Friday, March 2, 2012

What I've learned from television

by Vivian Zabel

     I watch many police, detective, and crime shows on television, often hoping to learn something I can use in my writing. Of course much of what I learn is what not to use, but all is part of learning.

     From CIS (all versions), NCIS, Law and Order, The Mentalist, Castle, and other various show, I've learned that most law enforcement people and criminologists are manipulative, lying, promiscuous, immoral, corrupt, and over-all dysfunctional. I wonder how any crimes can be solved when the people supposedly solving the crimes use their time to commit their own crimes or to try unwind their own twisted lives.

     Ahh, you ask for examples. In at least three shows (CSI Miami, NCIS, and NCIS LA), the protagonists take the law into their own hands and murder some bad guys, in other countries of course. They might have some twinges of trouble as results, but nothing drastic happens to them because of their actions.

     I'll admit NCIS is one of my favorite shows, but really. In real life, Tony would be up on charges of harassment and dismissed faster than I could spell harassment. He has become a caricature rather than a crime fighter. Enough is enough and really too much. If I had a protagonist in one of my novels like Tony, I would definitely not sell any copies. I'm a fan of Jethro Gibbs, usually, but, much as I would understand a character wanting to kill the murderer of my family, the writers really must be careful not to write when under the influence of whatever.

     From CSI Miami, I've learned to use appropriate body actions. People do not normally look off somewhere else when talking to a person, as the main character does on this show. As a result, I try to make the actions of my characters believable and appropriate.

     On all these shows, characters must play musical beds, apparently. What such behavior has to do with solving crimes, I have no idea. In this world of dissolving marriages, split families, people having trouble bonding with others, why do we need to see the lack of personal control extolled constantly on television? I could see an occasional incidence popping up, especially on the part of antagonists or red-herring characters, but according to television, all the protagonists, the heroes, are flawed to such a great extent that I don't know how they find the time or energy to do their jobs.

     No, characters shouldn't be "perfect," because no one is perfect, but few successful, productive people are so imperfect, so flawed, so unappetizing. Therefore, I've learned from television shows to work extra hard to make my characters believable.

     The same idea applies to plots: Plots should be believable enough that a reader can suspend belief enough to accept them. Television plots often are so unbelievable that anyone of a sound mind can't stretch his imagination that far.

      Yes, I have learned much from TV shows. Mainly I've learned what to avoid, but I still enjoy, for the most part, the shows and do pick up some helpful ideas.

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  1. I don't disagree with your assessments, but here's the rub: the writers of those shows have jobs ... their approach evidently works.

  2. Really? Writers are always being replaced. Shows face termination all the time. Some of these I've used as examples are on the chopping block right now. Of course the audiences are often accepting of anything, whether it's good or not. That still doesn't excuse bad writing, just because some writers can get away with poor writing for a while.

  3. I agree about it being helpful to learning what NOT to use in your stories. Having been married to a peace officer who did over 20 years service, I know for a fact that things are not like they are on TV. There's ALWAYS another side to the story, and the media is extremely guilty of only showing one side. It doesn't matter what media it is. There's always another side. But you're right about it being a good place to learn from and get ideas.

  4. We can learn quite a bit from bad writing. Anything that helps us improve is not wasted effort. I have forced myself to read books, at least part of them, that are really bad, bad, bad. I've learned what not to do, thereby improving my own writing.

  5. LOL, Vivian, you've explained why I love watching home improvement shows and reruns of Mary Tyler Moore. And on the "what not to do," front, my youngest says he learned to cook by watching me and doing the opposite {shakes head.}

  6. How funny, but whatever works, right? *grin*

  7. I love those same shows, too, Viv. But I know they are far from reality ... lol.

  8. I have been know to stop watching for a week or two when the show gets too far out. I definitely do learn much from them to help my writing. Knowing what not to do is as much a part of learning as knowing what to do.

  9. NCIS and Jethro are my favorites, after Wheel of Fortune. My hubby, a retired firefighter, is always wondering where the smoke is in a burning building. We know it's just make believe, but a nice escape sometimes.

  10. Vivian, I think we pick up a lot from the crime shows and I've that resonate in those who write romantic suspense. One of my writing friends, Melanie Atkins attended a week long Writer's Retreat for Police procedures and it really gave a good idea of what's realistic.

    As for me, I'm a drama queen. I got it from soap operas.
    Great post. Gets the juices flowing.

  11. Vivian, I watch Castle and Bones, and The Closer. I agree that they're often not realistic. But they are good entertainment!

    TV and movies, in some cases, are a great way to pick up on subtle, and not so subtle, actions of characters.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing