Over the last ten months, as I’ve been on this journey of one full year of fiction writing, I’ve gone through a multitude of creative highs and lows. When I’ve been in a good place with my writing and imagination, I’ve managed to finish creative projects way ahead of schedule. (For example, I had planned to finish my manuscript in June and instead finished it in March.) But when I’ve hit a creative low, weeks and sometimes full months can go by before I feel like even breathing in the direction of my work. It’s far more frustrating than I’m able to put into words most days, especially because I am someone who likes to create a schedule and stick to it. The ebb and flow of my creative process doesn’t always allow for that. However, one of the things that I’ve found this year that does help, even if it just gets the wheels of my mind turning again, is watching television.
And I mean any kind of television, whether it’s a drama, comedy or reality series. I watch it all and all of it helps. Because being able to observe how others tell stories can teach you a lot about how you tell your own stories and ways you can do it differently and more effectively.
Before quitting my job last December, I used to watch television as a form of escapism. Not that anything in my life was too terrible or something that I needed to urgently get away from, but the energy I would expend at my 9-5 job along with keeping up with my social life was enough to make me want to just watch things that didn’t require a lot of thinking. Now, however, I’ve started watching (and rewatching) shows for an entirely different reason. And whether they are good examples of what to do or what not to do in storytelling, the benefit to my writing and creativity has been invaluable.
A good portion of the television I watch consists of dramas. That’s anything ranging from the more campy, like the BBC’s Merlin series, to the more dark and gritty, like Amazon Prime’s The Boys. These shows tend to be both character and plot driven and the subject matter usually varies, but at the end of each episode you’re more often than not meant to have learned something or felt something specific. And that’s the very reason they’re great sources of creative inspiration that can really help you better focus your plots or better develop your characters.
What I’ve learned: One of the biggest lessons in storytelling that I’ve learned from dramas is how to handle violence and how not to handle violence. And not so much the amount of violence, but how it’s introduced, when it’s used and for what purpose. There are ways to earn the violence that we bring to our stories in ways that stick with readers and viewers that isn’t just thrown in for the sake of it. Shows that I believe do this really well are The Boys and Dead to Me, who use their violent moments in service to the narrative. It makes sense for the characters and for the world that they’re in without going too far. A show that I believe does not do this as well is The Handmaid’s Tale, where while the violence reinforces the world that’s been created, it does little to service the narrative and slips into overstimulation territory, specifically in its later seasons.
Shows to add to the queue: Merlin, The Boys, The Handmaid’s Tale, Dead to Me, Casual
Some of my absolute favorite shows are ones that are a little more light-hearted, but still give audiences the opportunity to really think about the story or ones that completely take you by surprise and have you thinking about them long after they’re over. Comedies/sitcoms hit all of those points because while they still follow a narrative that is both plot and character driven, unlike dramas (at least from my point of view), they make an effort to make the audience feel included, like they’re one of the characters in that world rather than just an outside observer.
What I’ve learned: With comedies/sitcoms, one of the key takeaways has been their ability to insert humor into pretty serious themes. A lot of the time in more long-form writing, it can be hard to balance lighter, humorous moments with super serious ones because you don’t want to lose your reader with a break in the narrative that feels unnatural.You want to be able to weave it into the story in a way that feels true to it and the characters.
Shows that I believe do this really well are The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek, where the underlying current is a darker sense of humor that feels natural. A show that I believe does not do this as well would be New Girl, where the humor sometimes can feel forced and a little over the top.
Shows to add to the queue: The Good Place, One Day at a Time, Schitt’s Creek, New Girl, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Tuca & Bertie
Another good chunk of the television I watch is reality TV (and yes, that includes The Bachelor/Bachelorette, but not since Rachel’s season). Though most of it is in the form of cooking and home shows, what I love about reality TV is that it’s 100% character driven and it’s the job of the show’s writers and producers to create a story that both fits within an established formula, and is different and interesting enough to viewers to want to stick with for thirty minutes to an hour.
What I’ve learned: Now, this is probably the hardest genre of television to glean lessons from (or maybe not depending on who you are), but what I’ve learned from reality shows has been how to make the everyday and mundane something viewers (and readers) want to engage with. That is one of my biggest writing challenges, so seeing it played out on a show gives me great ideas for how to execute it on the page. And admittedly, I think most reality shows have moments where they do this well and moments where they don’t.
Shows to add to the queue: Nailed It!, The Great British Baking Show, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
So, whatever it is you find yourself watching, listening to or observing, try engaging with it like you’re a member of the writer’s room, in the same way you would read a book as a writer. Let your imagination pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle plot points, twists and turns and character development to see what you can learn. I’ve gained invaluable knowledge about how to tell my stories in a way that best serves not only the narrative, but also my characters. Sometimes, all you need is a different medium to get the wheels of your creative engine turning again.
What kinds of shows, movies or other media have inspired you? Comment below!
Jenn Walton is a writer, editor and storyteller based in Washington, D.C., whose fiction works are housed mainly in the speculative genre. She is currently working on her first novel project that explores, through the lens of a failing utopia, what happens when society gives in to its fear of the other. She previously wrote for a communications firm where she drafted and edited sponsored and organic content for top-tier academic institutions, Fortune 500 companies and leading philanthropic organizations that has run in The Washington Post, USA Today and the Atlantic. For more from Jenn, please visit her at her website or on Twitter.