Learning from Television: The Art of Predictability

By Katriena Knights

I like television. A lot. Whenever people tell me TV rots your brain, I make faces at them. TV is a valid and even sophisticated storytelling medium, and there’s lots to learn about story structure when you sit down to watch your favorite show. So I’m going to talk about TV for a while, probably for a few blog posts.

I’ve been on a kick lately where I’ve been watching a lot of retro TV from the 70s and 80s. I know what you’re thinking–I just said TV could be sophisticated and now I’m going to talk about the 70s? The answer is yes. Bear with me.

Primetime TV in the 70s and 80s was largely designed so anyone could sit down, flip on the TV, watch a random episode, and not have any trouble following the storyline. It wasn’t until Twin Peaks came along in 1990 that the joy–or horror–of ongoing story arcs began to take over the primetime storytelling stage. (Or at least that’s the way I remember it.) For better or for worse, that type of storytelling has now infiltrated nearly every television genre, including mainstays like sitcoms and procedurals where the self-contained story was usually the norm.

Rewatching these old shows, I find this both comforting and frustrating. Comforting because I can watch a random episode and not worry that I missed something and won’t be able to follow the current story. Comforting because I know everything will turn out okay in the end, and the main characters won’t change much from their established status quo.

But it’s frustrating for the same reasons. Nothing ever really changes. If Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto in Emergency! inherit a ton of money in one episode, they’ll somehow lose it all (to inheritance taxes and an old lady’s cat, if you’re curious—spoilers, by the way) by the end of the episode. If Roy gets offered a promotion that requires him to leave Johnny and drive the truck instead of being a paramedic, he’ll turn it down in the end, leaving our treasured twosome intact. It’s basically a reset button, pressed at the end of every episode, that returns everything exactly where it was at the beginning. If done smoothly and logically, it works. If done without finesse, it’s extraordinarily annoying.

How does this apply to the storytelling we do as novelists? I think it’s most applicable to genre writing where the series is the norm. Mystery, romance, and urban fantasy, as well as combinations thereof, are often written in a series format so the reader can follow the same characters from story to story without being too uncertain about how those characters will behave or what kinds of storylines they’ll get involved in. Sure, some character development will occur from book to book, to the point where the main character might be drastically different in the last book of the series than she was in the first book. However, if the character changes drastically from book to book, your readers will be disconcerted and even unwilling to go along for the ride you’ve constructed for them.

An example of a character who stays mostly the same from book to book but who still takes us on a journey of characterization and change is Temperance Brennan from the “Bones” series by Kathy Reichs. Tempe goes through many life changes, but these character arcs often play out through three or four books, making the changes to her circumstances and her character more gradual. At heart, she’s still the same person, so we recognize her as a predictable friend whenever she shows up. This combination of development and maintaining the status quo works very well in this series, as well as other mystery-style book series like Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series or the “…in Death” books by J.D. Robb. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth books are another great example in the mystery genre.

If you want to keep a status quo of some sort from book to book, techniques used in episodic television can give you an idea of how to do this effectively. However, it can also give you an idea of how to do it really poorly. We’ll talk about that next time.

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Katriena Knights is a prolific author of contemporary and paranormal romance. As KC Myers, she also writes science fiction, fantasy and urban fantasy. Her latest novel from Samhain Publishing, Necromancing Nim, is set in a world where vampires are out and proud and can’t remember to pay their bills.

 

 

10 thoughts on “Learning from Television: The Art of Predictability

  1. Julie Luek

    I shouldn’t admit this, I know, but I got completely hooked on Grey’s Anatomy, Grey’s sister show, Private Practice and Scandal on Netflix– all brainchildren of Shonda Rhimes. She is the master of creating story arcs within an episode but leaving you dying for the next episode and creating characters (even the snakes) with sympathetic and likable traits, in my opinion. Damn the woman; I’m a junkie.

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  2. Danyelle Overbo

    Love that you brought this up. I think there is a lot to say on this topic as television and its evolution over time is a very big part of our culture. Of course this affects our writing! As storytellers we should recognize this and learn from it. Plus, any excuse to sit watching an entire series on Netflix for a week straight is fine by me!

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  3. Patricia Stoltey

    I love television, too, Katriena, and like to blog about my addiction. I’m as likely to get hooked on goofy “reality” shows like Big Brother as I am to well-acted, well-plotted series like Elementary. I did the Netflix thing with Deadwood, The Tudors, and House of Cards too. Yes, it probably does eat into my writing time. But that’s okay. Now I know from your post that I’m learning important stuff about storytelling. Yay!

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  4. Karen Duvall

    I’m a TV junkie, too, and love the episodic style of the dramatic series TV show. I watch late at night on hulu because I can never catch episodes as they air. I’ll also watch series shows on Netflix. (If you haven’t yet seen Orange is the New Black, the exclusive new series from Netflix, you’re missing out.) I also love the brain junkfood of television that is the reality TV show. Mainly the ones that feature contests like Master Chef, The Bachelor, Get out Alive with Bear Grylls, etc. I get so caught up in the drama, lol. I realize a lot of it is scripted, but I don’t care. I still think some of the contestants’ reactions and interactions mirror real life and I’ve harvested a lot emotional grist for my writing mill from those. Fake? Who cares? LOL. It’s compelling and that’s all that matters.

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    1. W. J. Howard

      I should have read yours before I posted mine, Karen. I’m with you. Who cares if it’s scripted. If you really think about it, once the adrenaline starts pumping in the reality TV stars, those complete breakdowns are hardly faked. Those Dance Moms are showing who they really are.

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  5. W. J. Howard

    Great start, Katriena! I’m also a TV junkie and we recently got a DVR. *SIGH* This is perfect timing for me because I’ve been thinking about how drastically I change one of my characters. Would love to hear your thoughts about reality TV, especially competition TV. Watching real people under extreme pressure and how some turn themselves into the worst kind of caricatures. Project Runway’s my FAV for that kinda insanity!

    Reply
    1. Karen Duvall

      That Russian guy on PR, right? Perfect example of a meltdown, LOL! He even punched out the camera. Love that show. :)

      Reply

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