DAYTIME TV: A VALUABLE ADDITION TO YOUR WRITER’S TOOLBOX
by Hank Quense
© 2008 by Hank Quense
Fiction writers need all the tools they can find, but over time, these tools can become dull and rusty. When this happens to me, I turn to daytime TV. These programs are bashed by critics and viewers, but I have a different spin on these show; I find them, especially the soaps, to be very educational. I write Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction and an exposure to the these programs improves and sharpens my writing skills. How? By providing vivid demonstrations of what happens when a writer ignores the accepted dictums of the craft. The soaps have a wealth of writing violations that can be exploited by experienced and beginning writers as a whetstone to sharpen their crafting tools.
I have no intention of disparaging the script writers for these soaps. I can’t produce a new script or story every day the way they can and I have nothing but respect for their ability to do this. However, the necessity of getting a show on the air means they can revise their scripts only for a short period of time. I, on the other hand, can revise my stories as often as I want, over long periods of time. My early drafts are sprinkled with faults such as I discuss here, but I have the time to weed them out before I submit them to an editor. This is an advantage I have over the script writers.
Using the soaps to fine-tune one’s writing skills requires a special technique. You have to listen to the TV, not watch it. By only listening, the writer will approximate the experience of a reader perusing a book. In other words, you will be using only a single sensory input, but it will be audible instead of visual. The danger in watching the screen is that is you will encounter a variety of sensations, including the spoken word, music, sound effects and colors in the costumes and settings. These multiple inputs will prevent you from getting the point of the illustration.
I have arranged my findings in three groups: Characterization Issues, Storytelling Issues and Story Issues.
Character Reactions: Memorable characters display a range of emotions just like people do in real life. The more emotions a character can display, the more life-like the character seems. In the soaps, two primary emotions are used by the characters: hostility and hysteria. A friendly greeting by one character is often met with a torrent of abuse from a second. It’s a rare occasion when a character’s dialog isn’t filled with argumentation, whining or out-right threats. Listening to this dialog becomes irritating and demonstrates what a reader will experience if we writers use limited and repetitious character reactions.
Multi-dimensional Characters: These types of characters are inherently more interesting to readers than flat, one-dimensional characters. These latter types quickly grow stale and detract from other elements in the story. The soaps, however, specialize in single-dimension characters that never display any variations. Day after day, scene after scene, the characters remain as unchanging as the mountains. The same dialog, sentiments and verbal mannerisms are endlessly repeated. Of course, on TV, the characterization may be rigid but the costumes change, as does is the setting and the background music so the repetition doesn’t appear as static to the viewer as it does to a listener.
High Tension and Drama: Whenever the script calls for a strong emotion such as grief, terror, consternation, fear, love, dread, shock or apathy, the actors whisper their lines. Apparently, this is a code to tip off the viewer that a scene of high tension or deep emotion is taking place. This ploy is especially useful to fiction writers because it demonstrates the effect of uniform emotional responses by the entire cast. It’s not very entertaining and neither will be a story that uses this unvarying approach.
Unnatural dialog: Nothing is more boring to me as a reader then stilted and unnatural dialog. Many novice writers have trouble understanding just what constitutes this type of dialog but the soaps provide countless examples. Characters lecture each other about an aspect of the plot that the entire cast already knows (as do the viewers). Known as expository dialog, it is to be avoided at all costs since the reader will instantly recognize it for what it is. Another facet of the soaps is that characters routinely give long-winded speeches punctuated with words that no one uses in ordinary conversations. Often, the dialog clashes with the character’s persona. For instance, a character portraying a poorly educated worker will suddenly spout large, obscure words that make a listener wonder if the character understands what he just said.