Compelling Television-Good for Writers

It’s a rare thing for me to find television that compels me to watch no matter what. Most that comes along I can watch or not. I’ll enjoy it if I do, but I feel no real loss if I don’t. For me, I find that shows fall into two primary categories, character or plot driven. I’ll watch shows that have interesting characters, even if the plot is on the weak side. A good example of this is Brothers and Sisters. It has very well-written characters, but I don’t find the family drama plot material to be overly compelling. I have no real interest however, in plot driven shows that don’t offer great characters. I think, regardless of the media format, character always wins over plot. I can’t even think of a show that had intriguing plot premise but weak characterization that I have watched with any regularity.

So, assuming there are great characters to watch, I find that there are three basic types of plot driven shows. There’s the episodic show that runs a through a complete story with every episode, and has very little over-arching plot development. I generally don’t have much interest in these. I can take them or leave them. Next is the episodic show that has a series of larger plot lines. These shows are usually of the type that have some kind of bigger plot that gets brought up every few episodes. What I find is that I only really like the show when this bigger story is in the mix. A good example is The Mentalist and it’s ongoing “Red John” story line or X-Files and it’s conspiracy plot. Finally, there’s the show that is basically one big story. Each episode lays out a bit more of a larger plot that expands, reveals, and leaves you curious every week what happens next. You put in compelling character development to go along with it, and you have a show I can’t not watch.

Lost was just such a show. Great characters that developed and changed over time, and an intriguing, mysterious plot that slowly unfolded over several seasons (never mind that the ending was a bit of a let down). My current show is Fringe (and until I had to cancel Showtime, Dexter), but I discovered a series recently, thanks to Netflix, that I have been compelled to watch, pretty much without stopping. I’ve watched about 60 episodes over the past six days, and can’t believe I never caught on to it while it was on. That show is Prisonbreak, which ran from ’05-08′. I’m almost glad I didn’t watch it then because having to wait week to week for it would have been torture. As a writer, it’s a fabulous example of character and how to keep those pages turning. I’ve never watched a show that so intensely upped/changed the stakes. I believe the writer’s driving force in plotting the show was to give the various main characters a desire/reason to do something and then figure out what the worst thing could be to have happen in order to thwart it. I swear, something happens every five minutes to screw up what the characters have planned. It is the best cliffhanger show I have ever watched. Period. On top of that, they have done an excellent job of making a lot of the villainous characters sympathetic. Any time you can write a “bad guy” and make them sympathetic to the reader, you’ve done your job. Villains who are in that gray area between good and evil are really intriguing.

I could go on about other elements in the show, but I don’t need to. If you write, I’d suggest watching this series. It has some of the best examples of how to do things (if you write in a similar genre at least) in a way that compels the viewer to keep watching or in the case of books, to keep reading. And this is a very important ability to have. Readers will forgive a fair number of flaws if you compelled them to keep reading through the book until done. Just watch it. Trust me, it’s that good.

Happy reading/writing everyone!

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3 responses to “Compelling Television-Good for Writers

  1. Okay, you loved Lost, you watch Fringe, and it could help my writing; three reasons why I should listen to you and make Prisonbreak my next watch 🙂

  2. That’s so funny. I saw the first two episodes of that show on television and found it really compelling, as you say. But couldn’t watch it for a variety of reasons. I’ve always meant to get it from the DVD store. Maybe now I will! Thanks for the heads up.

    How is book III going???

    • Ugh! It is going slowly at the moment. Only 11k done right now, and still working on a sequence that sets the stage for character development in whole book. Probably most important part of story to nail down and type of scene I’ve never written before, so it has been slow. Hoping things pick up after, as the “plot” of the story begins to kick more into high gear.