Analytical Couch Potato: Why Novelists Should Watch Television

Some people say that television rots your brain.  Some people say television is a mindless form of entertainment. Some people say television can rob you of your ambition and your creativity, especially if you’re a writer.

 

I am not some people.  I believe when used responsibly that television can be not only a source of instructive and engaging entertainment, but a source of inspiration as well.  Writers, should they choose to watch television shows with an analytical eye, should they be active rather than passive consumers of this medium, can actually learn some valuable lessons about writing, and, hopefully, use those lessons to improve their own work. Below is a list of television shows I watch (or watched), and what I learned.

  • The Wire (HBO).  This is an obvious choice because some of the best crime writers in America also wrote for this show. The list includes Dennis LeHane and George Pelecanos. But more important than the entertainment value of this, the best drama that has ever been on TV, is the show’s in-depth character development.  Take Omar, the scar-faced warrior who robs drug dealers.  What I learned from this particular character is that you can (and should) have a balanced mixture of stock qualities and unusual qualities in a so-called “bad guy.” Omar carries around a pump-action shotgun and talks like a thug, but he is also an unashamed homosexual and he accompanies his grandmother to church every Sunday.  Additionally, he has a strict moral code: “Come on now, when have you ever known me to out my gun on someone that’s not in the game?”
  • Luther (BBC).  On the surface, this show is just another police procedural, but if you analyze it from a structural standpoint, you can see how Luther is light years a part from Law & Order.  The show is not so much concerned with the detective work, but with the psychological motivations of both the detective John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and the criminal.  Within the first five or ten minutes of every episode, you already see the crime in question, and you know who did.  What matters is why the criminal committed the crime; what matters is why Luther is ruining his personal life to chase bad guys, and hint, it isn’t just because he wants to protect and serve.  Over the course of the episode, the point of view shifts from the detective to the criminal, and with each shift, you start to get at the why and not so much the how.  Any writer can benefit from watching this show, and taking note of how to build a character while building tension and drama.  The best novels, whether they be mystery or literary, science fiction or romance, contain well-rounded and interesting characters, not just cardboard cutouts that do things without reason or rhyme.
  • The West Wing (NBC).  This show is worth watching simply because of the dialogue.  Sorkin, the inventor of “the walk and talk,” is a master of creating rhythm and tension through dialogue.  Now mind you, it doesn’t always sound realistic, but it always creates a mood, a musicality that can hypnotize the viewer.  Good novelists also have a good ear for dialogue, and use it to ensnare the reader, pull him or her further into the story. omar_thewire

White Heat by Paul D. Marks

In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress.  A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer.  Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series.  No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.

White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why.  There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story.  Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books).  Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me.  Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots.  Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.

Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.

P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.

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http://pauldmarks.com/index.html

http://www.amazon.com/White-Heat-P-I-Duke-Rogers-ebook/dp/B007SIR8QG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386340106&sr=8-1&keywords=white+heat+paul+marks