Things Writers can Learn from Television


I’ve been going through a real 1970’s phase lately. Odd, because I wasn’t a big fan the first time around. Now, though, with that warm, fuzzy haze of hindsight I feel a fondness for the daft clothes, the afro haircuts, the cheesy music. Well, some of it was cheesy. I defy you to make such allegations about Queen.

Part of this nostalgia-fest has meant re-watching old TV shows either on DVD or the internet. Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H*, Starsky and Hutch… Ah, I feel like a teenager again. Acting like one too, according to my very sophisticated (she thinks) daughter.

One of the things that I’ve discovered is some of the plots of these old shows were bad. Really bad. Dire. Not across the board of course. There are gems amid the dross. But as a writer I’m fascinated to see how horrendous errors were allowed to make it onto the screen. There are problems with plot continuity and even more execrably, an indifference to the established natures of the characters. Nor are such flaws limited to some ’70’s shows. Plenty of newer series have gaffes too.

You have to love these quirks for what they are. If you pay close enough attention you, too, can be a bad TV writer. Here’s how:

Don’t make your plots credible

It’s perfectly OK to take a detective with no medical background and have him work undercover as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. No one will notice or, if they do, they won’t care, especially if he looks like David Soul. And if Paul Michael Glaser is the mental patient (OK, I’ll give you that) no one will worry a bit.

In fact, your average cops can also work undercover on cruise ships, in taxi cabs, as hairdressers or as paramedics. It’s all good. So lesson #1: It doesn’t matter how much you strain credulity, if your heroes are engaging enough we’ll gladly forgive you.

Don’t bother with consistency

It’s fine to change various details as you go along, no one will notice. Who missed Richie Cunningham’s big brother, Chuck, was around for the first couple of episodes and then vanished without a trace? And what does it matter that Hawkeye Pierce has a sister and is also an only child. He used to spend summers in Crab Apple Cove, then, apparently, lived there all the time. Oh, and Col. Blake’s wife was both Mildred and Lorraine. Or perhaps he was a polygamist.

You, too, can change the details of your characters as you go along. After all, if you, as a writer has forgotten such nit-picky details why would anyone else remember?

Don’t respect your characters

Why should characters behave consistently? What does it hurt if they suddenly behave utterly out of character if it serves the plot?

I don’t mean Mr Spock crying because he’s been infected with a toxin, or falling in love because he’s been, uh, infected with a toxin, but major changes such as a previously established characteristic being bludgeoned in order to resolve some plot issues.

Take Zack on Bones, for instance. He started out a nice, kind guy who was well-liked. Then suddenly, without any sort of explanation or build up, he’s turned into a serial killer.

Say, what, now?

But, hey, it’s OK if it serves the plot. Right?

Even worse, in my opinion, was the treatment of The West Wing’s straight-shooter Toby Ziegler by making him into a traitor. Actor Richard Schiff was appalled at the way his character was portrayed and who can blame him? There are dozens more (check out for more ‘character derailment’ examples.  They may inspire you to beat up your own characters. You know you want to. )

 Don’t let reality intrude

Just think about, say, The Little House on the Prairie, for instance. No one ever swore in Walnut Grove. They didn’t seem to need to use the bathroom either, which probably explains Mrs Oleson’s meanness. The same goes for pretty much every show of the period. Hell, Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy) didn’t even sleep in the same bed as husband Ricky, though she did manage to get pregnant. Perhaps she sat on a dirty toilet seat.

Of course, literature, even the good stuff, tends to eschew the nitty and the gritty so I shouldn’t be too churlish about the telly. Jane Austen didn’t even talk about the French Revolution in her books, much less the toilet habits of fair young virgins. There’s nothing to say you must draw from the seedy side of life in your books. Give us happy lands where all conflicts are resolved in 50 minutes or 120 pages, well-meaning characters and a happy ending. Surely there’s no more to fiction than that?

 The sermon must surmount everything else

Quincy was the king of the social problem of the week. Rape, drug addiction, racism, doctor’s working hours, airline safety, the Doc with no first name dealt with them all. True, the issues were so all consuming they had little time for character development. Or even first names, apparently. But, hey, why worry about character, plot and drama if you have a good sermon to preach?

Don’t worry about research

No one ever notices these things so why spend all that time on research when you could be practicing your autograph? It’s completely fine to have The Gilmore Girls’ Rory Gilmore graduate from Yale with a degree in journalism and thank her mother for being ‘very unique’. Nor will anyone mind that physics Professor Larry Feinhart (Peter McNichol) in Numb3rs doesn’t know that a light year is a measurement of distance, not time.  I can’t even mention the diabetic scientist captured by Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O and being shot with a full syringe of insulin intravenously without even a glance at his blood sugar levels… But, hey, I’m a pedant. Just because I spot these things doesn’t mean that your readers will.

So you can see how easy it is to become a ’70’s television writer. Just set aside common sense, research, continuity, or respect for your audience and your work and all this can be yours.

If you want it.



About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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One Response to Things Writers can Learn from Television

  1. ladyasajane says:

    Ah I knew all that 70’s watching would come in useful!


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