Writing, as Taught by Kids’ TV Shows

A year or so ago, I read a writing exercise idea on a blog that changed the way I view watching TV. The blogger in question would make notes of, then dissect the episode she was watching. She’d figure out which plot points worked, which didn’t, where the dialogue fell flat, where it rocked, and how she would have improved the episode. By doing this, she swore she learned better writing techniques. (I’m sorry I can’t find the link to this article now.)

I’ve never taken an episode apart like that, but I haven’t really viewed anything on the telly in the same way either. This thing about learning better writing from TV has remained in the back of my mind, so my viewing has become more critical.

MLP Suits

I didn’t expect to learn even more from kids’ shows than their adult counterparts, however.

Kayla seems to have inherited my one-track-mindedness when it comes to what she consumes on TV. She latches on to one show, watches the hell out of it for an extended period of time, then moves on to the next. For over six months, the show she’s chosen to watch on repeat is My Little Pony. No matter which other show she discovers, we return to this one. Constantly.

In terms of grown-up shows, we’ve been watching Suits. Since MLP and Suits are the shows freshest in my mind, I’m going to focus on comparing those two. So, I want to warn you now that this post will contain spoilers. Having said that, the shows for kids that have impressed me with their storytelling include Trollhunters, various series in the Lego franchise, Dinotrux, and even shows for younger kids, like Curious George.

I also want to make it clear that I don’t hate Suits. The show bored me for a while in the middle seasons, but now I have to find out how Mike and Harvey bullshit their way out of the charges and proceedings to prove Mike’s not a lawyer. I’ll keep watching for a while longer and I reckon it’s a show you might enjoy too.

OK. My Little Pony.

The first two episodes of the revived series follow on each other, and were interesting enough that I found myself on the couch, next to Kay and watching with intent. Whatever it was I’d been doing had been forgotten in favour of fangirling with my kid. That’s an achievement in itself – I don’t tend to like the very girly shows as a rule. These days, I’m the first to admit MLP sucked me in faster than most shows I’ve enjoyed in my life. I’m a self-proclaimed addict.

The reason is simple – the writing is sophisticated and so nuanced that I was surprised this is a show for kids. Adult TV rarely contains story arcs pulled through various seasons with such grace and actual impact on the universe as MLP does.

This revelation led me to compare various kids’ shows with those for adults, and I was shocked to find how many of the kids’ series share this quality. Better writing. Better character development. Better overall storylines – albeit simpler ones.

Our shows often have intricate, convoluted plots, with fragile connections like a spider’s web. I’m a Whovian and a massive fan of The Blacklist, both series with backstories so complicated that I feel I need a diagram just to keep track of their plots. I’m not saying these stories are written poorly, though many fans will agree that The Powers That Be tend to underestimate our intelligence when they feed us some of the less defined story arcs.

One of the biggest issues I’ve found is character development.

This brings us to Suits. I love the arrogant, smart-ass type of character. No shock there, I just listed the Doctor and Raymond Reddington as the protagonists of my favourite shows (and honestly, the reason I keep watching those shows). So, Harvey Specter and Mike Ross both appeal to me.

As we continued with the story, Donna and Louis soon knocked the other two from the limelight and stole the show IMO. Donna is arrogant and smart-assed too, but has a lot more depth than the male leads, with clearer reasons for her behaviour. And Louis? Oh, Louis. Of the entire cast, he’s the most real – flawed and desperate and glorious.

But. Five seasons in, all of these characters are making the exact mistakes they were making in season one. They’ve learned nothing. They haven’t grown. They haven’t changed. Harvey still spoils his perfect plan to the opposing lawyer by mouthing off and still cannot show his emotions (he even lies to his psychiatrist). Louis still makes enemies and does the opposite of what he’s told, even while someone (usually Donna) explains with perfect sense why he shouldn’t. Mike still makes a judgement call that ends up in Jessica’s office with threats and ultimatums, then bullshits a path out of it in a way that often tests the edge of the law. All of them ignore five seasons worth of lessons learnt in favour of remaining stagnant.

Sadly, the same thing happens in the other shows I love. I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Keen.

Real people grow. For better or worse, stuff impacts us and alters the way we operate. A character that shares that trait will draw more love from fans.

My Little Pony does this with style, believe it or not. In the first two episodes, the antagonist is Nightmare Moon. When episode two ends, you learn she’s really the sister of Princess Celestia, and is reinstated as Princess Luna. Throughout the rest of the series, this character is developed incredibly. Despite proving herself to be trustworthy (which isn’t something that falls in her lap), she continues to struggle with what she did as Nightmare Moon and ultimately has to learn to forgive herself before she can evolve even more. Depression and self-acceptance in a kids’ show, executed beautifully.

You might think that’s just one character, but you’d be wrong. Literally every pony in this show goes through the same metamorphosis. They grow and learn, like the most interesting characters are supposed to. We explore the emotional and physical impact their decisions have, not only on their personal lives, but in their community. Because, unlike in adult shows, they can’t bullshit their way out of every scenario. Actions have consequences.

Even the antagonists. One or two are typical cartoony villains, like Queen Chrysalis, but many of them have more depth than the Big Bad in adult shows. Discord (my absolute favourite), Sunset Shimmer, Trixie, Starlight Glimmer, Gilda and Princess Luna – all reformed villains. We get to know these antagonists throughout the series and come to understand what motivated them in the first place. Then, through artful writing, we are led to feel sorry for them and come to love them when they join the list of allies.

In Suits, the Big Bad is Daniel Hardman. He’s flat – the typical asshole who will do whatever it takes to get revenge, just for the sake of saying he won. I have no idea what motivates him, or why he’s chosen to lash out in this way. His backstory comes down to ‘he’s a sleazebag’, but that’s not enough to understand him. He might as well have been a cardboard cut-out. Charles Forstman is the same, and so are Cameron Dennis and Travis Tanner. These are all of the major antagonists the show has had to this point, and none of them have been interesting.

Dialogue goes hand-in-hand with character development, and is another area where MLP outshines Suits (and other adult shows).

The Suits crowd all share a history of attending Harvard (except for Mike and Rachel) and they spend long hours together in the office. I can understand that people in a small group tend to absorb speech patterns from each other – proximity has that effect. Still, once you’ve noticed that all of the characters use the same words or phrases to express themselves, it’s difficult to un-hear. For example, do yourself a favour and count how many ‘goddamits’, ‘dicks’ and ‘assholes’ are uttered in a single episode. The constant repetitions become jarring, then boring.

Besides that, these people still come from different frames of reference, so it should show in their language. We’re taught to avoid repeating words, cusses or ideas too often in writing, but I never understood how damaging it could become until I started watching Suits. Instead of loving unique characters, we’re made aware of the authorial voice, which blends the entire cast into a single being, connected to the mothership through mind-control.

The ponies all have their own personalities, so well defined that it seeps into the way they talk. Each one has jargon unique to them, so while they share some dialogue attributes (they’re still a small group), they retain their own way to speak. This is a quality of a well-developed character.

The foreshadowing in MLP is brilliant. Some things are foreshadowed for seasons before it becomes relevant, often without the viewer even realising it’s being done. In Suits, foreshadowing equals a flashback two to three episodes before The Event.

Flashbacks are lazy, IMO. And I say that after employing various flashbacks in my own writing, back with the Evangellion Trilogy. There’s a reason those books are being rewritten. If you hang around book reviews and forums for writers, you’ll soon realise the average reader doesn’t like flashbacks at all. So why do we keep forcing our readers to plough through those scenes?

A well thought out plot creates opportunities for foreshadowing. I get that ratings, etc, have an influence on where the story will go and I’m a pantser too. I just wish the writers working on these series will give more thought to filtering information for later use in better ways. The Blacklist is great where foreshadowing is concerned. Just had to put that out there. 🙂

I could prattle on in this post for hours still, but I won’t. You probably get the idea by now.

In conclusion, kids’ shows have taught me that simpler plots aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Developing characters is important, and if they don’t learn from their mistakes, the reader won’t like them. Speech patterns can make or break your cast. Foreshadowing is UBER important, and flashbacks suck. 🙂

If you have thoughts to share on this topic, please do!

Have a good one,

Yolandie

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