March Theme: Watching TV and Writing (Kristin Levine)

We are talking this month about taking a break from writing, so I thought I'd spend my post talking about what I like to do when I'm taking a break, namely, watch TV.
There is something sort of embarrassing about admitting I like to watch TV.  I'm a writer, right?  Isn't it required that I hate TV?  But the thing is, TV has changed a lot since I was a kid, and well, there is now a lot of good writing on TV.
When I was a kid, before DVDs and streaming, if you missed an episode of your favorite show, you were out of luck.  Most episodes had to be "stand alones," meaning you could start watching the show at any time and pretty much figure out what was going on.
No more.  With the event of TV shows being released on DVD, and now streaming, I've noticed shows becoming more complex, and dare-I-say, novel-like.  Writers and producers talk about "season arcs," in much the same way I might talk about a novel, as if each episode were an individual chapter of a greater story.
So I guess you could say, I view my TV watching as research into the art and craft of writing.  I don't just randomly turn on the TV.  I pick a show that I've heard good things about, preferably one that has a large number of episodes available on Netflix. Here are a few of the things I like to focus on:

For me, when a TV show works, it's usually because of the characters.  That's the fun, right?  Tuning in each week (or each night if you're studying a program) to see how and why the characters grow and change.  Are you looking to introduce a large number of characters quickly?  Watch the first few episodes of Firefly.  Want to learn how minor characters can become major ones?  Study the evolution of Spike or Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  


Listening to a commentary track can be a huge advantage to a writer.  You have a storyteller, sitting down to tell you all the ins and outs of a story, what worked and what didn't.  Sure, a TV show is different than a book, but a story is a story, and listening to other storytellers talk about their process is often interesting and enlightening.

I find that TV commentaries done by the writer and/or director are usually the most useful to a book writer.  More and more shows, like the new Battlestar Galactica, offer a podcast or commentary for every episode.  Sometimes, the commentary for a bad episode can be extremely helpful, especially if the writer/director talks honestly about what went wrong. 


As middle-grade writers, we spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer screens, imagining people having conversations in our heads.  But how much time do we spend thinking about the visuals of a scene?

I'll give you an example from my own book, The Lions of Little Rock.  It originally started with the main character, Marlee, lying in bed listening to the lions roar.  Truthfully, I knew it wasn't quite right. But I couldn't figure out what was wrong, until I asked myself, how would a director film this scene?

That's when I realized a director would hate this opening - because a character lying in bed thinking is not visually interesting at all!  So I started imagining what would be visually interesting to film, which is why the book now starts with Marlee standing on top of a high dive at the swimming pool on a beautiful summer day.

Finally, if I'm not convincing enough, consider Neil Gaiman.  He might have won the Newbery for The Graveyard Book, but he's also written for the new Doctor Who.  So me?  I'm off to watch another episode.


  1. Kristin, thank you for this reminder to think visually. Just what I needed today! xo

  2. I agree about the visual thinking reminder...and about how important it is to keep up with contemporary stories on TV. My latest fave is the completely in-MG-appropriate THE AMERICANS...


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