Using TV to write a short story

Elvis Elvis

Now we’re going to take a look at a TV show – the whole show this time, rather than one scene, so we can understand how scenes come together to create a dramatic whole.

I work with TV and movies a lot for a couple of reasons. First, they’re familiar. Most of us watch TV (we know we’re rotting our brains with that stuff, but we watch anyway). Second, they’re easily accessible.

Third, you get to watch a bunch of your favorite shows and pass it off as research. How cool is that?

I like to use half-hour shows as examples, because they are closely related to short stories in scope and length. They feature one primary setting, action taking place over a limited period of time, one main character, and a few secondary characters.

Most of the half-hour shows you’ll find on TV these days are comedies. I prefer drama; since hour-long shows are the current standard, I look backward for classic examples. My background is genre, so my favorite show to “dissect” for study purposes is The Twilight Zone.

While somewhat dated, many Twilight Zone episodes were written by the top speculative fiction practitioners of their day, such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Scripts were often adapted from their own short stories, which gives you an opportunity to examine the original story and compare it to the show. Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a great example, and gives you two different filmed versions to work with: the original TV epsisode starring William Shatner, and the remake featured in the Twilight Zone movie, starring John Lithgow.

Using TV to write a short story

With the recent release of I Am Legend, based on Matheson’s excellent novel, it’s easy to find his short fiction in print again. Matheson is a modern grandmaster, and a good writer to learn from. I highly recommend his work.

Your mileage may vary. Perhaps you’re not a Twilight Zone fan. That’s okay. All you really have to do is pick a show you like, get your TiVo controller ready, and grab your writing notebook.

Here’s the method:

1. Write down the title, if there is one. All the Twilight Zone epsiodes were titled, many of them very cleverly. The episode I’ve chosen for my example is the classic The Howling Man, which you’ve likely at least heard about, even if you haven’t seen it.

If you’re not sure of your show’s title, you can look it up at tv.com or imdb.com. Both sites feature epsiode guides and list shows by title.

2. Go through the episode scene by scene. Write a summary – just a couple of sentences – concerning the action of each scene. Here’s what I did for the beginning of The Howling Man:

1. David Ellington begins telling us his story. This sets up a frame story told in flashback.
2. Ellington, feverish and lost in a storm during a walking trip through Europe, stumbles on The Hermitage. They are reluctant to allow him in.
3. Inside The Hermitage, David hears a strange howling sound.
4. David is shown into Brother Jerome’s quarters, where he is told he must leave immediately. Illness overtakes him and he collapses before he can reach the door.

The Howling Man is composed of twelve scenes, start to finish. The show you’ve chosen to study may have more scenes, or fewer. The particular number of scenes is not important. We want to see how those scenes fit together to create drama.

3. What kind of scenes do you have, and how do they go together? In my Twilight Zone episode, there is tension from the very beginning. The scenes build steadily, escalating to the final moment, when Ellington releases the howling man and discovers – too late – that Brother Jerome was telling the truth. That scene is the climax of the story – Ellington looses the Devil, and World War II begins. The final scene brings us back where we started, with Ellington telling his story. Now we see he’s explaining to his housekeeper why he keeps a howling man behind a locked door.

What kind of dramatic “shape” is created through the scenes in the show you’ve chosen? Are there quiet moments, followed by frenetic moments? Is it a steady build to a climax, or are there a lot of ups and downs? Did the end of the show surprise you? If it didn’t, was it still dramatically satisfying?

Try this with episodes from several different shows. Look at different genres. How do comedies differ from dramas? How about comedy and horror? Is a science fiction show really just drama with spaceships? Do all Twilight Zone episodes have the same basic dramatic shape?

Now look at your own stories. Do they have similar shapes to the ones you’ve studied? Can you identify elements from the shows you’ve studied in your own work? Are there dramatic “pieces” missing from your own stories that might hamper their effectiveness?

This kind of study can really help you develop a sense of the necessary ingredients for satisfying drama – the kind of ingredients that help you sell the stories you write.