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Good storytelling should disturb us

Years ago, when I first started writing prose, I remember a literary agent said he and his wife never watched TV unless they were at the gym or a local bar because they don’t even own a TV. They focus all of their attention on reading.

Looking for role models for my literary life, I thought, “Aha…I won’t watch TV either.” It made sense. Less time in front of the tube equals more time writing or reading. My husband and I didn’t watch much TV anyway, but we did have our favorite shows we’d record and watch later.

At some point in my literary life—after graduating from my MFA program—I realized that being a writer wasn’t just about the ability to write well. Just at important, if not more so, is the ability to tell a good story.

When I heard another mentor, author Bob Mayer, say at a conference that he and his wife watched TV to dissect and analyze shows to discover what makes them work or not, I thought, “Aha, what a great way to analyze storytelling!”

Then, I attended one of Robert McKee’s “Story Seminars” and learned more about the elements of successful storytelling—allowing me to be a more astute reader and movie connoisseur.

I still don’t watch a lot of TV—after business and writing time there aren’t many hours left in the day–but when I hear about a successful or popular new show, I try to check it out and analyze why it’s successful. And, if I decide I don’t like the show, I’ll also break it down to discover why.

A recent example is the new drama “The Following,” with actor Kevin Bacon. I’m not really into excessively violent shows about serial killers, but this one received so much attention I thought I’d check it out. At first, I thought the storytelling was pretty good—there were several twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. But, after a few episodes, I began to grow bored and I thought the plot was becoming too predictable.

Then, I watched an episode that so deeply disturbed me that I’m still trying to decide if I will watch any more. The part that disturbed me was when one of the killer’s “followers” (thus, the title of the show) offered up his own life as a tribute to his mentor. The killing scene that followed disturbed me because it was so intimate and sensual that it brought me into the psyche of both the follower and the killer. And that scared the beans out of me.

In other words, it was excellent storytelling. What haunts me from the scene is how two seemingly opposites—murder and love—were woven together. And that got me thinking—what other opposites can be joined in storytelling? Love and betrayal. Anger and forgiveness. Sex and celibacy? And that led me to another question—how can I show these opposites in the story I’m currently writing?

Good storytelling, whether we ultimately “like” the story or not should cause a strong emotional reaction. If it disturbs us on some level, consider it a success. Good storytelling should also make us ask questions.

For more on dissecting TV shows or movies for storytelling, read Bob Mayer’s post, “Shows and Movies for Writers.”

What movie or television scenes stand out for you as a writer and why?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Wonderful points all the way through this post. Good storytelling should kick us in the pants, make us think, maybe scare the beans out of us. The line between love and hate is a fine one, they say. In my novel, I tried to express how redemption could come out of an unwise choice, how the opposite of rigtheousness is not only humility, but acceptance. Hoped to rattle some cages, maybe get people thinking. Thanks for this post 🙂

    April 30, 2013

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