Three Great Writing Techniques I Found While Watching Television

Television

This is a guest post from Ryan Imel.

Great writing involves stepping outside of yourself and into the minds of your audience. Poor writers usually stand out because they haven’t read their material from another’s perspective. Even an inexperienced reader can pick up on thoughtless writing.

Television is full of writing that’s intended to fit its viewer. Bad writing, many might say, is characteristic of daytime soaps. There’s a reason they have a separate awards ceremony for this particular facet of television drama, right?

Writers of daytime soaps do, however, write to their audience: mothers, wives, and others who stay home during the day. Soaps become, for them, their escape. When it comes to its target audience, daytime soaps are written perfectly—and by perfect I mean it was written for the intended viewer.

The conclusion this leads me to is that great writing, when it comes to television, is particularly relative. Great prime time writing is not great daytime writing. Writing for the web faces a similar relativity: an author’s success is determined by how well she is able to write for her audience. Who is your audience?

Assuming you’ve answered this question (and there are a few resources here on CopyBlogger to help you with that) I would like to change gears a bit. Below is a look at a few different techniques used by the writers and editors of some popular television, as well as how this might be incorporated into your writing.

Lost — Learn from the “Whoosh” Transitions

Lost tells the story of a host of people deserted on an island. Think Survivor meets Cast Away, with only a little bit of Gilligan’s Island thrown in to keep them there. Like most shows, I didn’t catch up with Lost until recently. And let’s just say I chewed through a few seasons mighty quick (is it February yet?).

Throughout the main story of Lost, on the island, there are flashbacks to portions of each character’s past, used to develop their own subplots and thus the main storyline. It’s pretty brilliant actually. And each flashback is bookended by a whooshing sound. The whooshing sound lets us know a flashback is coming, and along with it, more information about the character on screen.

But there’s more to a great transition on Lost than the whoosh. Throughout grade school we were told that a transition is used to move from one thought to another. I would like to add that just as important is the way the connected idea contributes to the message of the whole. Even if a paragraph at first seems to digress from the point preceding it, it is considered cohesive as long as it draws everything together at some point. Sometimes there are flashbacks in Lost that seem very insignificant to the “present day”, but in the end there is always a moment of realization that sheds a whole new light on that episode’s flashbacks.

Application

Don’t be afraid of throwing in a “whoosh” transition from time to time that may at first seem like a digression. As long as you draw it all back together (with the emphasis on as long as) your readers will love it. In fact, it will often be even more powerful than if you stuck to the techniques you were taught in grade school.

24 — Time Limits and Suspense

By now, after six seasons, 24 has nearly become a household name. One of the reasons so many people tune in week after week is the intensity and the suspense from the top of one hour to the next. Without fail, every episode ends in a cliffhanger (some better than others) which brings viewers back the next week. In fact, some people wait and watch the entire season through when it’s finished rather than being forced to wait a week in between each hour.

Application

Have you ever tried putting yourself on a time table, publicly, with your readers? Try giving yourself a deadline for reaching a goal, and post throughout the process about its results. Some bloggers have discovered one way of doing this by publishing their achievements each month (subscribers, rankings, awards, etc.) and most have very grateful readers because of it.

Here’s one example of suspense-driven writing. Right now I’m finishing up a series called Watch Me Design a WordPress Theme at Theme Playground. Entries are due for a WordPress theme design competition at the end of the month, and I stated a few weeks ago that I would be entering. Since then I’ve done a series of posts and videoblogs documenting my progress, even going as far as to let readers have my PSDs and upload their own design decisions if/when they don’t like the ones I’ve made. The response has been really great, and I’m already receiving requests to make another theme using this same process when I’m done.

There are lots of ways to draw readers into the suspense of your blog. Hopefully some others will provide some ideas in the comments below, and hopefully still others will use these to draw buzz, interest, and (in the end) dedicated readers that stick around.

Prison Break — Intelligence is Admired

Prison Break is a show about two brothers, imprisoned unjustly, and forced to break out on a short timeline. One of the brothers, Michael, is an incredibly smart and capable engineer who orchestrates their escape and subsequent run from the police. Watching this show, aside from enjoying it (which I did) I couldn’t help but wonder: Outside of this situation, someone with his skill set and knowledge would be considered the biggest nerd around, and the average person would be very disinterested in him. But in this show, Michael is cool. He’s really cool. How can that be?

Think about it. Michael has advanced understanding of things like EMPs and architectural physics. Normally people like this aren’t considered cool by the general populace of America. It’s interesting, then, that so many people (millions of viewers) have tuned in to watch this show—and have subsequently kept in on the air for three seasons so far.
It turns out people are o.k. with dorky knowledge as long as it’s shown useful. An explanation of how an EMP works? The average person won’t care. An explanation of an EMP in relation to its usefulness in killing a radio to distract a guard and help Michael escape prison? The average person wants to know if it worked.

Application

Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge, no matter what the topic is. But give it some utility. Show it in action. Give a case study. What your readers won’t care about as theory they will eat up as practice. In essence you are tricking them to read and digest something that they might not otherwise enjoy. If you write about Photoshop techniques, only do so if it fits into the scale of a project you’ve completed. If you’re an environmental blogger, how about some photos of your latest rally and a description of what it was like to stand up for something? Obviously there are a lot of ways to go with this, and hopefully you have enough here to get you brainstorming on your own.

Network Television and Writing for Utility

Network television is not designed for the sake of utility. Anyone who tries to do two things at once, one of them being television, will tell you that. Prime time television (where most of these examples are taken from) is about mentally checking out and being absorbed into a story and vicariously experiencing another world, usually for an hour or so. The writing equivalent is fiction, which you might not be writing. If you are, then continue to use prime time as a tool. If you aren’t, a word of warning might be due.

Most readers of online content aren’t doing so primarily for enjoyment, they are there seeking something to benefit themselves. Your writing needs to first and foremost concern itself with providing content for greedy and demanding readers. (Let’s face it, we are.) As long as you can feed the beast and do it well, then you will see some positive things come from your writing.

Which end do you tend towards? Daytime soap, prime time television, or educational programming?

WordPress users, get more great stuff from Ryan Imel over at Theme Playground.

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Comments

  1. Suspense works a lot, especially when you are an A-List blogger like yourself.

    The B/C listers can’t get away with it as much.

  2. I think i might have to agree with Dan on this one, I mean , sure in theory these strategies sound Good, but are they really applicable for all bloggers? I think not. especially to new blogs or blog with a narrow audience.

  3. I think this post is, for the most part, insightful and makes a really valid point. There is one thing however, that stuck out, which is a bit incongruent with the subject matter. You stated

    “Writers of daytime soaps do, however, write to their audience: mothers, wives, and others who stay home during the day. ”

    It may be useful to consider who you’re really addressing in this post. Many mothers and “wives” work during the day. Worse, the usage of “wives” implies that this post was written only for a male audience (unless perhaps you live in an area that permits same-sex marriages).

    I doubt that meaning was the desired intention for this passage, nevertheless, it really illustrates the importance of what you state in the very first sentence of your post, step outside yourself, into the minds of your audience.

  4. Dan, Ryan will be so pleased to know he’s an A list blogger. :)

    As creative writing techniques, I think these things can be applied by anyone. At one point, Copyblogger was a completely unknown blog, but I used the very advice I give on the blog to become better known. I don’t see why this is any different, but then again, I didn’t write this article. :)

    Josh, I don’t think Ryan meant to offend or to imply that he’s writing to an all male audience here. I think what he’s saying is that even though many males now stay home during the day while women work, soap operas still tend to attract a female demographic due to the subject matter (I’m sure there’s data out there that would answer this for sure). So, soap writers would naturally write for that demographic, even though males are at home during the day too.

    Worse, the usage of “wives” implies that this post was written only for a male audience…

    I don’t see that implication at all. The implication is that soap writers write for women (whether that’s true or not, I don’t know).

  5. I’ll be darned… as one of those who doesn’t even have a TV, I’ll have to admit there’s some good stuff for writers here.

  6. Brian, I agree with you in the sense that I don’t think it was intended to offend. The thing is, the implication is that soap writers write for wives, not for women (as you noted, which may have solved the issue) so it sounds like the perspective of the audience this article was written for, is the male perspective.

  7. Here’s another take on Josh’s comment…I want to know why Ryan felt it necessary to quantify the female audience by labeling them as wives and mothers in the first place? If the audience is women, then he should have just said women. If he was discussing ESPN, would he have said husbands and fathers or would he have simply said male?

  8. I also noticed the wives, mothers sentence as indicating a narrow point of view.
    Unfortunately I also noticed two errors in the use of singular/plural in a sentence. I found it hard to read on, after that.
    Editors are worth consulting.

  9. I should have caught that. To try to even things out, I changed it to the *female* singular. :)

  10. I wondered if that comment about soap-watchers might draw some fire. And I guess it did.

    If it helps, I wrote and rewrote that line a few times. I didn’t intend to imply anything derogatory, nor was I intending to aim for an all-male audience with this post. I’m really not a sexist person, so it’s interesting to be defending myself this way.

    Brian did a good job of summarizing my stance above, but basically I tried to honestly mention those who watch daytime soaps, largely influenced by the target audience soaps go after. I could have simply said “women”, you’re right, but even that would have attracted fire (trust me, it would have). Soaps are certainly peculiar — I’m not sure I could think of an equivalent for the male species where I would use “fathers” and “husbands”. Maybe football on Thanksgiving day?

    I don’t want to spend too much time defending this point. I hope everyone took something away from this post, and if not, hopefully you will next time.

  11. The Oprah Winfrey Show—People buy from those they like

    Consumers WANT to trust people–and brands–they like. The more likeable, the more consumers are willing to suspend their disbelief in favor of that person or brand. To butcher a Howard Luck Gossage quote, consumers do business with people they like, and sometimes it’s a company.

    Application

    Give your copy a great personality. Copy with brand personality supports the brand, while vanilla copy diminishes and dilutes the brand. Creating likeable copy is part and parcel of creating persuasive copy. (Just remember that it’s not the ONLY aspect of creating persuasive copy.)

  12. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Any website or blog that’s in it for success has to be written with it’s target market’s personality in mind.

    In fact, those blogs and sites that are heralded by many followers win attention by continuously delivering targeted and appetizing content for their readers.

    You hit the nail on it’s head when you said:

    “When it comes to its target audience, daytime soaps are written perfectly—and by perfect I mean it was written for the intended viewer.”

  13. I believe that it’s important to write according to your personality and don’t write something that isn’t you.

    Afterall, people read what you write and you get fans/people who are like minded to be attracted to you :)

    Great tips

  14. Nice post! My blog is about things I learned from Books, Movies and TV so it fits right in I’ll link to this post sometime!

  15. I agree that these tips do work- although, unless you are starting with solid content that you know that your audience will eat up, proceed with caution.

    These techniques work because they are delivering something very valuable to the reader

    That’s all I would watch out for, is trying these tips with content that is not top-notch and being surprised when it does not work.

  16. I’m paraphrasing here:

    “The consumer is not stupid. She’s your wife.”
    David Ogilvy

    My point is: Writers write for an audience. If men respond to soap operas better than women, I’m sure they’ll write it for men.

    On the “wives and mothers” comment, I believe that that only some women respond to soap – some spend their waking hours working away from home.

    And I’m late to the party :D

  17. Ryan,

    What was offensive to me wasn’t that you said soaps were directed at women. They are and always have been – that’s just plain fact. The offense was taken when you said they were badly written and then basically: “oh well” cuz they’re just for stay-at-home moms and stuff. And that’s perfect how?

    What you are essentially saying is that women aren’t very discriminating about what they watch and, to take it a step further, that perhaps women can’t even recognize crappy writing when they “see” it. What is that saying about women?

    The key to soaps – and you made the point yourself – is that they are escapist. The women in the 18-34 demographic at which soaps are targeted are not addicted (and it is an addiction) because of award-winning writing or acting. Although, to be fair, some soaps have been very ground-breaking when it comes to social issues like AIDS and interracial relationships. But the target audience here is looking for drama and a break.

    As for zafer’s comment about only some women responding to soaps…I’m not sure I understand your point. I know plenty of women who work at home and DON’T watch soaps and probably even more who work outside their homes and Tivo their soaps or catch them on Soapnet. Basically, it isn’t about what a woman does for a living, it is about personal preference. What you said would be like me saying: “I believe that only some men like to watch golf.”

    This post was seriously disappointing. Not all of the people who read this blog are in the straight, white 18-34 male demographic. Ryan, you really ought to take your own advice and step outside of yourself and consider YOUR audience. A lot of your ideas in this post are very interesting and original, you maybe just need to be more aware of the reach of this blog and the power that your words can hold.

    Sara

    P.S. No. I do not watch soaps. But I actually hosted a radio show about them when I was in college. Soap Talk. =)