I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately, despite not actually owning a TV (my dorm room is so small I hardly have room for my dresser, desk, and bed). Thank goodness for the internet.
I was never a huge TV series person. We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, so the Saturday morning cartoon deal wasn’t much of a possibility until I was almost too old for them, and to be honest, I was a lot more excited about getting Animal Planet than I was about finally getting some good cartoons. Then I all but fell out of watching any TV at all at the beginning of high school.
But in the past couple of months, I’ve gotten into a few series, and I’ve decided that in order to make myself feel better about watching way too much of them, I’m going to call it research. And to further justify this, I’m going to write an article about it—because saying it (and publishing it for the world to see) makes it so, right? Right.
To be a little more serious, you really can learn a lot about storytelling from TV. But I’m going to focus on just one aspect today, and that’s story consequences.
There are two broad categories of TV shows in my mind: those that practically reset every episode, and those that carry a strong story arc. In the first kind, what happens in an episode stays in the episode. Godzilla comes and stampedes Walmart. Next episode, it’s all built up again. Flying monkeys of doom kidnap the mayor, but he’s always rescued by the end of the hour and no one ever mentions the incident again. In the second kind, the events of one episode impact, to some degree, all the ones after them. Actions aren’t self contained. The hero gets shot in episode one, and three seasons later, he’s still got the scar.
I probably shouldn’t be referring to these as categories so much as two ends of a spectrum, because most shows fall somewhere between the extremes. TV shows have that sort of leeway. Most of the time, however, this isn’t true for novels.
Now, there are the super long series, the ones that run for twenty or thirty books and hardly anything ever changes. But most series (and definitely most stand-alone books) don’t have this luxury. If something big happens in chapter two, readers are going to feel cheated if it’s forgotten about by chapter ten. If it’s big enough, it should have repercussions even in book two.
Repercussions and consequences give your story weight. Everything big that happens in your book ought to affect your characters in some way, not just at the moment, but for the rest of the book. I’m not saying that every tiny thing ought to plague your character forever, but really try to make sure you’re letting each event have the proper emotional and physical consequences.
This is an extreme example, but say you need your character to get badly beaten up or even tortured in one scene. If he’s dancing the tango a chapter later (and there wasn’t some major time jump), then we’ve got a problem. It might be my medical side peaking through, but I find myself rolling my eyes every time the hero of a TV show gets the crap beat out of him, hard enough to break ribs, but ends the episode without a single bruise. Or when something highly emotional happens (a death, for example), and the sadness lasts all of two minutes before it’s time to forget all about it.
Sometimes, I know I get so caught up in the plot side of things that I forget my characters aren’t automatons. Plot might dictate that they need to get from point A to point B after character C dies, and they have to do it quickly, but I have to remember to consider their emotional state. Are they going to want to be going somewhere? If not, how are they convinced? If they’re guilted into it or angered into it, what are the repercussions of that? Is this going to harm their relationship with character D? How badly? Does this mean that when character D asks the hero to do him a favor at the end of the book, the hero going to tell him to go stuff it? And is that going to end up in character D getting in some serious trouble with the local gang, resulting in the story’s climax, where the hero has to go save him?
Ok, so that got a little out of hand, but you sort of see what I mean? I’m a big believer in a story growing organically out of the choices made by the characters, which are affected by the events of the story, which, in turn, are oftentimes influenced by the choices made by the characters. This leads to a much richer story.
At the end of the day, TV shows are different from books, and what’s accepted on the screen sometimes isn’t accepted in print. But both, I think, benefit from making sure story events carry weight.
Well, how was that for an article? Good enough to justify watching more TV? 😛
Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She has recently signed with literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.