4 Storytelling Techniques Stolen From TV

by Guest Blogger | 19 comments

This guest post is by Bessie Blue. Bessie is a freelance writer and French translator. She waxes nostalgic about classic children’s books and gives writing advice on her award winning blog, Vintage Book Life. You can also follow her on Twitter (@vintagebooklife).

Good writers don't care about word count. Haven't you heard? If you're any good at storytelling, you should write from the heart and your story will just happen.

4 Storytelling Techniques Stolen from TV

I guess I'm not a good writer because the first thing I do when planning a novel is to calculate its word count. Maybe it's my degree and short career in the field of TV and film that has made me care so much about finding just the right length.

The Best Storytelling Technique from TV: Structure Rules

I've discovered that no matter what so-called good writers say, if you want to write a good and commercial novel, there's nothing more important than structure.

Here are four more crucial storytelling techniques I've learned from the fast and formulaic world of television.

1. Word Count and Pacing

Whenever so-called good writers say they don't care about word count, I roll my eyes. How can you not pay attention to length while maintaining pace?

By keeping track of word count, it's much easier to figure out which scenes to shorten and which ones to develop. There are two main reasons you should shorten scenes:

  • As a way to create tension when scenes lead up to the climax.
  • When scenes aren't related to the main plot and bog down the rising action.

If you're struggling with a flat story, study up on the three-act structure often used in film. This formula also relies on keeping track of your word count and general length.

2. The Three-Act Structure (A Quick Breakdown)

  • Act 1 (the first one-sixth of the story): Subtle exposition is woven through the first few chapters; an inciting accident or catalyst propels the plot forward.
  • Act 2 (the next two-thirds of the story): Rising action, and mounting tension, lead to an eventual climax. Pitch points regularly remind us of the main conflict.
  • Act 3 (the last one-third of the story): Tension reaches a high in the climax; loose threads are wrapped up in the resolution.

3. Choose Your Scenes Wisely

“Cut scenes that aren't important to your plot.”

Does that advice sound familiar? Personally, I hear it a lot and I'm not a fan. Writers take it to heart and end up with books that have more twists in them than a Twizzler. After all, how can the hundreds of scenes that make up a novel each be important to the plot?

In reality, scenes have to be important to your story, not to your plot.

Most television shows alternate between scenes that feature important plot points, subplot points, exposition, and simple world building. All four of these are crucial to your story, even though world building in itself doesn't move the plot along.

There is a surprising variety of scenes in even the most action-driven TV show. For instance, in Guillermo del Toro's show The Strain, vampire threats alternate with family drama. But we never lose sight of the real plot.

Take a clue from this successful show and don't be afraid to branch out in your writing either.

4. Writing Characters in Scenes: Sexposition and the Omelet Scene

Writing scenes is one thing. Writing characters in scenes is another, and it can be a pain. But you can learn a lesson from TV. Many shows have budget constraints and must find creative ways of turning scenes of dry dialogue into dynamic moments.

You may have heard of the term sexposition, made famous by the television show Game of Thrones. It refers to exposition-heavy scenes that are made more interesting to audiences through sex.

You probably haven't heard of the term omelet scene. That's because I made it up after watching an episode of The Strain in which a vampire killer makes an omelet while having a long talk with the protagonist. I use the term omelet scene to describe moments in which characters are engaged in an action, the purpose of which is to make dialogue-heavy scenes more dynamic.

As authors, it's important to visualize our characters and their actions so that we're not just writing a string of back-and-forth dialogue. The techniques of sexposition and omelet scene can help.

Imagine—and write—your characters' actions, and their dialogue will be more compelling.

What about you? Are you inspired by television shows or by films when you write? Will you be using TV-inspired storytelling techniques in your writing from now on? Share in the comments section.


Ready to use these storytelling techniques stolen from TV?

Craft your own omelet scene. First, spend some time visualizing where your characters are, how they're dressed, what they're doing, and how they're moving.

Next, write a dialogue between the characters that incorporates the descriptive elements you've pictured. Then, share in the comments section!

Enjoy your writing!

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  1. Justine Manzano

    I like this article, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it, but I do think it’s a little bizarre that the two examples you use regarding storytelling techniques from television are television shows that were created from novels.

    • Bessie Blue

      Good point, I might have mentioned as an aside that George R. R. Martin was originally a T.V. writer, and this influence can clearly be felt in his books. I wonder if the book series would be as popular without that TV feel.

      The Strain also has an interesting history: it was originally supposed to be a TV series but Guillermo del Toro couldn’t find a buyer, and decided to make the show. Also, if you’ve read the novel, you’ll find that the TV adaptation is very different–it’s more of a police procedural.

    • Justine Manzano

      Very interesting. I didn’t know either of those things. I actually haven’t read the Strain because it has a storyline thread in common with one of my novels and I was trying to avoid influencing my idea. So I didn’t realize how different the TV adaptation was. 🙂

    • Orson

      The HBO series “Game of Thrones” has such a powerfully visceral and emotional command over the senses. Although I’ve not read George R.R. Martin’s work, I certainly enjoy what D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have done with the TV show. I think I’m getting the gist of the Omelet scene which you’ve described. I could use one more example of that in action, if you please.

  2. 709writer

    On Tuesday, Eliza parked her Ford bronco and shut off the engine, then gripped the steering wheel. She had to psyche herself up in order to walk inside the restaurant. Her mother’s surgery was scheduled for next Monday.

    She drew a deep breath and stuffed down her emotions, then climbed out of the bronco.

    The sky was clear. A gentle breeze pushed back Eliza’s hair, making her smile. She crossed to the front entrance of the building and entered the restaurant.

    Customers stood in long lines before the front counter where only three employees manned the registers. One of the team leaders, Sarah, locked eyes with her. A scowl darkened her face. Eliza resisted the urge to roll her eyes and clocked in. After dodging one of the other team leaders who was carrying a food tray, she pushed the kitchen door open.

    The sound of beeping fryer machines, the scent of the restaurant’s signature fried chicken, and the increase in the room’s temperature greeted her. One of the kitchen guys barked an order. Eliza’s mouth tightened. A year and a half, and she was still here.

    But when her eyes landed on a woman with dark, curly hair standing at the vegetable sink chopping lettuce, she grinned. The dark-haired woman, Mrs. Francis, wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand.

    She noticed Eliza and smiled. “Hey,” the woman said. “How’s it going, Sugars?”

    Eliza laughed at one of the many pet names Mrs. Francis often called her. “Going good.” Her smile fell. “My mom’s scheduled for the surgery on Monday.”

    Mrs. Francis’ eyebrows drew. She reached out with her plastic-gloved hand and squeezed Eliza’s shoulder. “I’ll be praying for her.”

    “Thanks.” Eliza pressed her hand to Mrs. Francis’. She looked down the hall, toward the dry storage section of the building. “Hang on, let me put my purse up.”

    The dry storage area was empty when she reached it. She set her purse inside the black bin. For a moment she stood there, on the greasy tile floor, staring at the wall. Then she drew back her shoulders. It was time to work—that and Mrs. Francis would take her mind off of the heavy thoughts that loomed over her.

    She tied her apron strings firmly behind her and headed back into the kitchen. First things first—she had to inform the schedule manager she would not be available to work next week because of her mother’s surgery.

    Eliza spotted him checking the staff schedule and her mouth pinched. “Mr. Clayton.”

    He scribbled one last thing on the schedule sheet before turning to her. “What?”

    “I won’t be here at all next week.” When his jaw tightened, she narrowed her eyes. “My mother is having surgery on Monday, and I’ll need to be with her.”

    Clayton stared her down and she glared back at him. “You need to submit a time-off request,” he said.

    Eliza gritted her teeth. Her mother was about to undergo major surgery. Surgeons were going to cut open her body, stitch the incisions, and she would have to stay overnight in a hospital.

    Fine. Let him refuse her. If they didn’t grant her request for time off and she was punished for not showing up to work, she could care less.

    “Look,” Eliza said, keeping her tone level as she held Mr. Clayton’s eyes. “I am not requesting time off. I will not be here next week.”

    He rolled his eyes. “You still need to submit it.”

    If the management couldn’t understand she needed to be with her mother, then she shouldn’t be working here in the first place.

    “I’ll put it in,” she said, already heading for the dry storage area to fill out what the guy wanted. “But I will not be at work next week.” With that she turned her back on him and marched down the hallway.

    They might deny her request, but she still would not put a job above her mother. A smirk came to her lips. With any luck, they’d fire her.

    Names were changed to protect the guilty and everyone else’s identity.

    I wrote this scene directly out of my life, about when my mom had surgery in 2014. I never quite got over the rude way the manager treated me and my request, so I decided to write about it. My mom is doing well now and I know God kept her safe and is continuing to keep her in good health. Honestly I felt better after I wrote this.

    Hope you guys enjoyed the piece. I’d love critique or comments. Thanks!

    • Bessie Blue

      I enjoyed this piece! I especially liked your description of the tension between Eliza and Mr. Clayton. Great omelet scene 🙂

    • 709writer

      Aww thanks, Bessie Blue! : )

  3. Kiki Stamatiou

    Entering The Vestibule, I Had A Heavy Heart
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    As I walked through the doors of our church with my aunt and my grandmother, entering the vestibule, I had a heavy heart. It was Christmas Eve of 1994, and the first
    time in 4 years since my brothers passing back in November 1988 I had attended Christmas mass. The three of us lit candles, did our cross before each of the icons there, and kissed them. We then proceeded into the sanctuary for the service.

    I stood at attention in my pew, fighting back my tears, because my thoughts were not only on my brother who passed away 6 years earlier, but it was on the passing of a dear friend of whom I attended middle school and high school together with her.

    My mind drifted back to the day of her funeral when her body was lowered into the ground.

    At the same time, I could hear our priest delivering the Christmas sermon.

    I fidgeted a lot with my bracelet, and bit my lips, doing anything to distract me from the pain of my sorrow. Hard as I tried to fight back my tears, they had a mind of their
    own. One or two tears got away from me. I wiped them away carefully with my
    finger tips, so as not to ruin my makeup.

    Then, the tone of the service changed. There was sadness in our priest’s voice, as he spoke about his daughter. “My daughter was 18 years old when she passed away years ago. My wife and I mourn her death every day. Holidays are always hard, but it’s the memories we’ll keep, in order to hang onto her. For she will always be in our hearts. She was our child, and we’ll never let her go, no matter where in heaven she is. These past few years, she’s been an angel of the Lord, watching over us. For I know the Lord is with her, watching over her like a father should his child. For he is the Heavenly Father of all life. Thank you all for attending Christmas service tonight. And to those
    families and individuals who find it hard to be here tonight, as a result of loved ones not being here, because they have passed on in life, just know the Lord is watching over them.”

    Following the service, I didn’t get in line to accept any holy bread from our priest. For I went the opposite direction, passing through crowds of people who stood in line for the holy bread, excusing myself, trying to get away from everyone before my eyes
    betrayed me with my tears starting to fall from my eyes.

    I ran into the vestibule, headed into the basement, and then ran into the bathroom as fast as my feet would carry me. Going into one of the stalls, I locked the door, and stood crouched over the toilet, crying so hard, I was shaking. My nose bled as it always did when I had nervous breakdowns. Soon, I was breathing hard, choking on my tears.

    Wiping my eyes with tissues, I gather some more and wiped the blood that fell on top of the toilet seat from my nose, and also the blood that dripped from my nose unto the floor, and exited the stall, tossed the tissues into the waste basket, exited the bathroom, and ran upstairs into the vestibule, and then into the sanctuary to find my uncle.

    Upon entering the sanctuary, this nice couple happened to be coming toward me. The man said, “Hello, Kiki. Is everything alright?”

    “I’m fine. I just have allergies,” I replied, hoping my smeared mascara wouldn’t cause him or his wife any alarm.

    He extended his hand for a handshake as did his wife. Accepting their hands for handshake, I said, “I can’t be here tonight. I shouldn’t be,” I said trying to fight back my tears.

    First, the man responded by saying, “Merry Christmas, for what it’s worth.”

    And his wife also said to me, “Merry Christmas.”

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015

    • Bessie Blue

      Nice! Thanks for sharing!

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Thank you, Bessie Blue, for your kind words. I’m glad you liked my story.

  4. Gary G Little

    Tom, Paul, and Richard. The Mousketeers, as coined by their fellow employees. Tom, older, portly, and mustachioed, hair turning from blonde to gray, was nearly always the first one to arrive, and began the first pot of coffee. Paul, middle aged, tall and skinny as a rail, hairline definitely suffering male pattern baldness, and one of the fastest typist in the building, if not the country, usually arrived just about the time the coffee finished. Richard, you only called him Dick once, the younger of the three, was to hear him say it, “just right”; not too tall, not to short, not to fat and not to skinny, but was completely bald. Most of the time he walked in with Paul, or just before. Once everyone had their coffee they convened in Tom’s office to plan the days attack on the code du jour.

    Tom’s office, while not pristine, is comfortably cluttered, and the only one of the three that has chairs available for sitting. Sitting at his desk, he looks at his monitor and says, “So, looks like QA finished testing the latest build.”

    Paul and Richard both consult their tablets to see the results of the nights testing.

    “Good. They passed the driver communication issue. The blotch stack is now finally talking to the data logging stack,” says Paul.

    “Finally. I didn’t think we’d ever find that one,” says Richard.

    Tom, sipping coffee, considers his two co-workers, the best friends he’s ever had, and briefly wonders when he should tell them about his retirement.

    • TPChianese

      Thank you. Very nice!

  5. Gary G Little

    My writing is definitely an amalgamization, omelletization, of television, reading, and just plain old “l’chaim”. “Game of Thrones”? Nah, Never watched it. “The Strain”, hell no, I’ve never heard of George R. R. Martin. Lucille Ball? Yes. Robert Heinlein? You betch’m. “The Lone Ranger”, of course. How about “Bonanza” or “Andy Griffith”. Absolutely. Of course there is “Dune”, the book not the movie, ughhh. Yeah, I know. Most of you reading this have never even heard of these.

    Today my television watching is the Discovery, the Smithonian, or the Weather channels. Sitcoms? You have to be kidding? I grew bored of those in the 50’s, after seeing episodes of Lucy repeated in the Beaver. Crime dramas? Too predictable after “Dragnet”, “Peter Gunn” and all the others.

    I dunno. There are times I think I’m from an entirely different period in time. “The Walking Dead”!?!?!? Pure unmitigated bovine scatology. Anything with vampires immediately merits a channel change. “Veep” I can watch; after all how can I avoid dialogue like “shit on my tits.”

    • Bessie Blue

      I’m also a fan of old TV (love Lucille Ball) and movies from the classic Hollywood period, but I do think that contemporary stuff can offer interesting lessons in storytelling and scene construction for us writers, whereas drawing inspiration from the classics may result in dated and no longer relevant writing.

      But when I want to spend an enjoyable hour and a half, give me Hawks and Cukor anytime!

    • Gary G Little

      Don’t get me wrong. Television was coined as a vast wasteland when I was just a kid, and frankly it has changed very little. The programs I mentioned were crappy, inane, schlock. There were rare exceptions; Playhouse 90 and Twilight Zone were two. Programming in 2015 basically parallels programming in 1953; lets placate the masses with mind numbing scheist. Thus you have the plethora of reality shows that have virtually nothing to do with reality.

      But … I’m a died in the wool curmudgeon, and do not deny it.

    • George Parkins

      Heinlein’s great. TV is just a medium, like any other, and like other mediums, it reuses plots. Formula is what you make it. I too, am from a different era. One where poets spoke their hearts and bled for it…. (U2 quote, by the way.)

  6. Orson

    Hi, I’m attempting to employ the Omelet scene as best I can:

    At the traffic light, Loren had turned the volume up to car dance to the rhapsodic beat of Giddy Lizard’s latest hit, head, arms and torso moving and winding rhythmically to the sound.

    “Uh oh” she said, “This is one of the Zumba songs I dance to!”

    Jim sat perfectly still in the passenger seat, simply absorbing the sight. Loren was a knockout, and to see her move her body caused him to let his eyes linger indulgently on her. The feeling of desire crept in, loosening the vice grip his workday held over him. He breathed deeply and finally cracked a smile.

    Suddenly wasn’t all about him anymore.

    She sang along to some of the words of the song as the light
    turned green.

    “You really like this tune, don’t you?” he asked his co-worker.

    “Oh yeah” Loren replied, “I’ve got all of his albums.” The music transports her into euphoria. “Don’t you feel that?”

    The threats he got from his boss were washed away. In fact, he didn’t even want to focus on the dread she imposed over him the past few days. Then at that moment, his cell vibrated. It was her – a text from his supervisor Corinne, and just as he was beginning to enjoy the evening.

  7. TPChianese

    “Craft your own omelet scene. First, spend some time visualizing where your characters are, how they’re dressed, what they’re doing, and how they’re moving.

    Next, write a dialogue between the characters that incorporates the descriptive elements you’ve pictured. Then, share in the comments sec.”

    This would appear to be the reason for the PRACTICE. As much as we would love to sit down at a pub and have a pint with you’all, it doesn’t help us learn. If we could just concentrate on the charge instead of waxing on it would be a great help.

  8. Manjeet Singh

    it always helps, if you think you are writing a visual scene than a textual one. imagine your scene unfold visually – on a tv serial – how would your writing translate visually?



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