Wednesday, June 15, 2011

DAYTIME TV: A VALUABLE ADDITION TO YOUR WRITER’S TOOLBOX

© 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.

CHARACTERIZATION 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.

STORYTELLING ISSUES

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.

Foreign accents: Writing instructors caution against giving a character a foreign accent. One reason is that it is difficult to be consistent with the accent from one scene to the next. A more important reason is that the accent soon becomes irksome to the reader. The soaps offer endless proof of this guideline. Many of the shows have one or more characters spouting dialog with an accent so wretched it is amusing. For a short while. An alternative to these accents is to let the character use an occasional foreign word in the dialog. The foreign word reminds the reader of the character’s background.

Clichés: Clichés are the bane of writers everywhere. Nevertheless, the dialog in the soaps drips with clichés. Every imaginable cliché can be heard on these shows, and not occasionally but constantly. To listen to this smorgasbord of platitudes is to understand the prohibition against using them.


STORY ISSUES

Plots: A good story has a plot that integrates the elements of the story and allows the reader to suspend her disbelief. In other words, the reader is willing to accept that the plot didn’t happen but could have. To ensure that the reader stays comfortable in her state of suspended disbelief, the writer must eliminate any trace of unbelievable events. These types of events will lurch the reader out of suspended disbelief and end the relationship between her and the author. Yet, the events in the soaps are incredible. A woman falls out of an airborne balloon damaging her hairdo and nothing else. A long-lost object, the subject of a weeks-long futile search, is found by a character with a single phone call to an obscure part of the globe. To a TV-watcher, these incredible events do not stand out because the incidents are masked by the other presentation elements. By listening only, the plot flaws become apparent as does the danger in writing a story with an incredible plot.

Endless scenes: Good writing means a scene ends at a point that teases the reader into turning the page to see what happens next. The soaps, however, won’t give up a good scene without a fierce battle even if the scene has reached its logical conclusion. The same plea/order/advise/command/request/chastisement is repeated for several days. In one soap, a female character held several others hostage and waved a gun at them for an entire week. Every afternoon, she gave the same reasons for her actions in virtually the same words. It’s a wonder her hand didn’t get tired from holding the pistol that long.

To offset the soaps, the writer can listen (no peeking!) to Law and Order or one of its many offshoots.Like the soaps, these shows rarely have action scenes and are essentially all dialog. Unlike the soaps, the characters show a range of emotions, speak naturally and don’t use clichés. The plots are coherent and the tension builds during the show. Contrasting one of these shows with the soaps can only serve to improve the writer’s craft.

So, with all these faults, why are the soaps so popular? One basic reason is that the soaps consist of a lot more than the written word. The beautiful people in the cast, the designer clothes and the background music provide enough stimuli to hid a weakness in a single area such as the dialog or plot.

In contrast, we fiction writers can only use our words to convince a reader that our characters are worth caring about. We can’t use colorful or picturesque backdrops for the reader to see; we use no soundtrack and the characters can’t model the latest fashion designs. The reader has to use our words to build her own mental images of the setting and the characters.

While the soaps and novels have very different presentation formats, the script elements of the soaps offer a method for fiction writers to refurbish their writing tools. I recommend a yearly exposure to a few soaps to eliminate rust and to apply a coating of lubricant to keep the writing tools in good condition.


Award-winning author Hank Quense lives in Bergenfield, NJ with his wife Pat. They have two daughters and five grandchildren. He writes humorous fantasy and scifi stories. On occasion, he also writes an article on fiction writing or book marketing but says that writing nonfiction is like work while writing fiction is fun. He refuses to write serious genre fiction saying there is enough of that on the front page of anyDwarf2daily newspaper and on the evening TV news.

Zaftan Entrepreneurs is his latest work. In it, an alien mining ship discovers a planet that holds promise to be a mining bonanza. Unfortunately, it is inhabited by humans, dwarfs, elves and other races and they object to the mining expeditions.

Hank’s previous works include Tales From Gundarland, a collection of fantasy stories. Readers Favorite awarded the book a medal and EPIC designated a finalist in its 2011 competition. His Fool’s Gold is a retelling of the ancient Rhinegold myth and Tunnel Vision is a collection of twenty previously published short stories. Build a Better Story is a book of advice for fiction writers.

Altogether, Hank has over forty published short stories and a number of non-fiction articles.

He is presently working on novel (or a novella) that combines plots and characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello with the character Falstaff thrown in for good measure. He is also working on a follow-up novel to Zaftan Entrepreneurs called Zaftan Miscreants.

He has a number of links where you can follow his work and his occasional rants:

Hank’s website: http://hanquense.com
Follow him on twitter: http://twitter.com/hanque99

Facebook fan pages: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hank-Quenses-Fiction-Writing-Page/102293491907?v=wall

While I'm hosting Hank today, he's hosting me. You can visit me on his blog at http://hankquense.com/blog/?p=1649

29 comments :

  1. Great post. Lots of wonderful advice. Thanks for sharing. Will be keeping some of these notes close to my work table.
    C.K. Volnek

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  2. Awesome post. I can use this as an excuse to keep watching The Young and the Restless. Come on, it's research into character devlopment and plot! I swear!!

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  3. Hi Charlie. Thanks for stopping by. Hank has a wonderful sense of humour and I'm pleased he stopped by. Laughter is so good for the soul.

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  4. Hi Nancy. LOL. Yes, you watch those daytime shows, then pat yourself on the back for studying your craft so diligently. Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Great, Amanda! Love when that happens. Have a wonderful week.

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  6. Very interesting! And something I never, never would have thought of.
    Soaps. But it's true!
    Good points...thanks for sharing!

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  7. Thanks for stopping by. Carol. Hope your day is great.

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  8. Hi all. Thanks for your comments. I guess we cna sum this up by saying, Daytime TV ain;t all bad.

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  9. Point made, Hank. But I'm still not watching. LOL.

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  10. Interesting ideas to consider, although I still can't bear spending time with the TV tuned to daytime soaps, whether I'm watching or listening. :)

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  11. I know what you mean, Carol. I think Hank's tongue-in-cheek approach probably has merit, but I have to take his word for it.

    Hope you're suffering the game's results. We turned it after the 4th goal. Too bad, so sad.

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  12. See, I'm so upset I can't type. I meant I hope you're NOT suffering too much, Carol.

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  13. I liked this post, but think if I use this method of listening to the soaps, I'll whine too much myself! Good advice, though.
    Sheffe

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  14. I reason I got started on this article was because of my mother-in-law. She moved in with my wife and I and watched a few soaps everyday. Being hard of hearing, she had the TV volume almost maxed out so I heard the soaps no matter where I was in the house. One day I noticed one of the problems mentioned. Soon I noticed another goof. After the third one, I knew I was on to something and started listening (not watching!) more intently.
    This article was the result of that 'listening.'

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  15. Hi Shethra. I whine too; we must be related. LOL.

    Thanks for stopping by. Have a great day.

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  16. Hank, you done good to listen. Now none of us have to watch soaps because you did it for us. I know lots of writers who watch soaps, so here's hoping they read your post.

    A good chuckle is an essential part of everyday living. Thank you.

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  17. What a blast. Hank, you are so funny. I loved your last guest blog, so I knew I had to come back. I love soaps. I'm just starting out and I will watch my soaps with a new attitude. Thanks, you dear man.

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  18. Good for you for announcing proudly that you love soaps, Carla. I suspect a few viewers are too shy to admit it. And Hank's right, watching something on a production line is a definitely learning tool. Hope this works as well for you, Carla. Thanks for stopping by.

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  19. I, for one, don't watch soaps and never would. Except on occasion I will watch Days of Our Life, Young & the Restless, if I'm home sick and really really bored. I've seen General Hospital once or twice. But--I hate soaps! I want to be clear on that. Only i do want to be a good writer ... so I suppose I could watch one or two more. I suppose.

    Fabulous article, young man. You have raised several valid points. I could grudging wade through a few hours of soaps this month ... but only for the research aspect.

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  20. LOL. Thanks, Janet. I'll let Hank know how helpful his post was. Sorry it means you have to suffer through hours of daytime soaps, but kudos for you for doing so.

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  21. Joylene, I suffered through all the goals, as well as the post game madness televised from downtown Vancouver streets. The Canucks had such an awesome season and most of the playoff games were pretty good, too, despite the disappointing end. But the rioting...? That just blew me away.

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  22. Carol, I watched the news lastnight in shock and dismay. I'm dumbstuck as to how we can ever explain what happened. They say these weren't Canuck fans, but they are Vancouverites. They were brought up to know right and wrong. So...? I don't get it.

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  23. Hey Joylene,
    A very interesting and informative article. However, I have just had the great 'thrill' of subjecting myself to daytime television over there. And I had this incredible urge to hit 'Dr. Phil' with a wet trout...
    Anyhow, nice one Hank. Of course, I don't follow any rules and I shall forever be the writing and grammar anarchist.
    Sorry we never met up, Joylene. Perhaps next time when I'm over, eh :)
    And lets remember that the fans who embrace the true spirit of sport would never have been involved in such disgraceful scenes that went on in Vancouver. The better team won and well done to them. There's always next year.
    Take care. With respect, Gary :)

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  24. Thank you, Gary for putting that disgusting episode into perspective. It was disgraceful and ... well, I'm speechless. But I'm glad you had a great time and are now at home safe and sound. I missed you and Miss Penny.

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  25. Umm, 'young man' Janet? I think you have me confused with someone else. I haven't been accused of being a young man since the last century.

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  26. Thanks for being my guest, Hank. Come back again. It's always fun having you here.

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  27. Thanks for the invitation to come back. Maybe in the Fall. (with your permission)

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  28. The fall sounds like a great plan, Hank. Thanks for visiting. Come back sooner if you like.

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