Monday, April 10

6 Ways Netflix Can Make You a Better Writer

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It might seem odd to watch TV to improve your writing, but Netflix* is a fantastic tool for writers. Not only does it give us a way to escape when we need a break, but it allows us to see complex stories unfold in a way that easy to study them. Binge watching packs a lot of storytelling examples into a weekend.

Even better, since much of the original programing has only ten to twelve episodes a season, they’re written more like a novel than a TV show. Netflix expects viewers to binge, so a series often plays out as one long movie, not a series of loosely connected episodes. And for most people, it’s less time consuming to watch ten episodes than to read ten novels—and much easier to return to a scene you want to study further, or pause the show to take notes.

Of course, writing for TV is different from writing a novel, so you wouldn’t want to follow the exact format or structure, but it’s close enough to learn a few things to improve your own storytelling.

Studying a story on Netflix allows you to:

1. Spot tropes and overdone cliches in your given genre

Watch a season of any genre of show. Sitcoms, dramas, procedurals, comedies—they all have their tropes and cliches. The bad ones usually use them right away, but the better ones frequently use them in the third or fourth season after they run out of the really good ideas (or the original writers leave).

This also holds true for movies. Spend a weekend binging on romantic comedies or action thrillers, and you’ll see the similarities, both good and bad. Even if all you do is watch trailers all afternoon, you’ll see what’s common to that genre.

(Here’s a funny (and revealing) look at the problem with cliches)

2. Learn how to effectively weave plots and subplots

The short-season shows are great for seeing how a story unfolds in all its layered complexity. Each episode is almost a mini-arc by itself, with subplots within each arc that span single episodes to entire seasons. For many shows, the episode turning points fall similarly to the traditional story structure we use in our novels.

But the subplots are where binge watching really pays off. Since the main plot (the core conflict if you will) needs to cover at least the season, creators have the fill the show with other things to hold viewers’ attention (like a subplot). A bad or mishandled subplot sticks out much worse in a TV show than a novel, because it’s compacted over a shorter time frame. A good subplot slips in and out of the story and you marvel at how well it all ties together. You can also see when, where, and how a subplot is woven into the main storyline, and how much “page time” it gets versus the main plot.

(Here’s more on what Scandal can teach us about plotting and tension)

3. See a character arc unfold

Watching a show on a weekly basis gives you a week to forget the minute details of that show. Watching ten episodes in a row makes it clear how a character changes (or not) in that show. Even with a regular syndicated sitcom, the differences between the characters in season one and the final season are usually noticeable. In a drama, they can seem like different people if the arc is strong enough.

With a well-developed character arc, you can usually spot the moments that created that growth. Some are larger scenes that also advanced the plot, others are decisions that had unexpected consequence. For the really good arcs, tiny moments turn out to be major events later in the story.

(Here’s more on creating strong character arcs)

4. Hear different character voices

Some shows (and movies) have very distinct voices, but in the overall sound of the show and the individual characters. If you can’t remember the names of half the characters on a show, there’s a good chance that character wasn’t unique enough to be worth remembering. Those you do remember, likely had unique voices and personalities.

(Here’s more on creating character voices)

5. Learn how to create interesting characters

Some of the most memorable characters are on TV, and there’s something about watching a live person versus reading about one that often makes them feel more real. It’s the mannerisms and ticks, the small things that people do that set them apart from others, and those come through on the screen more easily than they do on a page—because the actors can’t help but do the unconscious things people do (and the good actors do this consciously).

(Here’s more on what Stranger Things can teach us about flashbacks)

6. Learn how to create and sustain a series

Keeping an idea going year after year after year is no small feat, and TV writers get a ton of practice at this. If you’re developing your own series idea, watch some of the long-running series and pay attention to where and how those larger story arcs unfold. Many of them (especially the genre shows) have a per-season conflict just like a novel, with a series-arcing conflict tying it all together. You can get a good sense of how many subplots might be needed, or how slowly a character arc needs to unfold, or when to reveal important information.

(Here’s more on writing a series)

Storytelling at its core is the same no matter what medium you use to tell that story. If it’s easier for you to watch away a weekend and pick up tips, Netflix offers many great opportunities to learn.

For those looking for some well-written shows, try any of these:
  • Scandal (The first season is some of the best plotting I’ve seen)
  • Stranger Things (Excellent plotting, character development, use of flashbacks)
  • Daredevil (It’s worth watching season one just to see how they handled the antagonist, Kingpin)
  • Scrubs, Justified, The West Wing (All three have excellent voices and memorable characters)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Fantastic characters arcs and voices)
  • Orange is the New Black (Great use of an ensemble cast and multiple storylines)
  • Sherlock (Great example of plotting a mystery)
  • House of Cards, Dexter (Great example of how to make unlikable characters compelling to watch)
There are so many more to choose (and learn) from, so have fun exploring your options.

What TV shows or movies have helped your writing?

*I use Netflix here, but any of the streaming services work just as well.  

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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14 comments:

  1. Totally agree with this. It can be a brilliant way of getting a feel for a certain subject, as well. I just finished my first draft of a story that needed a certain atmosphere about it and one of my old favorite movies from the nineties had exactly the right feeling. I wound up playing that movie in the background quietly while I wrote every night til the draft was done. Luckily, I love the movie and didn't get bored with watching it forty times! But it really helped so much. Had a sort of Pavlov's effect too. Every time the theme starts to play, I want to write, LOL :D

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    1. What a great idea! I'll also play soundtracks for movies (the score) as inspiration, too. Creates a great mood.

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  2. This is really helpful! If you had more shows or films to recommend like your list above, that'd be great.

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    1. It really depends on what you want to focus on and what you like. If you have no interest in science fiction, for example, a list of great science fiction shows and movies won't help. Were you looking for something in particular? Otherwise, you might try the basic "Best Shows on Netflix" round ups to get some ideas. I think most of the shows I mentioned are probably on that.

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  3. I also totally agree with you! I watched Call the Midwife through Netflix. Downton Abbey is another great show.

    For those who write fiction for kids, there are many shows on Netflix, like Voltron and How to Train Your Dragon.

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    1. Downton Abbey is great for tension and conflict without traditional action. And How to Train Your Dragon (the movie) is an awesome study of damn near perfect structure.

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  4. It's also worth watching Daredevil season 2 for all the things that season does differently. Vague and broad spoilers for Season 2, if that bothers anyone.

    Season 1 had Kingpin as its overarching villain, and they gave him a clearly defined arc and character flaw. You can see Daredevil putting the hurt on his business, as well as Kingpin's character flaw hurting his business. Throughout the season, Kingpin's associates either voluntarily leave him or are stripped away from him, eventually leaving him alone to struggle to achieve his goal. It's an amazing villain arc.

    The subplots of that season also tied in very closely with the overall goal of stopping Fisk. Karen and Foggy help a lady being pushed out of her apartment by Fisk's people, and later, Karen and Ben try to dig up more dirt on Fisk to expose his bad side to the public.

    Season 2, on the other hand, lacks that kind of focused and developed villain. It starts out with the Punisher coming to town and killing gangs. Frank Castle gets a great arc, there's a cover-up, intrigue, and drama. Then in episode 5, Elektra shows up. The Punisher begins to fade into the background, and the Hand take over as the villain. None of the Hand members are given any real sort of characterization like Castle or Fisk, they're just sort of generic ninja. Even the leader doesn't have any characterization beyond Dude Who Doesn't Like Daredevil for Spoilery Reasons.

    The subplots for season 2 are Karen and Foggy taking over Punisher business once Elektra shows up. After Matt drops the Punisher business entirely for dealing with Elektra and the Hand, Karen still keeps at the Punisher business.

    For me, Daredevil season 2 fell flat. As much as I liked the Punisher, he pulled focus from the main plot of "holy crap, magic ninja are here". After Elektra arrives, the show is trying to serve two masters and failing both of them.

    Daredevil season 1 is great to watch for everything is does right with building up a solid villain, giving him an arc so we care about him, and making everything in service to the main story.

    Daredevil season 2 is great to watch for everything it does differently. The show juggles two main plots (I think they failed, but others will likely be fine with it), the villains aren't as well-sketched out, and there are cameos from season 1 people that are shockingly lazy in retrospect.

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    1. Fantastic summary. Season 1 was great, but 2 faltered for all those reason. It was like they didn't know what they wanted to be that season.

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  5. I thought about this last week and shamed myself into reading a book instead lol. Stranger Things is a go to for me when I want inspiration but I also love Orphan Black (LOVE IT) and The Missing is another one I recently binged. All of them are great because I can "see" the writing in them and how the elements are put together. Thanks for another great post!

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    1. Great storytelling is found everywhere :) Some days you want a good book, other days a good story you can sit back and enjoy.

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  6. Good suggestions!

    A show that intrigued me, especially for its characters and atmosphere, was the first season of True Detective. I think that could be dissected for great plotting, setting, and characterization elements.

    I also always look for something that just flat-out inspires me, fantasy-wise, because that's what I write. And this might be cheating because it was a book first, but the BBC ran Johnathon Strange and Mr. Norell, which I adored for many reasons. I couldn't get into the book.

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    1. I think it can be interesting to see how a show handles a book. It can give you insights into how stories unfold and what is consider vital vs. extra. Why did the show run with X and the book Y? for example.

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  7. Years ago, when I was learning how to plot, I watched the first season of Desperate Housewives. Absolute genius. Every single scene affects at least one subplot and one character arc. Take one scene out and some other scene somewhere is missing an element.
    I must watch that again.

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    1. That first season had the best plotting. I'd forgotten about that. It did masterful things with hooks. You just HAD to watch the next episode.

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