I’m going on the record: writers need Netflix.
I know, I know. What’s that word for continuing a bad habit by convincing yourself it’s beneficial in some way? I realize I sound like someone who needs to cling to any reason to stay with my addiction, but I will make the argument that Netflix, Hulu, any video streaming medium is an essential writing tool. Let me tell you why.
I first got Netflix the summer before my senior year of high school. I was taking college classes to get a head start on my pre-reqs (even then, I knew I’d have a devil of a time choosing a major and would need some room in my schedule to figure it out). I had a few friends I liked to hang out with on campus, from the dorms reserved for high school students, but for most of the summer I sat bored in my room, reading or doing homework.
I started with How I Met Your Mother, and after finishing that I moved into Grey’s Anatomy. My sister roped me into watching Gossip Girl and I caught up on episodes of The Walking Dead before the start of the new season. When I left campus and went back to high school, I started finding more time to write, and, coincidentally, I started writing a lot better than I had.
Dialogue, something I always struggled with, flowed better. I was able to recognize holes in my story structure before getting too deep into the writing, because I spent so much time pointing out the holes in shows.
But more than anything, Netflix did wonders in helping me practice Show, Don’t Tell. During one episode of The Walking Dead, during the scene before the intro, the characters reach an abandoned home for the night. It’s a season opener, and as each character enters you see how they’ve changed, and you realize quite a bit of time has passed since the last season finale. They bring in their supplies and hunt for food in the house. The youngest character finds a can of dog food, and he begins to heat it up over a small fire in the barren living room. Everyone’s hungry. Everyone’s tired. Everyone looks already dead. Then you hear low growls, muffled by the walls of the home. The dead are approaching, a lot of them; the characters don’t hesitate. They pick up their gear, stamp out the fire, and get back in their cars. Before driving away, one of the characters grabs a hatchet stuck in a block of wood outside of the house. She adds it to the group’s supplies as the dead emerge, stumbling after the cars as they retreat.
I love this scene; it’s probably my favorite scene in the whole series, and it’s because I can know so much about what is happening, how much the characters are suffering without any of them saying a word. None of them utter so much as a sound in the few minutes before the intro starts, and it’s haunting in its beauty.
A reader (or in this case, viewer) doesn’t need the characters to come out and say they’re reaching the end of their rope. We don’t need to hear the words “I’m tired” or “I’m hungry.” We can see that with the dead faces and the warming up of dog food. In writing, we “see” that with drooping lids, collapsed posture, desperate searching for food in near empty pantries, and the rapid tearing of pull-tab cans.
Next week I’m going to write more about what TV shows and movies, specifically the ones in the horror genre that I’ve been watching this month, can do for your writing, but today I’ll leave you with this: Netflix shows (or shows on any medium) don’t rely on heavy exposition, and we as writers shouldn’t either.
Today, during a binge, take a few minutes to really watch an episode and figure out what makes it good. Notice where the episode shows, but doesn’t tell, where the dialogue works, how the episode rises and falls within the half or full hour. Also, take note of what isn’t working, and what you don’t want to replicate in your own writing. Then, after you’ve finished watching, write out the episode, as if you’re writing a short story or a chapter in a novel.
At the end of the exercise, read over what you have. Does it make your heart beat in the same places as the show did? Do you do the good moments justice, and fix the bad moments so they connect better on paper? The results may surprise you and help you build on the areas of writing that really make storytelling an art.