Even after a long day over the keyboard, I still feel guilty for watching television, especially the slick, primetime shows. But my guilt is eased when I invite my Inner Editor (IE) to share the sofa. The more I’ve watched—and the longer I’ve written, with the IE ever lurking—the more I’ve become aware of recurring blunders in television shows.
Two of the most obtrusive errors involve too much concentration on certain aspects of the story. Any astute (and addicted) TV watcher can easily guess the inevitable plot outcomes from over-lingering attention and heavy-handed foreshadowing.
The lessons suggested below can show us what to avoid in our writing and how to improve.
1. TV Blunder #1: Over-lingering Attention
In an episode of the popular mystery series Murder, She Wrote (reruns are rampant), the attractive young woman enters her hotel room. The camera pans in on a folded envelope on the coffee table. The envelope then takes up the entire screen. As the woman leaves the room, the camera follows her but stops again at the coffee table, honing in on the envelope. When the maid comes in to clean the room, in dusting the table she sweeps the envelope to the floor. The camera follows the flutter and hovers over the envelope.
Why didn’t that envelope get star billing?
We’ve more than gotten the idea. Sure enough, that envelope will figure materially in the killer’s unconvincing alibi.
In your narrative, watch how long you linger.
If you absolutely need this envelope to further your story, tread lightly. Don’t describe it at length: “a crisp white envelope, addressed in flowing unmistakably feminine script, postmark barely showing, with the only indication it had taken the torturous route through the cross-country mails a telltale wrinkle in the lower left corner.”
Instead, as your character crosses the room, she could brush against the envelope. It falls to the floor, and she absently puts it back on the coffee table. When she leaves, she glances around the room, her gaze only momentarily alighting on the envelope. You’ve introduced the crucial envelope but in a natural way, without undue or overlong attention.
TV Blunder #2: Heavy-Handed Foreshadowing
This flaw, like the previous one, risks early obviousness. Literary foreshadowing has a long and vibrant history. Masters do it masterfully—for example, Shakespeare in the opening of Hamlet, Shirley Jackson in “The Lottery,” Updike in “A&P.”
Back to TV. When the main character in a teen mystery movie suggests to his buddy that he ask the class fat girl for a date, the buddy exclaims, “Over my dead body!” Oh oh. You know he’ll get it in the locker room. And 14 minutes later, he does.
In an episode of The Closer, a police drama, the white-haired senior squad member, Lt. Provenza, arrives late to the crime scene, a suburban house. In a long explanation, he stammers that he went to the wrong address, mistaking 23rd Court for 23rd Place. His team members roll their eyes, telegraphing their assumption that age has caught up with him.
From this long scene, I knew instantly it wasn’t just comedy relief. At Provenza’s slip-up, I couldn’t help crowing, to my husband’s annoyance, “Watch! That will be important later!”
It was. The killer had made the same mistake in massacring the entire family—the hit man went to the wrong house.
After getting over the gruesomeness, how do you lighten the heavy hand?
Study the masters. Analyze openings. Scrutinize introductions of new dramatic situations. Nuance is most often the key, and accomplished writers don’t linger too much on the “hint.”
In our examples, the teen protagonist could preface his suggestion with a twist: “You may kill me for saying this, but…”
In The Closer, Provenza’s gaffe and explanation should have, and could have, taken half the camera time.
Embed a word, a phrase, or an oblique metaphor. Make your allusion integral to the action. Shakespeare does it in the first few lines with Hamlet‘s opening speech, the dank winter night, and a palace guard’s unexplainable uneasiness. Jackson does it in her second paragraph, with the children’s apparent innocent collecting of stones that will become the inescapable and ghastly vehicles of the lottery.
Updike does it in the very first line of “A&P” with two crucial words: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” (my italics). Updike has certainly piqued our interest with his provocative and graphic sentence. And he has implied, with enviable literary economy, that the bathing suits will figure mightily in the story. When we edit, re-edit, and ask ourselves how much is too much, we can often achieve a precision with language that outwits heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Write Just Enough
Studying television shows for too-obvious attention or overlong foreshadowing can help assuage our guilt at watching TV in the first place. Our attentiveness should hone our sensitivity to these overused techniques. We can then see our writing with greater alertness, recognize similar overdoses, and challenge ourselves to more creative subtlety on our own screens.
Have you noticed any blunders in TV Shows that could help improve your writing?
Choose a short scene from a work in progress or a recent practice where you may have lingered too long or been heavy handed with foreshadowing. Rewrite the scene and post it below with some notes about how you changed it.
And if you post, make sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.