Watching for Inspiration

by Rob Gregory Browne

I cheated and looked ahead and I know what Brett’s post is about tomorrow, and in a way, it’s connected to what I want to talk about today.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here (probably have), but I’ve changed publishers and am now writing a book for Dutton, the first in a series about demons and angels and the destruction of earth and a couple of characters who find themselves caught up in it all and have to fight like crazy to keep it from happening.

It’ll be a fun book — it’s been a blast to write so far — and, hopefully, a thrilling one as well, but it’s also an ambitious book for me, bigger in scope than anything I’ve attempted before, and in preparation for the book, I actually wrote a very long outline.  VERY long.  Something I don’t normally do.

Writing that outline was, quite possibly, the toughest thing I ever had to write.  Because outlines are all about plotting and figuring out story logic and character motivation and when it comes down to it, it’s real grunt work.

As I was writing the outline, I found myself hitting walls over and over, not sure where to go with the story or how to flesh out the shorter outline I was working from.

In the old days — before strict deadlines — I’d find when I hit a wall in my writing, it always helped to sit down and read a book.  Well-written books are a great inspiration for a writer.  In fact, they’re what inspired us all to write in the first place.

Unfortunately, as much as I love to read, I find it difficult to find time for it much these days, and almost impossible when I’m smack in the middle of trying to work out a story.  Reading takes a dedicated amount of time, and a lot of it.  In order to get through a book, it could literally take me a week or more of stealing moments here and there, and the experience would likely be disjointed and unfulfilling.

When I read a book, I like to be able to sit down and read it in a few hours or a couple of days.  Solid reading, until it’s finished.

But, again, I can’t do that while I’m writing.  So when I hit those walls, unless I want to take a few days off, I’m shit out of luck.

I did, however, stumble upon a solution to my problem:

TV shows.

Right now I think we are going through a period when television drama is at its very best.  There are many, many shows with solid production values, terrific acting and superb writing.

One night, when I hit a particularly solid wall, I said screw it and sat down to watch an hour of television.  Actually, I had a series on DVD that I’d always heard good things about but had never watched, so I popped the first DVD in and was suddenly swept away.  (DVDs or Netflix streaming, by the way, are the only way to go.  Commercials are so intrusive, they interrupt the flow of the narrative.)

To my surprise, as I watched the show with it’s amazing plotting and great interplay between the characters, I found myself becoming more and more inspired.  And when I finally went back to the keyboard that night, I was on fire.

It wasn’t so much the subject matter than inspired me.  But the TECHNIQUES the writers used to advance plot and character that — because a typical TV drama is only 44 minutes long — was IMMEDIATELY evident to me.  Techniques of craft that I could apply to my own writing.

These weren’t new techniques.  I knew them already.  But to see them used so brilliantly, to see how they can bring a good story to life, was as thrilling to me as reading a book by Stephen King.

Watching that TV show made me WANT to write, just as a great book will.  And whenever I got stuck again, I’d go pop in another episode, or mix it up with another well-crafted show, and find myself inspired all over again.

Some of the shows that have inspired me are:





Law & Order

All beautifully crafted, beautifully written shows.  Not every episode is perfect, of course, but if I pop one of these shows in, I’m bound to find myself itching to get writing.

So am I alone in this?  Do other writers in the crowd find inspiration in their favorite TV shows — and, if so, what are those shows?

And you readers — do you ever find that watching a great show inspires you to pick up a book?


23 thoughts on “Watching for Inspiration

  1. JD Rhoades

    So now when I’m watching TV instead of writing, I can tell myself I’m not goofing off, I’m finding inspiration? Sweet! Thanks, dude!

    Actually, I don’t often find inspiration for the fiction writing on TV, but when I’m looking for a topic for the newspaper column, "The Daily Show" always gets the juices flowing.

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    I’m with you on this Rob, maybe for different reasons. I think the first few seasons of 24 got me inspired. Because of the stuff I have to read for my day job, environmental regulations, permit conditions, lease agreements, etc., I find I’m not in the mood to read more when I plop my ass down at home.

  3. TerriMolina

    Reading a good (and sometimes not so good) book always inspires me to write because it reminds me why I want to write…to entertain. Recently I decided to stop writing and just read and watch TV to try to get the creativity back on track. In the last week I’ve read five books–most by Nora Roberts and Jayne Krentz because they were my inspiration from the start. Plus, reading also helps me with plotting (how to weave in the subplots)
    When I watch TV I look more at the characters. Their internal conflict, how they develop emotionally etc.
    My list of shows include Law & Order SVU; Supernatural; Bones, Medium, Charmed (in reruns).
    I’m planning to go back to work on my wips when the kids go back to school in January. I have a conference in April (and an editor appt) so I need to have something more than the two that aren’t selling. :-l

  4. karen from mentor

    The West Wing. Loved that show. Sometimes I just need a brain break from writing and I luck out and find a marathon. I see that as a sign from the universe that I need to take a couple of hours to wallow in great writing wrapped around patriotic rhetoric, reallly fast dialog and witty banter. :0)

    btw: LOVE the idea that you’re writing a story about demons and angels and the destruction of Earth and you’re calling it a "fun book"……… that made me grin ear to ear. Can’t wait to read it.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Super Bowl beer commercials do it for me.
    No, actually, I love this post, Rob. I used to keep my nose in the air about TV (versus film) but that has changed. I agree with you that we have entered a special time for great, TV dramas. With all the cable choices it’s like the independent film scene of the 90s.
    I’m still trying to do the book a week thing, but, as you mentioned, it’s all stolen minutes, so the process is frustrating. I end up compartmentalizing my life that way.
    And I’m pretty much sold on the hard, detailed outline approach. It has saved me on my current novel. I was flapping in the wind before I finally nailed it ALL down on paper, and then the process became joyful. I felt free to explore WITHIN the scene, since I’d already built the frame and I knew how far I could go to stay within the plot.

  6. Sarah in MN

    Not TV shows, so much, but a good movie? Hoo boy. I’ll come out of that theater with a creative high that can last for weeks, depending on the movie.

  7. Louise Ure

    A writer friend who came over for Thanksgiving dinner said the same thing to me about a recent episode of Criminal Minds. "The best television I’ve ever seen," he said. "Brilliantly plotted, great pacing and dialogue and impeccably cast and acted." Nice words, whether they’re about a book or a film.

  8. Brett Battes

    Now that I have that out of my system…a you know, Rob, I totally agree with you on the TV front. Some of my favorites:


    The show that I was hoping was going to do it for me, but hasn’t: FastForward – great idea, sloppily executed.

  9. Mike Dennis

    I just started watching "Dexter" a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know how it slipped by me these last few years, but it did. It’s truly a great show, and as you say, Rob, revealing in its methods of character development.

    It’s a good thing it’s on Showtime, though, because if it were on a commercial network, I fear all would be lost. It would fade into the formulas of network TV, downplaying the complexity of Dexter’s character, and playing up the relationships of the other characters. All the stereotypes would have to be thrown in, along with an annoyingly precocious kid, no doubt. There’s already a hint of cardboard stereotyping in some of the supporting characters, but the central theme is so strong, thanks to the uninhibited nature of Showtime, that the show is nevertheless a very good one.

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    A couple of people have mentioned movies as inspiration and there are certainly a few out there that are great. BUT. I think movies, in general, are in a great state of decline. Other than some great indie films like Juno and the lot, most of the movies we get today are big and loud and ham-handed. There is no subtlety in movie writing anymore. It’s all in your face, on-the-nose and as obvious as a pimple on a bare behind.

    Most of the big movies today are spectacle and not much else.

  11. JT Ellison

    I do the same thing when I’m on deadline – absolute immersion in other people’s visuals, but not their words. I discarded four books last week while I was finishing mine. But now I can go live it up again.
    TV is awesome now: Dexter and Californication are two of my faves.

  12. Catherine Shipton

    I’m still a little awestruck from the first season of ‘The Wire’.

    We have a newish Australian made police drama here called ‘City Homicide’…it’s set in Melbourne and is utilising the local cityscape well…The first season it was out I remember thinking it stood out from a lot of other of its ilk because of its pacing…and the truly surprising (yet still pausible) plots they developed. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at one of their story meetings.

    When I come across something good in TV it gives me a great compare/contrast opportunity against shows, that for me fall flat…I think this hones my analysis skill set rather well. This serves also me when I flip back to reading. I can more clearly see where pacing works, or doesn’t for me.

    I think you’re right Rob, a good visual does spark ideas.

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    Catherine, I didn’t even mention some of the great shows overseas. I have a netflix account and can stream a lot of television shows, including non-American shows. A lot of amazing stuff being done.

  14. Merc

    Yeah, I like TV shows since sometimes when I’m so burned out, I need a non-reading refueling. (Currently I’m watching Fringe, Sons of Anarchy, Criminal Minds, and Supernatural. I also like a lot of animated series and some anime–an even SHORTER time frame, like 22 mins, to tell a story is definitely inspiring when done well.)

    Also, I think, seeing techniques in a different medium gives it a new light–you aren’t stuck on the words, per se, but seeing how it plays out. At least, that’s how I take it. I watch the dialogue and body language and pacing and choreography, etc, and my brain starts trying to translate that into "how would this look in written form"–so I feel completely justified in TV/movie watching to learn. 😉 Plus, it’s good entertainment (and I don’t watch THAT much that it starts becoming a problem of sucking up too much time).

    Thanks for the post!

  15. Sarah in MN

    This is a late response but i wanted to add that i just read a short little essay written by a prolific author who stated, flat out, that if you watch tv, you’re not a serious writer. He went on to say that this was ok, but that if you wanted to make a career out of writing, you can’t watch tv. Ever. So i guess none of us are serious writers. Who knew? Good thing i found out now i guess…


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