Read all the how-to books you want, but the best way to learn fiction writing is by studying the masters. Whether you’re writing novels or screenplays, there’s a lot to learn from the modern masters of TV writing. Here are eighteen of the best TV shows to study, listed with the characteristic that stands out the strongest in their writing.
We’re not referring to the “high concept” pitches that Hollywood loves so much, but the simple, one sentence explanations of your story. This is exactly what your story needs. If you can’t explain the heart of your story to a person within one or two sentences, then you don’t know it well enough yet. Every story needs a single thread running through it, like “Frodo must destroy the One Ring, or the world will end.” This ensures your story has focus and a driving force for conflict. This short summary can also help determine the originality of your idea. Watch how the individual concepts of Doctor Who’s episodes can be wrapped up simply and are unique, even within sci-fi.
Every story and trope has been done, probably hundreds of times, and possibly better. Yet, there is always some new way to roast those old chestnuts. None of the elements in Firefly are particularly innovative when looked at individually. There have even been sci-fi westerns before (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., for example). But the genius of Firefly is taking all the old Western and sci-fi tropes and placing them in unusual combinations, like a master chef does with food or a mad scientist does with chemicals. The result is something considerably more original than the sum of its parts.
Even beyond its heavy reliance on computer generated imagery, Boardwalk Empire provides a strong sense of place. From costumes to locations, accents to vocabulary, and everything in between, this show gives a feeling of authenticity to each time and location it shows. Atlantic City, New York, Chicago, Florida; all become alive and authentic in the world of this show. The issue, of course, is that most viewers do not know what is authentic or not. However, Boardwalk Empire presents its setting so confidently and consistently that we assume it is. A story’s accuracy is often not as important as making an audience believe in that story’s accuracy.
Lost was a landmark television event. Whether you liked it or not, particularly that ending, it will remain one of the most talked about and popular television shows of all time. For the student of creative writing, it also offers a good example of a strong plot and structure. In the broadest perspective, the entire series can be seen as one story which, in its first two seasons, sets the world and its characters up extraordinarily well. By Season 3, we know what’s at stake and we know what each character stands for. Subsequent seasons then provide the rising action and intensity that pushes the characters into ever more drama and conflict until, in Season 6, we begin seeing the pay-off of the characters’ struggles. Regardless of whether the pay-off was good or bad, this series had all the proper plot-advancing points in all the right places.
Futurama takes its sci-fi genre and fills every frame, joke, and interaction with it. The script and setting contain innumerable references to sci-fi in popular culture. This is what caught the attention of viewers and turned them into a devoted fan base. The devil is in the details, and proper use of them establishes authority in your genre. These details appeal to your audience and act as shout-outs to fans that are in the know. It pays to know your genre to the point of being able to reference – or defy – the many tropes and conventions that run through it.
Mad Men’s Don Draper appeals to some and disgusts others – depending on who you ask, he’s either a man’s man or a misogynist. This brings up a good point about protagonists and the myth about a likable hero: the world is full of thousands of protagonists we don’t necessarily like, but they’re still the focus of the story. And the story still works. Why? The main character is the person who wants something very badly and actually does what it takes to get it, which is what stirs things up and gets us to watch or read. Don Draper, aside from any other qualities he may possess, is driven. He’s active and goes after his goals, he’s always chasing either a deal or a woman, and he hits snags and bumps along the way. All of this causes conflict; which, as we know, is what creates a great story.
In a show like HBO’s The Sopranos, it’s not hard to note a long list of antagonists. Hell, based on the actions traditionally associated with antagonists, it’s easy to include the protagonists in that list. However, antagonists do not necessarily have to be bad. Antagonists stand for everything that opposes the protagonists. These two characters don’t even necessarily have to dislike one another, but the hero and the villain of a story either can’t want the same thing and/or can’t let the other one win. Notice how often protagonist-antagonist relationships in The Sopranos are between old friends or people with strong mutual respect. Whether they like one another or hate one another, what’s most vital is that one or the other loses, and often in a big way.
Although known for its high concept humor and wild parodies, Community is often at its best when just allowing the members of the study group to interact with one another; be it as a whole, in smaller units, or one-on-one. With perhaps the exception of Abed, every character shifts their behavior to accommodate who they are with. These shifts are subtle enough that they don’t break character, but clearly Jeff and Britta speak differently to each other than Britta does to Annie or Jeff does to Shirley. Characters can also acknowledge when they have little common ground, eventually allowing their connection to grow into a new, unique dynamic.
The Wire does everything well. The highest praise any show can receive is “the best since The Wire,” because The Wire eclipsed all which preceded it. Its greatest achievement is in its diverse cast of fully formed characters with more shades of gray than E.L. James’ entire publication history. Over the course of five seasons, the lead characters of Season 1 become supporters in Season 3 and leads again in Season 5; while background characters seen in Season 1 are featured in Season 3 and dead in Season 4. Having seen this journey, the viewer mourns for those that are lost. The Wire demonstrates that even characters present for one scene are the protagonist of their own story.
The Office has one of the most varied casts ever seen. With many, many faces seen throughout the series, there are no two characters alike. Their unique relationships vary, and that’s what makes it interesting. You don’t want any two characters in your story performing the same function. The ways in which characters in The Office compare and contrast give rise to endless unique comedic situations and drama and keep the story fresh. Translated into writing, there should be as much contrast in your characters as possible. If you keep your characters in your own work unique and singular, then no two conflicts will be the same. You won’t be repeating yourself. That enlivens the audience’s appreciation from scene to scene and keeps your writing fresh.
The characters in Modern Family sometimes feel like a family to us as well. Part of the reason for that is because the characters reveal their flaws and worries to the camera, so we see them as human. We care for them. We relate to and can empathize with them. We feel like we’re on their side and that they would be on ours if they were real. When that kind of connection occurs with fictional characters, as it does with those in Modern Family, we worry about them; we go through the emotional ups and downs of their lives with them. This makes us want to read or watch further and see how their stories end.
During undergrad a professor told me, “If you want to learn to write good dialogue, watch The West Wing.” She was right. While later seasons had their moments, the Sorkin years are loaded with the type of erudite, clever banter that everyone wishes they could pull off in real life. It’s not realistic – at times too intelligent, lacking the uh’s, um’s, and false starts of impromptu conversation, and often overly idealized – but it’s these qualities which give every conversation in the show their musical rhythm. Let’s face it: purely realistic dialogue is practically unreadable. The world would be much better if everyone in it spoke like a character from The West Wing.
A story has to be believable. That’s one reason AMC’s The Walking Dead is such a standout: it makes the horror of a zombie apocalypse seem real. Details are extremely important for a number of reasons; not the least of which is creating a vivid world for your characters to inhabit. Understand though, that doesn’t mean overloading the audience with copious amounts of establishing shots and description. It means choosing the RIGHT details to focus on. The Walking Dead’s directors know which shots to use with important details that highlight the reality of the story. You’re watching the directing and cinematography here. In writing, camera shots can be translated into descriptions and imagery.
Tension is what keeps your audience dying to know what happens next. It’s what keeps them riveted and stuck in your work. They don’t want to step away from it, and they just HAVE to know the ending. You want this, obviously, and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad was famous for it. This show has been called one of the best television dramas of all time (with quite a few calling it the very best), and that position relied a lot on keeping viewers glued to their television screens. Notice how well the show keeps you guessing and raising new questions about what will happen next. There’s always some form of conflict we have to see resolved. No two characters ever get along in Breaking Bad, and nothing is ever certain.
Infuriating though it can be, Game of Thrones is a show in which almost anything can happen. This has very little to do with its fantasy setting and more with how it plays off traditional archetypes and the tone set at the end of the first season. Since then, the show has made a habit of subverting expectations in equally satisfying and unsatisfying ways. In this sense it is the most dangerous show on television, the exact opposite of body-of-the-week procedurals, and one of the only places where an entire storyline can begin or end in a single scene.
Sometimes we can learn more from what doesn’t work in writing than what does. The X-Files is an often-great show with numerous brilliant episodes, but it was also a victim of its own success. The prolonged drawing-out of its central mystery, the proverbial truth we were always assured is out there, eventually caused most viewers to lose interest. Many viewers doubted we’d ever get the answers we were promised, and when we finally did we either weren’t watching anymore or were disappointed. Despite its numerous positive qualities, The X-Files is a perfect example of what happens when a promised pay-off never comes.
While events and dialogue should always carry the drama and tell a story on their own, good narration offers the benefit of added insight. Arrested Development features narration performed by executive producer Ron Howard, who speaks mostly for the show’s protagonist, Michael Bluth. Narration is tricky, especially on-screen, but done well it’s great for transitions, added clarity, and that extra insight into what’s happening with the characters in front of us. This adds a fresh way to enjoy the story that may not be open to us otherwise.
Here’s how long The Simpsons has been on television: kids who were Bart’s age when the show debuted now have children who are Bart’s age. Over that time, the show has established its own language, world, and logic where continuity is as certain as the fate of Schrodinger’s cat. In this way, Springfield has developed a past, a present, and even a future as rich in lore and characters as any long-running fantasy series. It shouldn’t make any sense, yet it does in a uniquely Simpsons kind of way.