Writing Tip: #17 Learn From TV

Bookworms often look down on television for its mind-numbing qualities of generic plots, easy laughs, and art-destroying conglomerate politics. But if this is your only perception of TV, then you’re missing a fantastic learning opportunity!

There are only three rules to turn your TV into a writing workshop:

Rule Number One: Don’t Watch Crap
This includes game shows, episodic police dramas, 90% of sitcoms, and the Kardashians. Yes, reality shows have writers… (but I’m going to save my reality-show rant for another blog.)

Search the internet for TV Top Ten lists. Find programs that are known for their outstanding writing. Don’t be afraid to watch shows that are off the air! The most inspiring TV comes from the Golden Age of HBO.

For drama, I would recommend The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the first three seasons of Lost. For Comedy, try Arrested Development, Community, Entourage, Summer Heights High, Malcolm in the Middle, 30 Rock, and the first two seasons of The Office.

Rule Number Two: Be Involved
Yes, you can enjoy the show just as you would enjoy a good book. But never let your brain go to sleep! Always ask yourself questions: “Why did the writers do that?” “What influenced these decisions?” “How could the ending be better?” “How do these episodes fit together in the context of the season?” “Why was that funny?” “Why did that make me cry?”

Watch for character arcs. Study them. Pay attention to how characters interact. Are there any story lines that the writers plant in season one that pay off in season five? The best shows will do that. Do you notice any patterns from show to show? Do any of these patterns relate to novels? Is the show episodic? Or do you need to see the prior episodes to understand the plot? What seasons seem to lag? Why? What are bottle episodes? What service do they provide? Hug your notebook through the whole show and take notes when you discover a clever writing device.

Rule Number Three: Discuss
I have several close friends that love good TV as much as I do. After we watch an episode, we dissect it over the phone. We get excited about what works. We get disappointed about what doesn’t. We rant about the last three seasons of Lost. We quote favorite lines of dialogue. We argue.

Find a friend with similar tastes. Pop a bowl of popcorn, have a Breaking Bad marathon, and start a dialogue about the intricacies of the fabulous writing.

(I have a lot to say in this area! If you have a suggestion for a more specific blog about TV or movies, please let me know!)


  1. Kallie

    The main thing I liked about this tip is that you showed there are different paths to writing besides just reading. I actually rarely watch TV anymore, but you mentioned a couple of shows I used to watch. I think I’m going to have to try watching Breaking Bad now, though. You keep talking about it. Lol.

    • jakevanderark

      I almost never watch live TV. I wait until I hear good things about a show, then I rent/Netflix it and try it out. I don’t have time to watch everything they put on the air, lol… especially because most of it IS mind-numbing crap : )

      I’ve just been excited for Breaking Bad because the final season airs tonight. I thought I could take advantage of that and get some more exposure to my site. It definitely worked yesterday! Honestly, the show isn’t for everyone… it can be very bleak and hopeless feeling. But there is also SO MUCH to love, and as I’ve said a million times, the writing is flawless.

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