What’s your favorite TV show to fold laundry to? You know, the one you can half pay attention to and still keep up with the plot?
Maybe you don’t have any shows you only half-watch because everything on TV right now is so good. Peak TV is a real thing.
Or maybe you think watching TV is a waste of time. It’s a “guilty pleasure” or a purely leisure activity.
I’ve seen writers who encourage others to trade TV watching for book reading, but those activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Yes, to be a really good writer, you have to be a really good reader. But, my friends, there is some excellent TV on right now. And if you want to be a better writer, you should be watching some of it.
TV writers are turning out some of the sharpest, most creative, and innovative content in existence, and writers need to pay attention to learn from some of the best in the business.
Here are five reasons why.
The cold open, or teaser, is the first few minutes of a show that happens before the title sequence. It’s a hook that sets up the rest of the episode by introducing us to the plot (which monster are we chasing) or sets the tone and reminds us who the characters are. Either way, it gets a viewer invested in watching. It’s exactly like the lede in a piece of writing. Your opening line or paragraph is critical to getting the reader hooked.
Watching good cold opens can show you how to write a good opening sentence or paragraph. Generally speaking, your opening should be concise, and it must tie into the theme of the overall work. For example, I didn’t start this article off with “What’s your favorite car? You know, the one you dream of driving cross-country in?” The question might get you interested, but when you find out the article has a different subject, there’s a good chance you will lose that interest.
If you’ll allow me travel back in time a bit, Quantum Leap has a great example of a cold open. The show always begins with the main character leaping into the setup for the episode: a new person, a new time, a new situation. Two minutes in, the viewer has a grasp of the basic storyline and why it will be interesting. Plus, the teaser always ends with Sam saying the same phrase, “Oh, boy,” which tells the viewer that the real show is about to kick in.
Writers can use the same idea to set up a piece of content. If you’re writing for a brand, you might think of your first line or paragraph as a cold open in a show with a long story arc. It sets up that bit of copy, but it also fits into the greater brand narrative.
If you’re writing a one-off article, that opening has to set the stage for your whole concept and lead into the introduction.
It’s a lot of work for a few words (and it really needs to be a relatively few words), but nail the opening and you build goodwill that will get you through at least act one.
TV shows have a specific structure. There’s a teaser, act one, act two, act three, and sometimes act four or a kicker/cliffhanger. It’s such a standard format that when you watch TV shows on a streaming service, you know exactly where the commercials were when the show aired.
There’s also a standard structure to a television show’s season that mirrors the individual episode structure. It starts with the season premiere, which is usually a flashy episode that may resolve a cliffhanger from the previous season.
The action rises to some midseason point; in shows that have 22-episode seasons, there’s frequently a cliffhanger or two-parter episode, while in the increasingly common 10- or 13-episode shows, there’s one episode that serves as the fulcrum point for the whole season. For example, in every season of Justified, episode 11 served as the top of the roller coaster, sending viewers careening into the resolution of the 13-episode season’s storyline.
Then everything gets wrapped up in the season finale, which usually includes a special guest star and/or major character milestones.
Structure matters because it gives the audience guidelines on what to expect by creating a pattern. Humans like patterns. We are creatures of habit and even when we don’t like knowing exactly what’s coming (Spoiler Alert!), we like knowing what form it’s going to take.
Generally speaking, writing (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, an article, a blog post, or marketing copy) follows the structure of hook/lede, followed by body/critical data, and wrapping up with conclusion/kicker. At heart, it’s the same basic structure as in all storytelling, used by Homer, Scheherazade, Jane Austen, and George R. R. Martin. You capture the audience’s attention, then spin the story with the rise and fall of action or narrative, and finally wrap it up either with a happy ending or a open-ended scene leading to another story.
What you can learn from watching TV is how to make structure serve the story instead of shoehorning your story into a pre-set structure. The Good Place, Killing Eve, and Timeless all have the same foundational structure, but the writers on each show make the structure of the show and the season work for the story.
Pay attention to structure and learn how to shape it into your writing in order to connect with your audience and give them a pattern.
You can tell an Amy Sherman-Palladino show immediately. In The Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the dialogue flies so fast you have to pay attention or you’re going to miss half a scene in the blink of an eye. It’s also quotable (everything I learned in life, I learned from Lorelai Gilmore) and fun to watch.
On the other hand, the writers of The Americans may not have invented the concept of slow burn, but they damn sure perfected it. There are episodes where I swear that one commercial break had more action sequences and spoken dialogue than the entire 42 minutes of show.
The difference in these two shows (beyond the obvious) is pacing. From the premise, you’d think the spy show would be fast-paced and action-packed, while the comedy-drama about a single mother and her daughter would be slower, with mostly gentle dialogue. Instead, you get the opposite.
Pacing isn’t only important in fiction writing; it also matters in articles, blog posts, and even copy. When you’re writing for a particular audience, pacing affects everything from length of sentences, to asides (a lot of parentheses can be fun or annoying depending on who is “speaking” and who is reading), to structure.
Even if you’re not writing dialogue, your content still has a specific voice. If you’re writing about an exciting beach vacation filled with parasailing, spear fishing, and jet skiing, your words will be action-packed! Short and punchy with lots of verbs! But if you’re writing about a laid-back retreat in the mountains, you want your writing to be a breath of fresh air and relaxation. Smooth and slow, where you can feel your shoulders unclench as you read.
By watching examples of different pacing, you can get a feel for what might work in your writing.
It’s not a sci-fi show until some character breaks out in technobabble, describing some phenomenon or equipment in convoluted jargon. That jargon could be completely made up, or it could have a basis in real science and technology. Either way, unless you have a background in engineering, your best bet is just to grok whatever the character is saying without trying to, you know, understand it.
But sci-fi shows aren’t the only ones that use technobabble. The doctor show, the lawyer show, the military show—all have their own jargon.
Technobabble isn’t inherently bad. It’s another way the writer sets the scene, gives us action, and explains the characters. In fact, in most shows it’s absolutely necessary. If a doctor doesn’t sound like a doctor, the audience may not believe the character or the story.
In other words, we expect starship captains to talk about hyperdrives and Army captains to use military slang and police captains to mention APBs and B and Es. But if your audience has to spend an hour Googling terms they don’t recognize, you’ve probably crossed over the line into too much.
Using the appropriate jargon for your story gives your writing authority, grounding it in expertise and realism. It can establish your brand or your genre, and in some cases, it’s a form of shorthand that an established audience will understand.
However, as in television, jargon shouldn’t be used as a gatekeeping mechanism for new or casual readers. (The old “Well, if you don’t know the name of the alien The Doctor defeated in Series 5, Episode 2, then you’re not a fan at all” trope.) At worst, jargon and technobabble should advance the plot or simply convey data; at best, it should be fun.
The meaning of any jargon you use should also be clear from context, even if your reader doesn’t know the exact meaning of the term or acronym. Cross stitch this phrase if you have to: Confusing your reader (without purpose and forethought) is bad. Watching how TV handles jargon can help you get familiar with both the good and not-so-good uses of it.
Genres are a shorthand way to set expectations for your audience, which isn’t a bad thing. We know basically what we’re going to get with a spy show like Burn Notice or a fantasy epic like Game of Thrones. You can connect to an established audience by setting your story in a particular genre.
Genres are also another way to explain what you’re trying to do with a piece of content or a story (Firefly is a Western set in space. Got it.).
And genres can help writers define their audience. Just like Star Trek fans can reasonably expect their show to be set on a spaceship or space station, if you’re creating a piece of branded content for a tech site, you can probably safely crack a Star Trek joke and assume most readers will get it. For some types of content creation, a narrowly defined audience is useful, since you’re trying to speak to a relatively small group.
But genre can also lock you into an audience. If you want to grow an audience, you have to look for ways to work outside the established parameters for the genre. In practice, that means building in ways for more people to see themselves in whatever genre you’re writing in.
For example, if you’re writing blog posts for a university, you may think you have a narrow audience of 16-22 year olds who are considering going to college or already enrolled. If you only create with that audience in mind, you could miss the 28-year-old military vet who just got out of the service and is now ready to get their degree.
Know what genre you’re writing for and then figure out how to expand those boundaries.
Sure, watching TV seems like a luxury. But if you want to sharpen your writing skills, it’s a great way to pick up and practice a few key things.
TV writers are experts at creating hooks to get viewers’ attention. They set their structure and pace to match the story and audience, and they use jargon and genre to connect with established viewers and recruit new ones.
If you watch TV, you can pick up some of these same techniques and turn them into peak writing.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.