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What TV Can Teach You About Lazy Writing

This guest post is by author Noelle Sterne. Noelle is an author, editor, and writing coach. Her current column in Coffeehouse for Writers addresses writing problems, pains, and groans. In her book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), she helps readers let go of regrets, re-label their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at trustyourlifenow.com.

As a writers, you are sensitive to words. After all, they’re your currency. Even when you’re taking a break to watch TV, you may unconsciously be evaluating—with disdain or grudging admiration—the words you encounter. Developing sensitivity for lazy language can help you assuage any lingering guilt for taking breaks, especially with TV shows.

Lazy Writing

Don’t be lazy with your words. Photo by Scarleth White.

Admittedly a rationale for marathon TV watching, I discovered that television shows can teach valuable lessons in our writing, especially to spot those standard scripted sentences like “I want my lawyer,” “Crash cart, STAT,” and “We need to talk.” Once we recognize the penchant for too-easy language, we can learn from and avoid it in our writing.

Here I describe two types of lazy language and suggest lessons we can learn from them and remedies to apply in your own work.

Explicit, Ethan!

In an episode of “Raising the Bar,” a (belated) TV series about public defenders, a lawyer defends elderly twin brothers who have illegally cashed a deceased friend’s Social Security check. Instead of acknowledging the seriousness of their case and listening attentively, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.

One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, “Doc, just take my underwear.” The other brother shouts, “No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier.”

Lesson: He’s right. Specific is also, well, more specific. How can you sharpen your language?

Remedy: Say you’re writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You’ve supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced to rob a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, “Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door.”

Given Jeffrey’s poor circumstances in a freezing Chicago night and his motive for his choice of robbery, the story is enlivened and our sympathies deepened when we know what kind of jacket he pulled on. His personal situation contrasts radically with what he’s robbing: “Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door.” Or, better: “Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door.”

One Sentence Fits All

Today’s trendy colloquialisms show up in many television shows. A ubiquitous offender I’ve heard on almost every primetime show is a question with particularly annoying tortured syntax.

One example: In a series of TV movies adapted from Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mystery novels, a Los Angeles homicide cop fired for drinking becomes sheriff of a small New England town. With recurring regulars and often absorbing plots, at some point almost every character asks another that same question.

When Jesse reveals an arcane statistic about the population of a far-off small Western town, the homespun woman deputy asks, “You know that how?”

When Jesse confronts his rather cool sometime love (or lust) interest with a certain accusation, she asks, “You know that how?”

When Jesse’s cop-turned-shrink tells him about corrupt big-city cops, Jesse asks, in an inspired variation, “And you know this how?”

Whatever the burning curiosity, why does every character speak the same way?

Lesson: Vary your dialogue! Match the speech with your character! Resist the temptation of today’s hot verbal fashions.

Remedy: Your characters’ responses should reflect their natures, as in these possibilities.

Homespun woman deputy: “Wow, Jesse, how did you get to know that?”

Jesse’s lover: “Ha, big man. I can’t imagine how you knew that.”

Jesse to shrink: “You’re the former big-city cop. Who was your pipeline?”

If you’re stuck for a reply true to the idiom of a given character, let the character talk to you, as some authors and writing gurus counsel :

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell advises writing out a character “voice journal,” his favorite way, he says, of getting to know a character in its own words. “The voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode” (p. 116).

Invite your character to speak. You may need to let him or her go on a while, but you’ll know, in our example above, when you hear the right variation of that maddening question. As you prompt your character, you’ll notice the natural speech patterns. Your character will become less one-dimensional, your story will ring truer, and your reader’s interest will be sustained.

Lazy No More

Even when you feel lazy watching television, you can counter your guilt by learning from the imprecise, lazy language of others’ productions.

When you finally turn away from the TV screen and to your own, you’ll use what you learned.

You will tackle you work with greater attention to enhancing specifics and language that reflects the uniqueness of your characters.

What about you? What have you learned about writing from watching television?

PRACTICE

Choose a paragraph or a page from one of your works and for fifteen minutes comb it for either too many generalities or too similar dialogue, or both.

Then, revise!

When your time is up, share your practice in the comments section. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://twitter.com/madders_ahatter Helen Earl

    “What have you learned about writing from watching television?” Personally I’ve learned that you have to do some research. Don’t assume your viewers/readers are idiots or will accept everything you write at face value. I’ve been thrown right out of a good plot because something was OBVIOUSLY wrong even to a non-expert such as myself. You don’t need to explain Einstein’s theories in three volumes, but at least make it believable. Even if it is Sci-Fi, you need to explain HOW your situation is able to defy the laws of Physics as we know them, rather than cop out with ‘this is another planet, I can do what I like’ or something similar.

    • Noelle Sterne

      Helen–

      Great observations. I used to enjoy the TV show Num3ers for the very reasons you pinpoint. Never good at math (of course, words are my numbers), I found the explanations and accompanying illustrations at least comprehensible.

  • http://twitter.com/happywritersuk Caroline Mitchell

    Interesting piece. I would advise turning off the television altogether. Get out into the real world, write in a coffee shop or on the beach. As an avid people watcher, it works for me!

    • Noelle Sterne

      Caroline–

      Thank you. Point well taken. And plenty of “material” abounds from people watching–and listening.

    • Noelle Sterne

      R.W.–

      You make a good observation–to imitate, somewhat, dialogue between TV characters. I like your two protagonists’ banter. Keep watchin’ and writin’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/theauthorrwfoster R.w. Foster

    Cool article. I never thought about studying the writing in tv shows. However, I have noted the banter between Kensi & Deeks from NCIS: Los Angeles. I’ve utilized this to influence how a couple of my Characters inter act in one of my WIPs. Take a look:

    Elizabeth and Martin slowly moved through the suspect’s apartment. Dirty clothes and dishes were piled on everything. The skittering of tiny claws signaled a mouse running past Elizabeth. She shook her head. ‘How can anyone stand to live in this squalor? Especially when they don’t have to?’
    She pulled on a pair of latex gloves. Green this time. She glanced at her
    partner. Martin riffled through a stack of mail when a king cockroach ran over
    his hand. He gave a yell and shook his hand.

    “Oh! Disgusting!”

    “You went high-pitched,” Elizabeth said with a smirk.

    “So not funny,” he said, “Did you see the size of that thing? I swear, I’m gonna be dreamin’ about Creepshow, tonight.”

    “Creepshow?”

    “Really?” Martin said with a grin. “Nineteen eighty-two movie. Directed by the legendary auteur George A. Romero. Written by horror master Stephan King. You’ve never heard of it?”

    Elizabeth shook her head. “Nope.”

    Martin shook his head. “You need to get out more.”

    She cocked her left eyebrow. “Nineteen eighty-two was a long time ago.”

    He chuckled again. He tossed the mail back on the stand by the front door and
    moved further into the suspect’s den. Kicking apart a pile of dirty clothes at
    the end of the couch, and recoiling from the eruption of roaches from within,
    he called, “Do you really think we’ll find anything linking the costumed man’s
    victims in here?”

    Elizabeth walked into the bedroom, which was even worse than the rest of the apartment. In addition to the dirty clothes and dishes, food cartons littered the surfaces of nearly everything. Some of them had leftover – things – which were no longer recognizable. The room had a putrid stench about it. She carefully picked her way through the mess and threw open the curtains and window. She turned and the sight of a squirming mass of maggots on the bed made her gag. Just then, she heard Martin’s question.

    “I sure hope so, and it’s quick,” she called in a thick voice.

    Tearing her eyes from the mess on the bed, Elizabeth looked under it. ‘Odd.’
    The space under the bed was perfectly clean.

    Martin smirked, hearing the distress in his partner’s voice. ‘She sounds like she’s gonna hurl.’ He walked into a small room off the main one and spotted an old wooden sea chest. ‘That’s got to be over a hundred years old. I wonder if it’s unlocked.’
    He squatted before the large trunk and experimentally flicked the thumb
    catches. Both popped open with satisfying sniks.
    Slowly raising the lid, he was disappointed to find the chest appeared to be
    empty except for a wadded up bundle of red crushed velvet. ‘Well, that sucked.’ Pushing to his feet, Martin looked around the room. Unlike the rest of the apartment, this room was immaculate. No longer distracted by the chest, the scent of orange oil could be detected. He sniffed, and then tilted his head. ‘Where is that coming from?’ He looked around the room, only now noticing the gleaming white walls and sparkling woodwork. The hardwood floor was polished to a high sheen, showing his reflection. After the rest of the apartment, this room was like an oasis. “Hey Lizzy! Come check this out! You’re not gonna believe your eyes.”

    Back in the bedroom, Elizabeth spotted an old looking ring. She reached under the bed and pulled it closer to her. The tip of her green glove snagged on a jutting splinter of wood and tore. The splinter drove itself deep into her finger. Instinctively, she jerked her hand back. Unfortunately, this rammed the rogue piece of wood further in. She looked closely at the splinter, cussing under her breath. The sharp pain caused her heart to race and her breathing to shorten. The wood rose from the pad of her finger like an exclamation point. She lifted it out of her skin with a hiss of pain and further swearing. Her finger throbbed. She pulled the glove off and stuck her finger in her mouth. Just then, she heard her partner’s call, so she left the room.

    Elizabeth picked her way carefully through the trash, debris and clothes until she reached the doorway of the room where Martin stood. Just as she came to a halt outside the room, a king cockroach scurried under where her foot was coming down and died with a loud pop. Martin whirled with his gun drawn. She didn’t even see him move. One second his back was to her and he was relaxed, and the next second, he was facing her with his weapon in her face.

    “Be careful with that thing,” she said. “It’s not good to receive a rapid discharge
    in the face.”

    “Really?” he said. “A premature ejaculation joke?”

    She smirked. “What did you want me to see?”

    Martin holstered his gun and waved his hand at the room. She looked around. ‘This room is as spotless as under the bed. I wonder why?’ Elizabeth crossed over to a bookshelf beside the bed and scanned the titles. While she did so, her partner returned to the chest.

    He lifted out the pile of velvet and felt something oddly shaped within the material. He squatted and unwrapped the object. “Holy crap, Lizzy! This nut has
    a metal replica of Aladdin’s Lamp!”

    She turned. “No way.”

    Her partner gently tossed the lamp underhanded to her. Startled, she through her hands out, forgetting that she’d pulled her glove off her right hand. She
    fumbled at the lamp before gently cradling it in her arms. Elizabeth paused to
    throw a glare at him, before turning her attention to the lamp. It looked to be
    of a silvery bronze. ‘Odd. I’ve never seen a metal colored like this before.’ The lamp had an odd looking script running along the part where oil would be added. She turned the lamp, trying to figure out the writing.

    “Any idea what this writing is, Marty?”

    Marty shrugged. “Maybe, ‘Oi! Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck?’”

    She raised her eyebrow and looked over at him. “What?”

    “Genie of the Lamp? Aladdin? 1992 Disney movie?”

    Elizabeth laughed. “You watch Disney movies?”

    “I watch all kinds of movies. I’m not an Oscar snob.”

    As the two partners chatted, blood continued to ooze from Elizabeth’s finger. Some landed on the ring and was absorbed by it.

    “I guess I should put this in an evidence bag.”

    “You know you’re gonna catch hell from the captain for bleeding on it and touching it with your bare finger, right?”

    Elizabeth looked at him blankly. “What?”

    “Look at your pretty hands.”

  • JackieD

    I don’t think it matters what you’re observing, as long as you’re analysing and evaluating with your writers’ brain, you can make what you learn work for you. Take your lessons where you find them, I say.

  • Noelle Sterne

    JackieD–

    I’ve found the writer’s brain seems to be always working, whether we consciously want it to our not. Sometimes more conscious choices of observing help in specific current projects.

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