What does the word “good” mean, and how does one become a good writer? Does the word “good” mean something unique for television that is different from what it means for the movies, live theater, or novels? These are the questions for my first post to my Film and Media blog.
Why am I asking these questions? Right now, I am sitting alone in a classroom at St. John’s University in Minnesota. It is 8:00 a.m. in the morning in the middle of winter, just a few days after Christmas, and nobody is here because the school is on vacation. A few thousand miles away, a group of people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia are sitting in a classroom at 5:00 p.m., watching a classic TV drama from the 1990s, NYPD Blue. After they watch and discuss the show, they and I are hoping to have a conversation via Skype about writing scripts for serial TV dramas. This is the first workshop organized by Sandscribe Communications on the development of Ethiopian television. This blog that I am writing now is meant as a supplement to the workshop and also as a backup in case the Skype connection does not work. If you want to see my syllabus for the workshop, click [here].
Before I get to the question of what the word “good” means, I want to get to the question of how one becomes good. The metaphor I like to use is the metaphor of the marathon runner. Writing is like running a marathon. To be a good marathon runner, you have to practice a lot. (Actually, to be honest, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have done several triathlons, and I had to run, swim, and bike almost every day.) Most of the time, marathon runners are not running races. They are just practicing. To become a good writer, one must also practice. Most of the time, you are not finishing scripts. You are just practicing. Anyone can run a marathon if he or she practices enough. But if you stop training, even if you are the most talented runner, you will be unable to finish. Your muscles will become weak and will forget how to complete that distance. And a good marathon runner is not a good soccer player or dancer. The muscles are different for each sport. Your brain is a muscle, so just like running, when you stop using your brain to write every day, your brain muscle will become weak and will forget how to finish the script. Also, runners get better when they run with other people, not when they run alone. They learn to run faster and farther when they run with others and measure themselves against others. And this gets me to the question of what “good” means.
What is good depends on other people, but for television writing, this is much more complicated than marathon running. When you think of other people, including other writers and your audience, you begin to ask yourself why are you doing this? What is your purpose? Is the purpose to make a political statement? Is the purpose to sell a product, like in advertising? Is the purpose to make the audience happy? Do you want to make people cry? Do you just want other people to like and respect you? Are you writing for Americans, for Ethiopians, or for the whole world? According to the book Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas, television is different from movies because the goal of movies is to make the audience gasp and exclaim “wow!” One might compare a movie to sex, as a good movie gradually becomes more exciting and more intense and then reaches a climax and then is over. Instead, television shows make the audience feel comfortable, as if the characters on the show are the audience’s friends or family for an hour each day or each week. So, if one might compare a movie to sex, then one might compare television to marriage. (That was a joke.)
I agree with professor Douglas in some ways, but there is something wrong about her perspective that reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in which television becomes a government tool for brainwashing the public by giving them the feeling of interpersonal relations without any real relationships — that is to say, television seems almost like a drug that gives people simple emotional feelings without the real emotional connection, without the complex ethical dilemmas, and without the challenging conflicts that we face. For me, the essence of good writing is an honest and respectful attention to the ethical dilemmas of the characters in a way that helps the audience think about how the decisions of ordinary, everyday life connect to the big picture of the whole world. A good story does not start with an answer and a clear sense of right and wrong. It starts with a question (or a dilemma or a problem or even a failure), and relates that individual question to a bigger context. (A good example of this is the book of Job from the Bible, and we should remember that Job never gets a clear answer to his questions from God.)
So, I question professor Douglas’s book, but to be fair, it seems that she also believes as I do that television can be something better than it has been in the past. Television is changing, because the tools for making television are changing, and the world is changing. Here is a YouTube video of her talking about her book:
So, the question I still have for my friends in Ethiopia is not what makes a good TV drama in general. Instead, my question is what makes a good TV drama in Ethiopia for the year 2012? What do you think?