Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Watching TV Like a Writer: The Walking Dead

Want to learn about character arcs, plot, themes, and continuity? Watch TV. Or, to be specific, watch The Walking Dead. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

I confess, I LOVE LOVE LOVE The Walking Dead. I don’t think I could possibly love it more. Maybe if all the main characters were teens, or if they suddenly decided to flash back a few months to show how the zombie outbreak was unleashed during prom. I’m just saying. (Also, are you listening, bigwigs of TWD universe?)

But I have to admit that while the writing is often fantastic, there are times when the show disappoints me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, from a writer’s perspective. The best shows are the ones that make you dig deep, think critically. The ones that make you consider what the writer(s) is/are trying to accomplish, and what you would do differently if you were the writer. This is exactly what happens in writers’ workshops. This is part of learning to write. This is also how I convince myself that watching weekend-long marathons of seasons 1 and 2 for the fourth sixth time is really “learning about writing.” For the record, it is.

So here’s where I pose a challenge, probably the most difficult, thought-provoking, arduous, sweat-inducing, no-sleep-getting challenge you’ve ever faced: watch TV.

No, really.


Watch TV like a writer. Go back to your favorite shows and look at them critically. Consider what the writers were trying to accomplish. Consider if their methods were effective. Consider what you would change. How would you “revise” your favorite shows? (Hey, this sounds an awful lot like writing fan fiction. But no, writing fan fiction is not part of the challenge.)

The real challenge is this: take what you learned from watching Buffy, or Battlestar Galactica, or Doctor Who, or The Vampire Diaries, or The Walking Dead, and apply that to your own writing. I’m not talking about setting your next book in Sunnydale or having a Tardis transport your main character through space as she walks down the aisle at her wedding (even if the dude she’s about to marry is a backstabbing… never mind that). I’m talking about using what you learned about creating compelling characters, or character transformations, or motivations, or obstacles, or irony, or back story, or dialogue, or… you get what I mean. Use what you learned to revise your own work.

Still not convinced?

Here’s my example:

This weekend’s episode of TWD blew my mind. I know I wasn’t the only one. If you haven’t been watching lately, brace yourselves for a non-spoiler spoiler: Lori gives birth. But you knew that was coming since last season we ended with Lori pregnant. The show was on hiatus for a few months, but when the new season started, it’s been seven months since we last saw the survivors.

SuperFan Jaquira thinks: Wait! I need to know what happened during these last seven months! I need to know. Right. Now.

Writer Jaquira thinks: Why did the writers decide to fast forward these seven months? What were they trying to accomplish?   

And the answer is simple. The writers were trying to get that very reaction. SuperFan Jaquira’s reaction. I need to know what happened! I must watch the show until I get this knowledge. Because SuperFan Jaquira’s reaction was a need to know that kept her watching.

What does this have to do with writing? If your readers need to know, they keep turning pages to find out.

Back to this weekend’s episode. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Lori gives birth and she dies. Lori dies! I cannot stress how much I wanted this. I have wanted this since the moment Lori scolded Andrea about not doing enough laundry and dishes and cooking to pull her weight. As if the only way a woman can make a significant contribution in any society is by doing laundry and cooking for the men so that they will protect her. Let the men wash their own dirty underwear! And you can get munched on if you want to, but I’m gonna shoot some walkers!

Lori’s death aside, I was seriously disappointed with the show’s treatment of T-Dog. In so many ways. For so many reasons. They killed him off! Why?!

And here’s where SuperFan Jaquira and Writer Jaquira find no consolation.

So what are your thoughts? Thinking like a writer, what do you think the writers were trying to accomplish with this episode? Were they successful? How would you revise this episode? What did you learn? Also, what can you learn from watching or re-watching your favorite shows? How would you apply all that to your own writing? 


  1. I, too, adore this show. CANNNOT BELIEVE THEY KILLED OFF... well, you know who they killed off. Don't want someone to read the comments and see a spoiler. I think they did it because they just had nowhere they wanted to go with (insert name here) character, really. He was just always in the background. At least at the end, he served a bittersweet purpose: he saved someone.

  2. I haven't watched the show but I have a few co-workers who are die-hard fans so I heard about Lori's death. Apparently, they were just as pleased that Lori died as you. Probably a club called, "Kill Lori already!"

    Anywho, I can see what you mean. I admit, it's been hard watching movies because I tend to analyze them from a writer's perspective and poor Fan Me gets jostled about.

  3. I also watch TV with a writer's eye! My absolute favorite is Breaking Bad. That show has phenomenal writers. The actors are excellent too, but the writing is the best on TV. Justified is just as good, they've got author Elmore Leonard as a consultant.

    Anyway, regarding The Walking Dead, my husband, aka Ruiner of Shows, did NOT call Lori's death. He thought the baby would be zombed out. So that was unexpected, although I do recall hearing that Lori died in the comics back when season 1 aired. Still, I wasn't sure they'd do it on the show. I agree about T Dog--he's been with the crew from the start! His death was totally overshadowed by Lori so it felt kind of cheap.

  4. Kelsey: He WAS always in the background, which is one of the things I was upset about. I really wanted to know him before they killed him off. I felt his loss more because I had no closure. It felt like such a lost opportunity for an interesting storyline.

    Angela: I have the same reaction to movies. I find myself revising them at the movie theaters!

    Stephsco: Breaking Bad is also one of my favorites! I am usually amazed by the writers on that show. Although I wish they would explore Walt Jr.'s storyline (since he's a teen, and there's just so much to be explored there).

  5. I love Walking Dead. It's one of my favourite shows.

    I really didn't see why they had to kill of T-Dog. He was such an interesting person. He wanted to let the outsiders in and he was such a solid guy. His dying exemplified it.

    On the otherhand, I think people would cry foul if the group kept coming into contact with zombies and everyone survived. Unfortunately, he was the person who the writers had invested in the least.

    I cried when Lori died. I didn't dislike her as much as everyone else seems too. I'm left feeling distraught for the baby. How in the heck is it going to survive - there's no baby powder in a prision (though my uncle was fed of gravy as he was was allergic to milk).

    I heard the time shift was to deal with Chandler Griggs' growth spurts (Carl Grimes). I haven't found it an issue as to what's past. I assumed it was winter and they were snowed it and it was a bit boring with less walkers about.

    I hasven't watch Breaking Bad - but I think I might have to.