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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Taking Risks With Your Writing

Maybe it's because when I began writing I started out with screenplays, but I find that the right television show or movie is a perfect course for studying the craft of writing.  So once again, I have to point to the modern Hawaii Five-0 as my classroom.

I have to be honest.  I haven't learned to take risks with my writing or as a writer.   As writers, we are often afraid to show our work to others for fear of being knocked down.  We also avoid taking risks as writers because we have a tendency to write the "tried and true" formula, or perhaps we simply don't dig deep and give our characters all we've got--maybe it's too painful to do so, too exhausting, or who knows what other reasons we may have for not doing more than scratching the surface of our characters.

But in this competitive market when there are a bazillion books to choose from, we absolutely must dig deep and create the most powerful stories we can. 

This is a trait I think can be learned from Team Five-0 at CBS.  One of the things I admire most about Hawaii Five-0 is that they take big risks with their writing.  Most television shows rely on the old standbys of advancing storyline for serial characters.  Such as:

Will Jack marry Jill?
Will Jill have an affair?
Will their teenage daughter run away from home?

A little of that is fine but it can quickly grow old.

But Hawaii Five-0 is built on deeper, richer stuff.  A dual platform drives the show.  Yes, you have the personal lives of the characters and their romantic interests (which fortunately they keep to a minimum most of the time).  But this series, where the risk comes into play, is the deep and penetrating story line of the murders of both of Steve's parents and his subsequent hunt for the truth about their murders and about the depths of the investigation his father was undertaking before he was killed.

For me, THAT is the glue that holds the show together--and that keeps me coming back week after week.  I think it takes guts for the powers that be to pursue that storyline.  It is risky.  If they do it, and do it well, people will think they are brilliant.  If they make a choice and it flops, people will think it's the biggest dud ever (in Five-0's case, the series dud is the character of Weston).

And TV writers don't get the luxury of churning out the manuscript and putting it away for a few years while they let it simmer in their mind.  They have a production schedule to keep.  The job has to be done and they have to stick their neck out on the line.

So far, I keep watching the developments on Five-0 and thinking, man that is so cool.  But my next thought, analyzing it from a writer's standpoint is, "Man, how will they keep raising the bar?  How will they ensure that taking the risk is worth it?"  Working in television must be a nerve-wracking experience.  Far more so than writing novels.

But it's still a good lesson for a novel writer.  When we write, do we have the guts to take risks?  Or will we just stick to the tried and true and hope that our trusty market will always be there, ready for its usual fare?

It's a call every writer has to make.

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