I originally titled this entry My Long-Awaited Post on Writing, complete with clarifying asterisk that it was long-awaited by me and no one else. But I had to change that after my original concept transformed and mutated into a book review. Also, just so you know, the current title should read: My Thoughts On Writing, minus the clunky quotations, but I guess you can’t italicize titles in WordPress.
All that information I just gave you, the reader, is in the eyes of every writing teacher ’round the globe a mortal sin. “Never talk about writing in your writing.” It’s probably the second rule of writing, right after “never tell when you can show,” and it’s the one rule I fight with every single time I sit down to write.
I always want to tell people how I came up with my ideas and what the writing process is like, and on a blog that is perhaps but a venial sin. I still do my best to restrain myself, at least in the instances when I’m telling a story.
I’ve been thinking about the rules of writing recently because I’ve been reading about writing. Specifically Stephen King’s book On Writing. Despite my distaste for the horror genre and an underwhelming reaction to the language and style of King’s prose, On Writing is a very good book. I’m happy to know that when King writes he’s thinking about style similarly to the way I think about style. This made it easy to accept and (hopefully) incorporate suggestions he had that I hadn’t thought of previously.
On Writing isn’t perfect. The biography of King’s early life is fascinating and funny (even to non-fans like myself), but I doubt it’s very helpful to an adult reader looking to break into the business. Despite a promise to be brief, the third section of the book where he details the writing and publishing processes meanders. Also, King’s book was written about 15 years ago and while I doubt the art of writing fiction has changed much in that time, other things have.
King talks about being of a generation that got to experience some amount of life without television. He considers that an asset and I don’t doubt him. But he also says, I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frasier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete?
He goes on to site infomercials, Jerry Springer and CNN as the noise that they are, and no doubt about it, television today is still brimming with noise. BUT…but but but… It’s not all noise, and some of it is great storytelling. King is categorizing the entirety of television as a low-brow art form, though he makes it quite clear to his aspiring author readers that fiction can be excellent or awful, high art or low. It’s one of my pet peeves when authors dismiss other forms of entertainment. I love to read but more than that I love good stories, regardless of format.
I wonder if King would write that section differently if he updated the book. TV today is better than it was 15 years ago, and is a great storytelling medium. More so than 15 years ago, people want to get to know characters and stay with them for a longer haul. Though this manifests itself as a lack of originality at the multiplex, small screen writers have risen to the challenge of making characters seem realistic and are better at creating years-long story arcs that ring true to life. I could list several excellent programs that have entertained and enlightened me over the last few years, but when it comes to stories that can rival what you’d find in a good work of fiction, you needn’t go any farther than Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Mad Men is a character study and is, in my eyes, the best thing that has ever been. Ever. It is storytelling at its finest. Breaking Bad revolves around a central and unchanging plot. There are a few imperfections with this show but the plot is flawless. More so than that, the payoff is astronomical. King notes in his book that there’s an old rule of theater that goes, “If there’s a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III.” The reverse is also true; if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a part at the end of the story, it must be introduced early. Otherwise it looks like a deus ex machina. There is not a single prop or story element in Breaking Bad that is wasted or that feels contrived. There are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of books one could read that would not be as worthy of your hour as watching one of these shows. (For insight into writing for episodic television, check out this brief article featuring comments from Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, or this not-so-brief-but-really-fantastic article featuring the same people.)
And here is where I must stop the story/commentary to talk about writing again. Apparently I have a lot to say on writing (and surprise of all surprises, television), for this post has twisted and turned and I can’t decide where it’s going. Perhaps one really shouldn’t talk about writing. However, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and all the other films and TV shows have countless hours of interviews and Cliff’s Notes to help viewers understand the story better and to satisfy fan’s curiosity of the writing/creation process. So maybe it actually is a great idea, so long as you have created something that can stand or calls for analysis. I have not. Not this time. Maybe next time.
AFTERWORD: I’m not very happy with this post. If it were a paper for school, I would scrap it and start over with a new subject. However, so much effort went into trying to say something worthwhile that even though the finished product fell short, I’m posting it anyway. It’s all part of the creative process.