Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Role of TV

I have watched more TV in the past two months than I have in the past two years. As a judge for this year’s Edgar Award for best TV episode, it is my duty (or so I keep telling my wife) to watch hour after hour of fantastic TV shows.

I cannot help but recall the words of Norman Mailer, who said the only thing negative about TV’s affect on kids is the commercials. Mailer insisted that television shows, just like books, offer narratives that (when done artfully) force children to think and consider significant issues. Of course, he like all of us, wanted kids to read more, but his main problem with TV was that the narrative (and the viewer’s attention) was broken every 10 minutes, leading to kids who were not capable of focusing on anything (including books) for more than 10 minutes at a time. (I probably am living proof of his attention-deficit theory.)

I have found the dissection of TV episode after TV episode to be extremely insightful—from a fiction-writing standpoint. Author Les Standiford once told me he learned a great deal about writing fiction when he attended a screen-writing course. Similarly, seated on my couch (a tough job, but someone…) I have been forced to grasp the three-act form and to really consider the impact of each act on the viewer/reader.

Like any good student, I have brought this to my own writing. Struggling with a short story I began this summer and drifted away from to work on something else when the going to got tough, I returned to it with a new sense of plot and a renewed sense of clarity. After all, one of the things I love about the craft: you never stop learning—and you never know where the next lesson might appear.


Rick Blechta said...

You know, John, I think you've hit on something there. Could this attention deficit thing have been caused by commercials, or at least brought on by it? I wonder if there have been any studies on this.

In thinking back to radio days, there was a definite ending to each act in a radio play. An announcer would cut in, take us out of the play and often do the commercial himself. Then the listeners would be taken back into the play.

On TV, the show just seems to segue directly into a stream of often very short commercials, bam, bam, bam. I don't watch much TV so perhaps my perception is different, but on occasion, I didn't know immediately that I was watching a commercial. It seemed like another scene in the show for a few moments.

No wonder people are having trouble concentrating for long periods!

On an extension of this, I'm just surprised that publishers haven't cottoned on to the possibility of having "commercials" in their publications – especially with the rise of e-books.

Hannah Dennison said...

This is such a great post, John. I completely agree. I've been watching a lot of television too (as you know) and discovered I was able to really pay attention to the storylines and three-act structure. In the UK we have the BBC which has no commercials. BBC dramas seem to be regarded as superior and now I'm wondering if it's because we don't stop every five minutes for a commercial break.

Rick - your comment about "commercials" in e-books is very alarming. i can absolutely see that happening?

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Donis Casey said...

I have studied the structure of t.v. crime and mystery shows for a long time. whether it has helped my writing or not I don't know, but I do find it hard to watch a show without dissecting the plot and timing, now.