looking for SPEAK teachers, my thoughts on TV for writers

I have an email from a teacher in Australia who wants very much to teach SPEAK. She needs our help. The books have already been purchased, but the principal is having second thoughts about putting the book in curriculum.

She writes: …could you please help me with some real examples of ‘Speak’ being used effectively in the classroom and/or pass on my email to someone who may be able to help me?

If you would like to help this teacher, send me your email address to laurie AT writerlady DOT com. I’ll pass it on to her. Thanks!

I had another email which kept me pondering all weekend. The person heard me speak at the SCBWI conference in Michigan a few weeks ago and asked if I really meant it when I said writers should turn off the television.

The answer is no. And the answer is yes.

My primary point was this: if you are trying to be a writer, and if you find yourself complaining that you don’t have enough time to write, then honestly examine how much time you watch TV. The average American watches 4.5 hours of television a day!. If you want to write and you fall in that category, it’s a no-brainer. Turn off the television. Start writing. End of problem.

Now if you like television, and you are satisfied with the amount of time you’re writing and quality of your work, by all means, keep watching.

BUT….

Some people see their television and movie-watching as a critical part of becoming better writers. They feel that the exposure to Story structure (Plot A, Plot B, Plot C, character arcs intersecting, etc.) that they get out of watching well-written shows helps their writing. I’ve had folks argue with me that they must watch TV to write books and write them well enough to be published.

Are you sure you want my honest opinion here?

I think that kind of viewing will help if you are trying to write a screenplay or break into television writing. But it’s not going to do much for your book writing.

I see a consistent weakness in the writing of young people and writers who don’t read much. They fumble with narrative description. They are great at dialog and they often get the bones of their story laid out well. But the actual description of scene action, setting, the observation of small details which reflect the emotional journey of the character – all that stuff is not up to snuff.

You learn how to write those elements of Story by reading. They are not part of “live action” storytelling – the kind we see on screens and stage. Television and film are different media than books. That’s why books don’t translate onto the screen without a great deal of changes.

TV and film are just as valid as books when it comes to storytelling. I don’t think TV is evil. I see nothing wrong with being a fan of a show and really enjoying your time watching it. (Though I do believe American Idol is an utter waste of time.) There are plenty of shows and movies I’ve enjoyed. My larger point is this: if you think that watching TV will help you write a great book….. well, good luck with that. I don’t think it works.

(Full disclosure – I tracked my TV viewing this week. I watched approximately two hours of news. BH and I watched most of the first Godfather movie Friday night, and some of the Ohio State vs. Penn State football game Saturday. I watched NFL football yesterday while I worked on thank-you notes and started watching a (Netflix) movie with Number One Son that was called on account of homework. And I read three books.)

What is your opinion about this?

34 Replies to “looking for SPEAK teachers, my thoughts on TV for writers”

  1. As a long-time fanfic writer, I love my TV shows — but selectively. I don’t actually own a TV, so the temptation to just sit in front of it and “see what’s on” is nil. I have to deliberately decide which shows I want to watch, and when watching them will fit into my schedule. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to watch more than three shows a week at any given time, so if I want to try something new, one of the old ones has to go to make room for it.

    Recently I’ve set aside the time from 9:45 to 10:30 each night as “TV or Computer” time, which means that when I have a show I want to watch, I can do that, and if not then I can noodle around on the web and chat with people in IM and such. Or, if I’m really on a roll, I can use that time to keep writing. 🙂

    Anyway, I pretty much agree with you. Watching TV may spark ideas and emotions that you can work into your books, but it will do squat-all for teaching you technique. And you also have to be careful to sift the ideas and inspirations you pick up and make sure to put your own original stamp on them before you use them. For instance, if I see one more urban fantasy novel which is obviously inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer… sigh.

  2. I agree with you, Laurie. About the time spent in front of the TV taking away from writing and about the methods of storytelling being different. Four hours spent reading McKee’s STORY would do a lot more for a writer than four hours of even quality television.

    But I know not everyone agrees…

  3. As someone who writes a ton and watches a ton of tv, I have to say that I agree with you on both counts. Reading has done more for my writing than any time spent in front of the television, BUT, as someone who shares my home with a film guy, I do find that we have a lot to say about narrative arc and character development that transcends from one medium to the next.

    All that being said, tv is a huge time-sucker…much like the internet. I have to shut both off when I plan to get any real work done.

  4. good words about writing

    I would love to share this part of your post with my students and several online lists I am on, because I think it speaks profoundly to some of the bad writing I see. May I do that, with attribution?

    I see a consistent weakness in the writing of young people and writers who don’t read much. They fumble with narrative description. They are great at dialog and they often get the bones of their story laid out well. But the actual description of scene action, setting, the observation of small details which reflect the emotional journey of the character – all that stuff is not up to snuff.

    You learn how to write those elements of Story by reading. They are not part of “live action” storytelling – the kind we see on screens and stage. Television and film are different media than books. That’s why books don’t translate onto the screen without a great deal of changes.

    1. Re: good words about writing

      Absolutely. I am honored!

      (I would love to hear any feedback you get, if it’s not too much trouble.)

      1. Re: good words about writing

        I read girasol’s post on the yalsa listserv and I forwarded it to my English teachers (I’m a high school librarian). None of the teachers could open your blog because blogs are blocked at my school! I’m going to tell the teachers to look at your blog at home, because it is worth the time. I LOVE your books btw and so do my students!

  5. I would say that being brought up in front of the television helped me a great deal with certain aspects of my writing, dialogue in particualr. Another thing it helped me with was chapter endings. Most shows leave off just before the commercial with a bit of a cliffhanger to prevent you from changing channels. Leaving scenes off like that helps in writing a page-turner.

    However, now that the foundation has been laid, tlevision is useless when it comes to the craft of writing.

    I will say that watching television is a good way to stay current with what teens are saying and doing. It’s helpful to see how they dress and what music is popular. But that’s something a trip to the mall could accomplish too!

  6. Good point on the “not having enough time to write” vs “TV watching”! I have never felt that watching TV was helping me write. In fact, for me, TV is my down time, to let my mind rest. I write all day and in the evenings, I alternate between reading and watching TV (because I am choosy about what I spend my time watching). ANyhoo – thanks for bringing up an important point!

  7. You read 3 books last week? How do you do it? When do you have time to get all that reading in? I read every night and what happens is I end up falling asleep. I can hardly get through a book a week. I am totally jealous!

    1. I too, blow through about three books a week. It comes with reading all the time–when I am having lunch, and dinner. Before bed (I hear ya about the falling asleep part, though!), and if I am waiting for something or someone. I’m also a fast reader, I always have been.

        1. Oh yeah, it is definitely challenging with a little one! As soon as you get focused, baby (or hubby) needs attention. My son is with his father a few days a week, so that helps a lot. He’s also four, and can entertain himself while I read a couple chapters or so.

  8. i think you know my opinion, yes? i do not watch tv. however, i do watch movies on *a* tv that i have.

    i think it’s easy to get sucked in and lose yourself. see also: the internet, which i think shortens attention spans even —

    what was i saying?

    1. I used to be that way until I came to college. My mom wouldn’t pay for cable so I just never watched tv. This year I have a roommate who has the tv on pretty much all the time, so I end up getting sucked in– my last year’s roommate and I would just turn on music to get rid of silence. I used to watch 3-5 hours of TV a week, and now I watch much more.

      But if it was up to me, I’d watch my three shows a week and half hour before bedtime if I felt I needed it and that would be it.

  9. I watch very little TV, but I do like to watch movies to see how the story arc progresses. The complaint I get the most from my critique partner is that I don’t have ENOUGH arcs in my stories. I focus on the main character and her issues and journey. This comes from the fact that when I am reading, I tend to zone in on the main character, and if I am rereading, I get mad if I am interrupted with someone else’s arc. So, my goal is to learn how to seamlessly intertwine other arcs in, and movies help with that.

  10. I see a consistent weakness in the writing of young people and writers who don’t read much. They fumble with narrative description. They are great at dialog and they often get the bones of their story laid out well. But the actual description of scene action, setting, the observation of small details which reflect the emotional journey of the character – all that stuff is not up to snuff.

    I think this hits the nail on the head. I certainly have the most trouble with narrative description and the least difficulty with dialog–and I am a big reader!! I do think that when I think out a scene, I picture it like television where the setting and details are very much a visual imagining–and I have trouble putting that part into words.

    I don’t watch much TV these days (7 month old baby–I don’t get to write much either!), but I think it has influenced my writing skills over the past decade. I think my narrative writing skills were better when I was in primary/secondary school and watched a lot less tv. Thanks Mom! College/grad school and adulthood gave me the freedom to watch more tv and I think that was detrimental.

    Good food for thought. I need to work on those atrophied skills.

  11. I’m enjoying this conversation.

    I think two hazards of writing for young readers are the propensity to be spare and being drilled to “show, not tell.” Plus, our audience is learning to think of storytelling as something visual, like a movie, TV show, or video game.

    But description and internal thought and judicious telling DO lend to the flavor and depth of a book. They need to be used with a subtle touch, I think. You can’t just plop that stuff into a book the way you can launch into dialogue. So yeah, they are hard to write, and I suppose some writers avoid it for that reason. (It’s not a good reason, though…)

    Thanks, Laurie, and everyone, for your thoughts.

      1. My issue is that I find myself often skipping over the paragraphs of descriptions, and heading straight for the dialogue in books. I have to force myself to go back and read descriptions. It’s like, I don’t CARE what kind of furniture is in the room, or the color of the walls, I want to know WHAT HAPPENS.

        That might be a residual of being part of the TV generation.

  12. i liked this post a lot. i’m a big tv fan, but i just watch specific shows each week. i tivo four shows a week and watch when i can, so it’s only 4 hours total (a week), if we don’t include random shows with husband at night (like the daily show). i *do* notice i’m watching more tv when i’m not writing fresh material (i’m in revisions right now for SEA). when i was writing my first drafts, i wasn’t watching nearly as much tv…or reading other people’s novels for that matter. i was only working on my novel so i could stay on track.
    thanks!

  13. I don’t know. I wasn’t brought up in front of the TV. There was no such thing as cable, and my mother enforced a limit of one hour of TV a day, which had to be negotiated between my brothers and me, so I didn’t even watch that much. Once I got out of college, I didn’t own a TV. But the main editorial comment I got on my first novel was, “The dialogue is great but there are no stage directions. You need more description of, well, just about everything.” I think I got that way by reading plays, frankly. I read hundreds of books every year, but I still did this in my first book.

    Whether this kind of error is more common today because of extensive TV viewing is another question. You could absolutely be right about that.

    My own peeve about people who watch a lot of TV and then write books is that I hate what they do with viewpoint; it’s as if they have a camera and are recording everything. That’s enshrined in a lot of writing terms, even, but I really don’t like it at all.

    P.

    1. My own peeve about people who watch a lot of TV and then write books is that I hate what they do with viewpoint; it’s as if they have a camera and are recording everything. That’s enshrined in a lot of writing terms, even, but I really don’t like it at all.

      Would you be able to give an example? I’m curious… but I’m an avid tv watcher…

      1. I’ll try to scare some up — I mostly read a few paragraphs, say, “Oh, right, that,” and don’t go further.

        It’s probably s subset of omniscient, but there’s a weird obsessiveness about the detailing. I’ll see what I can do.

        I doubt that everybody who watches a lot of TV does this, either.

        P.

  14. I think you’re right. Not that I’m a writer. But in just about any field of endeavor, you have to study how others have done it to have all the tools you need to do it well. Otherwise, the ones who have will outcompete you.

    BTW, IMHO, [insert two or three more irritating Internet contractions here, and an emoticon on a pear tree) movies are not TV and don’t count as such. I’m not even quite certain I’d count TV shows on DVD, as they’re entirely under your control and lack commercials. But that may only be wishful thinking, as that’s what we do about well-done TV shows.

  15. Coming from a comics background, I still struggle with description. My brain keeps wanting to skip ahead, but the writing ends up reading like an outline rather than a book. It’s been a struggle to train myself to slow down, but I’m having so much fun with it! I’ve been reading a ton of books and it definitely helps a ton. My recent favorite book for description study is Cannery Row.

    I remember reading an interview with J.K. Rowling, and she said something similar. If you want to write books, you have to read books. It just makes sense. I stopped watching television in early college because I was a snooty art school student. 😛

    Since then, however, I’m not so anti-t.v. but I still don’t watch it. Doesn’t mean my husband and I don’t use our television to waste plenty of time watching movies and playing video games, though…!

  16. Well, I completely understand the “Turn off the TV!” thing if one doesn’t have the time to write. I can say that, for me, my major reason for not having time to write most of my teenage years and college years was school. That toom up all my thinking time and when I was done with homework, I didn’t have the mental energy to write. Which is why I did my emphasis in Creative Writing–to create time.

    I can also say I am one of those people who has a learned a lot on what to do and what NOT to do from watching TV. Among my friends, I am known as the one who knows what’s good and what’s not on TV. So, I have watched more good TV than bad, and I think it has helped me decide what I like and what I don’t like, story-wise and character-wise.

  17. We haven’t had a TV for more than 12 years!

    Think of the sentence:

    Ed will go to the library.

    If we watch a program in which a character says this, we may understand:

    *That it is ED who is going (maybe for the first time!).

    *That Ed will FINALLY go to go to the library (maybe he doesn’t view himself as a reader or had a bad experience in the library–emphasis on Ed’s intent changing from future to present).

    *That Ed is, perhaps, angry with his mother and is telling her that he has quit his chat lines and is leaving the house now (emphasis on the travel).

    *That Ed is, perhaps, shocking every by heading toward the library (emphasis on the journey toward the destination).

    *That Ed will end up at the library (of all places–emphasis on the place).

    These subtle distinctions are told to viewers watching television, but readers must bring brains to the process and interact with the words for the experience to be beneficial. And this explains why so many students do not enjoy reading AND why so many of these same students WOULD absolutely love it if they understood how essential their own involvement is and how creative one can be when reading.

    The emphasis on the TV as a tool for writing is very much misplaced because our own view of character and plot dynamics, which are influenced by who we are and where we have been, are USUALLY not viewed in the same way by a large percentage of the population. This is why a reader like Aaron can read the scene in TWISTED in which Tyler smells his father on the gun and wonder whether or not his father, too, has contemplated suicide (something that Laurie has in this book subconsciously as opposed to deliberately–you can check her comments on my website http://www.spicyreads.org–follow the “Twisted” link on the welcome page and give the movie time to load– to verify my claim or Laurie can affirm this below in the comments).

    The writer often relies on his or her own interpretation of a scene without being aware that there are MANY possible interpretations. The TV only shows one interpretation; a story could have several with the exact same script. When I ask you to picture a object, you see all kinds and colors and sizes (you, in the spirit of things, used collectively). When you see that same object on the screen, some of the mystery of the word is lost, assuming the writing is careful and precise. The size is told. The color is told.

    One of my all time favorite book passages comes from THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison. On about page 39 of the Viking paperback edition is the description of the couch in Pecola’s house. I love this passage because the couch is described by ALL of the things that do NOT happen on it. A writer who uses a TV to learn the craft of writing may not even be aware of all the things his or her writing is missing!

    Ed Spicer, feeling especially chatty tonight and not quite so shy

  18. I agree with you that watching tv and reading a book are two very different experiences. And one thing that you can apply this to is how you always hear people say the book is better than the movie. It’s because novels can be so much more descriptive, you can include little back stories and background information that would be considered unnecessary in the film.

    Speak could be used to teach students about overcoming fears/hardships that have hindered them in the past or present. It can also be used as a major example of a metaphor, with the tree. And I think it can definitely be used to show how a character can completely change if they only overcome whatever is haunting or bothering them, and things can get better.

    BTW, thank you for the advice on the Mac, I’ll check it out :).

  19. Wanna learn about story structure (Plot A, Plot B, Plot C, character arcs intersecting, etc.)? Read a book with said elements.

    I always end up feeling kind of dazed (and less likely to do anything else) after I’ve watched too much TV. Books never make me feel that way.

  20. When I was a teacher, I assigned National TV Turnoff Week activities for homework every year. My students were always so fascinated when they found out that I’ve never owned a TV. From 1991 (when I left for college) until now, no TV. And I’ve only had Internet and email for the past two years (I know that borders on ridiculous). I read a lot, I write a lot, and I am never bored.

    But! Now that I have my iBook, I watch DVDs. And I obsess over my favorite shows again, just like I did as a teen. It’s all about time. Time is a wild thing. As long as I’m getting my work done, then there’s always time for fun.

    I’m minimalist all the way. Why? Because I love being an author. And I know that if I had a TV, I wouldn’t be writing my third book right now. Moderation and I have always had a complicated relationship.

  21. TV could help with character development, but an even better inspiration is right here in real life. So often you can find the most interesting ideas right under your nose, but only if you remove yourself from the flow of everyday life for a couple of minutes and analyze it as an outsider. Sometimes I’ve got these “out-of-body experiences” several times a day. I’m kind of scared of it sometimes, but then I get this feeling like I’m God.

    Note: this doesn’t work if you’re watching TV or talking to somebody.

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