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Monday, February 20, 2012

Can TV and Movies Help Your Writing?

Have you been following the brilliant BBC/PBS series Downton Abby? Those of you who don't know – and where have you been? –DA is about an aristocratic British family during the World War I era with an amazing ensemble cast. It has completely hooked me and millions of others. How can a story that takes place almost 100 years ago, about some rather stuffy people in ordinary situations, and okay, some are not so ordinary, sucker me in so completely? Last week I was yelling indignantly at Earl Robert Crawley. Yes, speaking out loud to the TV. Telling him (warning spoiler alert) to get his hands off the maid. Really? What the bloody hell did he think he was doing?
How are the writers of this show making it new and fresh to keep me interested?
Saturday Night Live depicts Downton Abby as a story about rich people living in either a church or a museum that don’t have Wi-Fi. The family has three daughters their names are: hot, way hot, and the other one. There's an old lady who looks like a chicken and you don't want to piss her off. There's also a bunch of tuxedo people who live in the basement and take care of the place.
Why am I watching each week? am I waiting for them to get Wi-Fi? Waiting to see just how messed up the love lives of the three sisters can get? Who will chicken lady go after next? Will the tuxedo people revolt and take over the museum? Whatever it is I'm waiting for I will be sitting in front of the TV at the appropriate time and watching the last episode. Then I'm going to watch all the episodes together on the Internet and take notes. Yes, take notes on foreshadowing, conflict, tension building, romance, ending hooks, and scene setting. It's all there and brilliantly done.
I began thinking about what other successful series and/or movies do to keep me coming back for more.
The Sopranos. Every time I thought things could not get worse- they did. Each time Tony did some rotten lowdown thing and you just wanted to see the authorities handcuff him and throw him into a jail cell he'd act human.
Same thing on Boardwalk Empire. Mr. Thompson can be a dirty bat rastard making you want the same thing for him that you wanted for Tony Soprano. Then he goes and does something nice. Dang. There is so much conniving on that show I don't know why it surprised me when somebody pulled out a gun or knife. The next thing you know there is blood everywhere and a hole is being dug to bury the body. Then you can’t miss next week cause you have to see what the consequences are.
Showtime's Dexter is a serial killer. Yawn, another serial killer you say. The catch is he only kills bad guys. People who are known to be guilty but have escaped the law. Here’s another just to make it interesting twist. He works for Miami-Dade Police Department and his sister is a detective. He comes close to getting caught and you have to watch nest week to see if he gets out of it or if he gets handcuffed and taken away.
Then there's Homeland. The lines are so blurred between who the bad and the good guys are I gave up trying to figure it out. I just watch and let it unfold in front of me. Well, that isn't exactly true. A friend and I have watched all the episodes twice and taken notes looking for clues. I got a headache.
What about taking historical events and adding a twist like Forrest Gump? Did any of you catch the HBO series Rome? It was the Forrest Gump story of the ancient world. The writers took stories that we already knew and inserted two men into them. These two guys interacted with everybody from Cleopatra to Caesar to Mark Anthony. Zowie! I loved it.
Then we have Titanic. Hey, everybody knows how that story came out. The ship sunk thousands of people died. Yet, we were all captivated by a beautiful love story and the many, many levels of conflict. And while I'm on James Cameron movies, what about Avatar? Break that down to greed and bigotry. It's a story that has been repeated around our globe many times. A more technologically advanced group moves in on an indigenous people to take resources from them. But Cameron took it and put it on another planet with blue people. Of course you could argue that War of the Worlds and Transformers is basically the same thing.
Anyhow, does anyone else deconstruct movies like this to help with their own writing? If so what movies have helped you?


Shelley Munro said...

I really like Downton Abbey. We must be ahead of you since I've seen both series plus the Christmas special. The characters are so vibrant and alive. I don't tend to deconstruct in the way you mention, but I do take note of foreshadowing and characters.

Homeland has just started down here. I watched it tonight and found it a bit confusing, although I did miss the first one.

Rita said...

The final episode of Downton Abbey was on last night. I’ve already decided I will get the season 3 dvd as soon as it’s available and have a party to watch the whole thing. It airs in the UK first in early fall.
As for Homeland, you NEED to see the first show.

Cathy Perkins said...

I don't watch a lot of television, but I've taken several classes from screenwriters who are brilliant with structure. Breaking down movies has become a habit.

Since my current WIP revolves around the theme of betrayal, I'm watching dark films - Chinatown, The Firm, Mystic River - looking at how they isolate the protagonist. Brilliant.

JB Lynn said...

I think that good movies and tv shows are excellent examples of great pacing. Also, some tv series really do a fantastic job of showing a character's development over time.

Rita said...

Cathy I don’t watch a lot of TV either. Rarely anything with commercials. I HATE commercials. Your choices are brilliant indeed. Love Dennis Lehane. Have you seen Shutter Island?

Rita said...

Excellent point about pacing JB. An old Goldie Hawn movie, Deceived, has a great premise but there was always something that held it back for me. Saw it again last month and I figured it out –pacing. Way too many long pauses. When you should be on the edge of your seat you were going ‘come on already.’

Marcelle Dubé said...

Great post, Rita. I'm lousy at deconstructing *anything*. The only way I can see what the movie is doing, is if someone points it out to me! I'd never heard of Downton Abby, but now I'll look for it.

Anne Marie Becker said...

You've got me thinking today, Rita. ;)

I've taken closer looks at movie series like Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean because I love when they have a band of characters thrown together that have to get along to achieve some purpose.

My current TV addiction is Mad Men. Love that show. Even when the characters are making mistakes, I'm rooting for them. I'll have to take a closer look at their character development sometime.

Rita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rita said...

Marcelle here's the PBS link to Downton Abbey
In the videos section check out what the series creator Julian Fellowes says about how he came up with the characters.

Rita said...

Anna Marie I would think those movies would be most helpful to your writing style.
let me be clear I never twe ear a TV show, movie or book apart on the first go through. The successive times I work on figuring out everything. Do I learn anything? Dunno. Hope so and it’s fun.

Maureen A. Miller said...

Great post, Rita. TV has definitely influenced some of my writing. But the programs I draw from were on a long time ago and still locked inside my head. I would have loved to pen the character, Remington Steele. :)

Rita said...

Maureen I can see you as the Remington Steele kind of gal.

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