Monday, February 18, 2013

What We Can Learn From Some Bad TV about Writing


Sincerity is a hard thing to fake. It is different than being earnest or being honest or even being heartfelt. Earnest writing implies a certain level of importance. You can’t be earnest while asking for a piece of pizza. “Honesty” indicates purity. “I’m just being honest,” implies, “I’m not being mean, so you can’t be mad.” Heartfelt gives the impression of passion in the subject matter.

Sincerity, however, can exist in many contexts, and an important factor in being interesting.

The marathons of The New Adventures of Old Christine that have been going on the past few months give me some background noise during long periods of creativity. It’s not a show I seek out, or a show that I can even squint at at times; it is a series that I can go to when nothing better is on. But, since it is tolerable and always seems to be showing, I continuously watch it and I continuously think, what is wrong here?

When looking at inexperienced writing, painful dialogue, or “watered down” comedies, one huge problem stands out. They all sound like they’re lying through their teeth.

I once edited a short novel for a friend, and my biggest criticism was that his leading lady seemed like she was going to stab her boyfriend in the back with the largest and sharpest phallic symbol she could find. Whether it be her telling him that she loved him or she liked the necklace he gave her, everything had a suspicious tone.

Which, of course, it was all a lie. A story is, after all, made up.

Bad writing sounds like it is what it is. It reads like, “I am suppose to say I love you now, so I will,” or, “I am supposed to say something horrible now, so here.”

The New Adventures of Old Christine is based around the current trend of having horrible people in loving relationships. Christine is supposed to be a slut and an alcoholic. They make joke after joke about her past and the way she spends her money, trying to pull on humor from her flaws. But, here’s the problem: we never actually see her act on any of these alleged vices. She doesn’t drink unless it’s going to lead to a punchline, and when it comes to all of her boyfriends, she doesn’t sleep with them any sooner than any other “well-adjusted” protagonist.

The lines are stilted. They are a little too on-the-nose. Unsubtle, the characters practically explain the punch line as they say it.

There’s something appealing about it, though, because I still watch it. It lasted a whole four seasons, which means it had an audience for at least three years. But it’s painful, and I’m cringing the entire time, often praying there will be something else that I can watch instead.

Though it won’t compensate for being dull, a book that is believable has attained the majority of its goals. Sincerity, however, is also not something that can be achieved by a few little tweaks, which is probably why it’s not one of the more obvious or common criticisms.

A couple of things to remember when trying to make a book look less of a yarn and more of a legend:

The goal – The narrator or character wants to achieve something. The reason he says it is usually different than why the writer said it. The writer may want to do something like illustrate how much of a jackass Tim is, but rarely does Tim want to be perceived as one. When he tells that woman she’s fat, he needs to have a better reason for doing it then he wants to look like a jerk. He may want to get vengeance, “Congratulations on the promotion. It is such an inspiration that you can overcome your appearance and still be successful,” or out of annoyance, “I understand that your ass makes it harder to get out of the way than normal, but move.” He may be trying to get her out of the room, “I don’t want to alarm you, but you might want to fix that roll of fat under your bra.” He may think that he’s honestly doing her a favor, as though the reason why she hasn’t lost weight is that no one told her. Any of these are better than a straightforward, “You’re fat,” because it’s hard to see why he would say that, though it’s easy to see why an author would.

Show don’t tell – A by far overused saying, it holds a good amount of truth. Shows like The New Adventures and Cougar Town like to claim how horrible their people are, but they’re called mean more often than they do anything mean. Telling has its place. It saves times, is clear, gets to the point, and knows that the audience is going to get it. But it’s often an issue of proving it, so when an author is afraid that his character’s traits are coming off as insincere, he needs to add some weight behind the talk.

Deal with the Ramifications – It is typical in many shows to have a “red shirt.” Labeled after the nameless characters in Star Trek who would only come on missions in order to die and illustrate the danger of the situation, it is a commonly mocked and remembered aspect of the show. Authors want things to happen. They want to give their characters superpowers, loves, flaws, qualities, items, and even circumstances that will benefit either their protagonist or their story line. As with Old Christine, they may attribute alcoholism to her which gives them leverage (Want her to do something out of character? Promise her a bottle of wine) and opens up the field for jokes. It reads like, “I’m an alcoholic just because it’s funny.” Had there, however, been any sort of story, i.e. conflict that involved her drinking, it would have given it more motivation outside of its humor. The difference between say Karen Walker from Will and Grace and Old Christine is that the other characters recognize Karen’s issue and treat her accordingly. There are many episodes in which the conflict is about her friends considering her irresponsible, where she makes of a fool of herself while drunk, and where her drinking led to some sort of plot points. Giving the characters what you want them to have needs to have some sort of motivation outside, “I wanted them to have it.” Make it a story point by giving it some conflict.

Lastly, it is important to just be honest. The hardest scenes to write are those about love and sex. It is so intimate and revealing, that inexperienced authors tend to make them the most stilted. You can say many things about Twilight, but it is honest. The story tells exactly what Stephanie Meyer wants and believes, and her readers can relate to that because we’re not all that different. Women want powerful men who only have eyes for them. When it comes to any sort of subject matter, however, being anywhere from Seinfeld’s “about nothing” or Misery’s obsessive, foot-chopping fan, if the author can really tap into what he feels rather than what he should feel, the story will be far more sincere and that much more immersive. Sincerity comes from the author relating to his characters and truly expressing things he cares about. The best way to not sound like you’re merely pretending is for it to be based around a little part of reality.