Skip to content

Learning From TV

So that’s it; with the release of Dragons this morning, the first season of Champions is now complete. I use that word season mindfully, because so much of the structure of this new series has been informed by the rules of television production… and I think that’s a good thing.

One of the questions I often get at writing seminars (or make sure I get, if I’m forced to deploy my 25 questions) is whether I’m against television. In one sense, my answer to that must be yes: I’ve always perceived television to be my biggest competition. We authors aren’t really trying to out-write each other; we’re trying to come up with stories compelling enough to convince people to turn off a show, and pick up some prose. Indeed, competing with TV (and games, for that matter) forces us to be better at what we do.

But if the question is whether I have a problem with the intrinsic value of television –– think it’s ‘brain rotting’ or whatever the people say –– then my answer must be no. I’ve long appreciated the value of the small screen, and don’t just approve of it now because the quality of the programming has gotten so high. All television shows have their uses, if watched correctly.

During a classroom visit with elementary students a few years back, I asked what the students liked to watch. I was expecting cartoons (go Transformers!), but they said CSI. That was a surprise –– these were 9-year-olds –– but at the same time it was an opportunity, because when you set aside the dodgy science and the melodramatic sunglasses, a show like CSI really can help teach an aspiring writer some fundamental things (and not all in the form of cautionary tales).

Think of it this way: by the time most kids get to an English class that (hopefully) teaches them about literary devices like suspense, or the use of a red herring, or the importance of narrative pacing, television has already shown them plenty of examples. The lessons come in the simple things we take for granted, like when in a scene do they break for commercial –– right after the action is over, or just before it begins? How do they make sure the audience is wise to a secret agenda, or is suspicious of a newcomer? Do viewers know something the characters don’t, or are they locked into a single viewpoint?

As long as we watch shows intelligently, just about anything scripted (and some things unscripted) can help us with these sorts of fundamentals of storytelling. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of this education –– it gives our aspiring writers a great baseline, and one that is especially valuable because it is relevant to modern audiences. You can read all the classics you like, but at some point you must accept that today’s readers have probably seen the movie, and the present-day reimagining (rip-off) of the movie, and the Simpsons spoof. They’re likely more sophisticated and better educated than the original target audience, and TV has been one of their key mediums since birth.

Bearing that in mind, it stands to reason that we publishers can learn a lot from the business side of television –– such as the serialized, seasonal storytelling structure –– and that brings us back to Champions. Since January, we’ve released the five installments of as regularly-scheduled ebooks. We’re quite pleased with the following that Alex, Stephanie and Strong have developed, but we also know there are plenty of people (like me) who’d rather wait for a show on DVD, so they can binge all at once. Now it’s time to meet that need.

In November, the omnibus War Footing will be released, including Firebox, Grand Banks, Elspeth, Mandarins, and Dragons and like any good DVD box set, it’ll include at least one extra scene, not found in the ebook releases. Ooh.

So it’s time for us to remind ourselves of what’s involved in actually producing a book. Personally, I’m looking forward to getting back on the page –– modern ebook readers are fantastic, but there’s still something about the smell of pulp, glue, and ink, that’s just like coming home.

Alright, that sounded weird, but you get the idea.

Note: That terrible photo at the top is my television playing the Champions trailer: