I've started to and I think my writing has benefited. "And so," you ask, "what is the benefit of watching Holiday in Handcuffs?" Well, you know, Mario Lopez's character is an excellent example of a romantic hero and honestly, he's hot. Who said school had to be boring?

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