Want to Write Better Books? Stop Watching Television
When it comes to storytelling, most of us grow up immersed in visual language. Television and movies and Youtube series can be extremely potent, and tell inspiring stories — but when it comes to translating that storytelling method to the page, they can be a writer’s worst enemy.
I can always tell when people have been watching more TV than reading books because there’s a similar pattern of errors. Drawing from my own screw-ups and experiences and combining them with things I’ve learned from reading hundreds of books, I’ve compiled a useful list intended for newer writers with an eye on publishing.
At the risk of bowing to clickbait with my title, I’d like to make a case for aspiring writers to scale back their television-watching time and spend that on short and long-form fiction. Even fanfiction inspired by TV can help exercise that writing muscle more than watching stories alone, and I’ve made the reasons why into an easy-to-read list.
1) TV writing is often bad and illogical
There’s no good way to put this — the behaviour of characters on Lifetime made-for-TV movies, criminal dramas, and night-time dramas or medical shows is often exaggerated and vastly distant from reality. The best TV shows and movies do have good writing — but let’s be honest; we don’t always watch the best of the best. That’s not a bad thing, but when it comes to writing, ‘you are what you eat’ is very much an applicable idiom.
It’s hard to write emotionally authentic decisions and ethical debates when paranormal teenagers are fighting in the most dramatic ways possible. Because of the narrative constraints of episodic storytelling, which is the norm for continuing TV shows, antagonists are often thinly written and illogical, and characters who conflict with the main cast tend to be cruel, rude, or selfish in ways that an actual human person would not dare to be when confronted or opposed. Villains and antagonists are an important part of every story, and they’re usually the biggest letdown, because their actions are often dictated by whatever inflicts the most suffering on main characters. Shows have to compress as much interest in the problem-of-the-week as possible, while still adhering to the (usually more complex) long-term plot.
The thing is, these are really bad habits for writers to pick up. It’s taken me a lot of work to unlearn the villain-of-convenience habit. Antagonists and villains need to have strong motivations — even stronger than the protagonist(s)’, at times. Otherwise, their actions make no sense on a fundamental level, and the narrative thread of the story will completely unravel. This is not to say that antagonists and villains have to be “evil” per se — in fact, evil is usually a matter of perspective. However, stories are driven by what people want and the people who want things. If they don’t have a thing they want that remains somewhat consistent, or has a reason for changing, the story will sputter and its engine will stop turning over.
2) Visual storytelling and literary storytelling are different mediums
This sounds obvious, but hear me out. In working on a recent project, I saw a scene wherein a character went up the stairs after a party, took off her jewelry, texted her friend — and suddenly, her abusive alcoholic father appeared in her room and started threatening her. The scene was clearly patterned after the classic “jump scare” style.
The problem is that jump scares don’t work in written fiction. In order to mimic the effect created by a jump scare, we have to break down the scene and the rising tension created by it. A camera panning around and showing the scene, the slow shot of a character walking up the stairs, and the subtle tension created by having a character do ordinary things without realising that they are in danger may not be conveyed by simply saying that character walks up the stairs, takes off their jewelry, and prepares to use the bathroom. Those words don’t express the information conveyed by the same camera shots and edits, or by the creeping shriek of violins or synth music in a score. Words can express that tension — but not if writers take what they see on TV (or computer) screens at face value.
Mimicry is not enough. We have to understand why things happen and why we are shown or given certain pieces of information, and why things are portrayed in certain ways. We must learn to see the framing devices used in fiction of all kinds, not accept them as the way the world works.
3) Hide things from the reader
As the audience, we may not realise that storytelling techniques are being used to convey a story, because we’re busy reacting to it. That’s okay! It’s good to watch or read something and just experience the emotions intended, and enjoy the ride of the story. However, if a book has a deep impact on you, and you admire it, it’s worth reading the book at least one more time to try and see the places where it was most effective.
For example, in a tense scene, a character might scan a room, looking for a weapon, and the author or narrator may describe the contents of said room.
In a dingy hotel, a bed covered in rumpled sheets, the bolted-down lamps and furniture and a clunky television may not offer much. As the character looks around, they might notice there are some glasses on the bureau or in the bathroom, and pick those up, hoping to throw them at the assailant pounding on their door.
In this vignette, the words ‘pounding’, ‘dingy’, and ‘rumpled’ offer the most descriptive power. However, we don’t know what the antagonist on the other side of the door looks like, what kind of weapons they have, if any, or even what their name is. While there might be a little more context in a book, the very limited scope of this one scene shows that using immediacy and restricting the view and information available to the reader can create more tension.
I often see this problem in longer-form works as well — and I’ve certainly made the mistake myself: the error of trying to cram in too much exposition in the first few chapters. It’s hard not to worry that an audience will get lost or miss something, but audiences just don’t need as much information to enjoy a story as authors do to write it.
4) All books are not created equal
Some books are designed to convey a story as efficiently as possible, often to meet the reader’s emotional needs — this is the case for most commercial fiction. Some books are intended to please the reader’s intellect or evoke more complex emotions, and often take their time in the storytelling or break rules — this is often the case for literary fiction. Upmarket fiction combines both of these needs. That’s not to say that commercial fiction can’t have moments of beauty, or that literary fiction can’t be fun to read, but it’s important to know that these two broad types of fiction have different goals — and that both have their advantages and disadvantages.
It’s important to know which markets your book is destined for, and to be honest about it with yourself. Do you write weird fiction that kind of straddles genres and has little philosophical narrative kicks? Do you secretly just want to write fun books about sex and guns? Do you like writing about kissing and emotional drama, but crave a good plot to complicate things? There are readers who want books like each of these, and looking for similar books to yours can help you figure out who will want to read it.
It’s vitally important not to confuse the people you want to impress with the people who will probably read your book. I’ve made this mistake. It’s hard not to want to change the world with a book, but you’re more likely to achieve that goal if you get the book into the hands of people who will like it in the first place — enthusiastic readers will share what they like, and word of mouth is still the oldest and strongest form of marketing.
5) If you’re working in a medium, engage with it
Having a good vocabulary is essential. This seems like a daunting task — how do we learn more words? Where do we even get the words? How do we know which words are better to use? However, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Reading non-fiction news articles in one’s Facebook feed can help; honestly, just snatching everything with written words in it and picking it up to read it, even warning signs in bathroom stalls or advertisements at bus stops, can make a difference.
Of course, books and short stories are an ideal place to start. Short stories and short story collections can be a great way to work more fiction into your diet. Ideally, it’s best to read a wide variety of books. Having favorite authors is fine, and having favorite genres is fine, but both a) reading widely within your genre and b) reading widely in general will help you try new things and expose you to different ideas and inspirations. Have you ever read a western? An old Harlequin bodice-ripper? A modern romance novel? Women’s fiction? A techno-thriller? African-American literary fiction? A gay coming-of-age tale? Grab something off the shelf with your eyes closed and start reading — you don’t even have to start from the beginning, if you really don’t want to, but try to give the strange new book a chance.
The more you read, the more comfortable your brain will become with the storytelling methods, conventions, and styles that authors use. It’s not about copying people or being ‘unoriginal’, although those are okay for practice techniques — it’s about fluency. Writing well is very difficult if you don’t read!
6) Emotions are important
Just putting in a description of a character’s actions doesn’t convey their mood, emotions, or what’s going on inside their heads. It can — but it’s essential to think about why a character is doing something, and which life experiences have contributed to the decision they’re undertaking in that moment. People never just do things — and stopping to consider why a character grabs a wire hanger to fight back, whether they’d cower or flee, and whether they’d be able to speak their thoughts honestly are all vital to communication.
In daily life, we may hesitate to speak or act frankly, and that’s not always a bad thing. There’s something to be said for honesty, but there’s also something to be said for respecting the feelings and desires or needs of others. For example, if Manpreet and Cynthia are friends, and Cynthia is wearing a new sweater she just finished knitting, Manpreet may want to tell her the sweater is ugly. But then Manpreet’s desire for validation of her opinion will conflict with Cynthia’s need for validation of her efforts. There’s nothing wrong with these conflicts, nor with learning when to hold one’s tongue or put something carefully, and expressing that characters are going through those steps is a great way to show conflict and emotion in a work of fiction.
7) Traditional literature may not be for you
Frankly, I think more authors should try different storytelling formats just to see if they find one that’s a better fit. Books tend to be the default for creative storytelling, but honestly, they’re just not for everyone because they don’t always skew to people’s internal storytelling style. Sometimes books just don’t play to people’s strengths. People who are dialogue-oriented may find that plays do the trick. People who like visuals that are continuous may want to try out writing screenplays of various kinds. Still others may want to try writing graphic novels, and either hiring illustrators or illustrating work themselves. The trick is to figure out how you think — in pictures? In moments? In words? — and find the medium that expresses your feelings and thoughts most adequately.
Telling a story is an act of communication, and to communicate well requires a lot of effort, practice, and study. New authors should consider this before rushing to publish their first work, because the enthusiasm and fire of the story experience inside an author’s head may be different from the experience of the reader from going through content on the page.
Ultimately, writing is hard. There’s a reason that career authors, amateurs, and aspiring writers often despair over it. And honestly, that’s okay. There’s a joy to the process of learning techniques, to finding the right word. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, because it’s easier to get appreciation from others if your work is careful and shows skill.
8) Writing a good book means creating a book to be read
This is always the hardest part of storytelling. Do we, as writers, craft stories we want to read and tell, or for our audience? Sometimes a weird cross-genre story works, and sometimes a story pulls from so many different genres and influences and goes in so many directions that it’s hard to see who will pick up on it. Many of us may dream of adulation or praise from masses of readers, but putting faces on those masses is the important part. It’s okay to want that — but wanting it alone is not enough to grant it, and merely creating something is not enough to deserve fame and praise.
It’s not about ‘that mediocre book that’s doing so well! I could write better!’ — it’s about writing better than yourself. It’s hard, during the honeymoon phase of completing a project, not to feel like it’s the apex of creative works in one’s native language. If I sound sarcastic, it’s because I know this euphoric high, and I know the unfortunate consequences of trusting it too blithely. Simply put, the problem is not even bad reviews — it’s crickets. Unless a book is waterproofed beyond the ‘good enough’ state, it may not be worth reading.
All creative works are risks, and to attain the prizes of money and positive attention, it’s worth making sure a book makes sense from an external perspective, and is a satisfying read. Of course, not every friend or person you know will be an ideal member of your reading audience, so finding anonymous or professional beta readers can be very helpful — even if just for the sake of seeing how a book comes across to someone who knows very little about it. You may find that your book is very appealing for a reason you totally did not anticipate.
Above all, writing the book isn’t about you.
9) Publishing is scary and hard
It’s about the audience, the characters, or the story itself. It’s okay to be overwhelmed from time to time. It’s not even that I’m trying to discourage people from putting their books out for mass consumption — it’s that I want to help people make sure the books they put out are as good as possible. There’s no such thing as a bad book, just an imperfect book; 99.99% of books that have issues can be saved with a good editor or editors, multiple sets of eyes, and a willingness to tweak and revise.
Drafting books is a process. It took me years to get over the idea that one draft was enough, and that I’d get every idea and nuance down in one go-through. That isn’t the case, and it rarely is for many authors! Eventually, realising that I just had to get down a skeleton, and that I could modify and elaborate on things when I had the patience for them, was tremendously freeing. Not only have I stopped hating revisions, I look forward to them. When you know in your bones that the scene and the story feels right, few experiences compare to that.
Publishing, however, is a lot of work — getting used to learning about advertising, knowing where to find information about advertising, buying a cover, researching genres, writing a good blurb, finding people to hire for these various services — it can really add up to an ordeal. Still, doing all that work is a little easier and a lot more rewarding if you feel a rock-hard certainty about the quality of the book in the first place — and it can even make the other stuff easier, because you know what to draw from and what to look at.
10) If all else fails, Google is your friend
Just going for a Google safari or searching around on Amazon isn’t something most of us do anymore — our ‘wasted time’ on the internet usually involves going to a website we already know or frequent regularly, clicking through content, and scrolling through various newsfeeds. However, these habitual paths may not yield as much information when preparing to publish. Simply going to Amazon or Google as if you were looking for a new book and entering various keywords in the search bar — things associated with your book or genre, like ‘science’, ‘scientist’, ‘adventure’, ‘comet’, ‘asteroid’, ‘crash’, ‘aliens’, or other pertinent terms — can be surprisingly fruitful.
You can also look up books (or shows) you admire and see what people read after reading or watching them. The more books you have to compare to, the more readers will understand your book’s place in the market or library. Referencing shows and movies in a blurb is not ideal.
At the end of the day, I’m glad so many people take the leap into trying to write, and finishing projects, but actually trying to sell a book to readers isn’t the same thing as merely writing for the satisfaction of it. And writing privately for satisfaction is fine! It’s just that when a book hits either an editor’s desk or the market, it should be as ready for readers’ eyes as possible, and thoroughly vetted — even if it’s been self-published.
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people’s manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible. Catch up with Michelle’s news on the mailing list. Her books are available on Amazon, and she is also active on Medium, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and the original blog.
Originally published at scifimagpie.blogspot.com on February 10, 2018.