Can TV Make You a Better Writer?

by Maggie King

As a mystery writer, I enjoy TV shows with strong characters and storylines that show the ups and downs of being human in a less-than-perfect world. They don’t have to be crime shows, but they’re mostly what I watch. Regardless of the genre, the best shows feature conflict as a common denominator. Watching them is a great way for writers to study dialogue and body language.

Ever heard that oft-repeated writing advice to give your main character something to want and make sure she/he has a devil of a time getting it? TV writers are experts at giving their characters motivations and the accompanying challenges.

No doubt about it, TV is a great source of writing advice and inspiration. Consider the following shows:

Breaking Bad
It’s big, it’s bold, it’s … well, bad. Walter White is a mild-mannered, dispirited high school Chemistry teacher. When he’s diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, he knows his meager income won’t secure his family’s financial future after his death. He partners with one of his students in manufacturing and distributing crystal meth.

At some point, Walter White’s cancer goes into remission. It doesn’t take long for him to become a power player in the dangerous criminal underworld. For the first time, he feels alive–his new career as a drug kingpin is much more exciting than teaching adolescents in Albuquerque.

Any writer can find Breaking Bad a model for character development and a riveting, twisty plot. Vince Gilligan, creator of the show, knows how to weave secrets and deception into the story, and Walter White’s double life requires him to constantly deceive those closest to him. His growth, moral decay, and transformation result in tragic consequences for his family and associates. The DEA’s hunt for Walter leads them to a very interesting discovery. A huge cast of supporting characters will also inspire writers.

Warning: Breaking Bad is uber-violent. I usually shy away from its level of violence, but the story and writing are just too good.

Darby and Joan
Now we take a 180-degree turn. Darby and Joan is a lighthearted Australian mystery series, set in the stunning Queensland outback. A retired detective (Darby) teams up with a British nurse (Joan) to solve the mystery of her husband’s recent death. As they travel through Queensland, they encounter, and solve, other mysteries ranging from murder to arson to kidnapping.

Darby and Joan are well-drawn characters in a growing relationship that feels real. The humor is natural and not manufactured. They experience minor, temporary conflicts. At the end of season 1, romance looms for the two. Will they succumb? I’m eagerly awaiting season 2.

I try to emulate Darby and Joan’s tone and interaction for my characters. Most stories have a romantic component and my Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries are no exception.

Death in Paradise
This cozy-ish police procedural is set on the fictional island of Saint Marie (actually Guadeloupe). The Caribbean scenery is breathtaking, certainly a character in the series.

Death in Paradise is known to be formulaic. Once the lead detective comes up with the killer (one of those lightbulb moments), he assembles the suspects and, a la Agatha Christie, goes through the events and finally names the killer.

But being formulaic isn’t all bad. The predictable narrative style and structure of each episode makes it easy for writers, especially beginning ones, to study. Besides, the stories themselves may be creative and original.

If nothing else, Death in Paradise is lighthearted entertainment with pretty scenery.

Miss Marple
The beloved Miss Jane Marple is a perennial favorite of mystery fans. Created over ninety years ago by Agatha Christie, the elderly spinster lives a quiet life in the village of St. Mary Mead—quiet until a villager is murdered and that happens with alarming frequency. Miss Marple never fails to identify the killer(s), using her powers of observation and knowledge of human nature. Sometimes she disguises her shrewdness with a dithery manner. She can always see a parallel between the latest crime and a villager, or village incident.

There are countless adaptations of the stories and a number of actors have played Miss Marple. Joan Hickson is my favorite as she best matches my picture of how the character looks, acts, and speaks.

Agatha Christie has influenced many crime writers over the years, especially with plot development. I expect she’ll do so indefinitely. I think the Columbo character played by Peter Falk often channeled Miss Marple, with his bumbling ways that concealed a sharp mind.

Touched By an Angel
Touched By an Angel was a popular American series that ran for nine seasons. It’s not a crime show, but it featured stories of troubled people who had reached turning points in their lives. As they grappled with personal demons, conflict, and tough choices, along came an angel in human form to guide them and impart God’s wisdom.

This show inspired me on many levels. At the beginning of my debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, the main character, Hazel Rose, is standing at a crossroads. She’s at loose ends in her life and is hard pressed to make even the smallest of decisions. Solving the victim’s murder gives her the opportunity to grow and get out of her rut.

There are many shows I can recommend for writers: Brokenwood, City Homicide, Janet King, Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Orange is the New Black, Scott and Bailey, Sommerdahl, Vera, Wallander, West Wing, and Winds of War/War and Remembrance are just a few.

Writers, tell us your favorite sources for writing advice. Is TV one of them? Please share your favorite shows.

Author: Maggie King

Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries. Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, Deadly Southern Charm, Death by Cupcake, and Murder by the Glass. Maggie is a member of James River Writers, International Thriller Writers, Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a founding member of Sisters in Crime Central Virginia, where she manages the chapter’s Instagram account. In addition, she serves Sisters in Crime on the national level as a member of the Social Media team. Maggie graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a B.S. degree in Business Administration, and has worked as a software developer, customer service supervisor, and retail sales manager. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and Olive the cat.

14 thoughts on “Can TV Make You a Better Writer?”

  1. Thank you, Maggie, for this rather unique idea. Dissecting TV shows and videos is an interesting way to study the written word whether visual or not. I find that TV documentaries also offer ways to study both script and character as they are, supposedly, based on reality. I watch Midsomer Murders but lately there are too many red-herring characters and the scenes are choppy. I miss Morse, and like Endeavour for its younger version of law enforcement . I am noticing new words such as ‘gaslight’ ‘troll’ being used for their new meanings on TV but cannot imagine Columbo ever using them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful first blog, Maggie. Thank you! I loved Poirot as well as Miss Marple. And we watch the Midsommer Murders occassionally. Of course Bull and Blue Bloods are my Hubby’s favorites. And the handsome hispanic guy on Magnum PI is an inspiration to fumbling, cute, but deadly justice server.
    For me, the writer who inspired my children’s mysteries was “The Cat Who–” mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun. Read and loved them all. Oh, and Mary Stewart’s Gothic Mysteries set in Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lots of good shows out there. Most are older ones, but there was a time good characters and a good story meant something. I haven’t been to the movies in over thirty years. But if I like the character and the storyline makes sense, without too many red herrings as you said, I’ll record a year or two of an older series and enjoy it. And I do know some of their intricate plots make me add a few more twists to my work. Great post.


  4. Great analysis of some fun mystery TV shows, Maggie–although I haven’t seen all of them. I’ll have to try to check them out–and look for additional ones too!


  5. Maggie, I loved your suggestion to study television series. Unlike films, series, whether half hour sitcoms or hour-long dramas, have the gift of time to develop their characters over episodes and seasons. It’s why we continue to watch them even when the plots grow stale or predictable. For me, Hill Street Blues remains a benchmark of quality TV. Multiple characters with distinct personalities, patches of humor to relieve the often dark themes, and excellent writing that stands up today. Kudos to the costume designer – the series ran in the eighties, but the men’s three-piece suits and classic women’s outfits never look dated


    1. Miko, I never saw Hill Street Blues. I didn’t have time when it was current, but I could catch it in re-runs. Thanks for reminding me about it. That decade was a great time for clothes.


  6. Maggie – what an interesting look at the TV shows. Of course I watch and re-watch the Agatha Christie series of Miss Marples and Poirot. The supporting characters are always fun. I sometimes have the Hallmark or Great American Family TV mystery movies on in the background as I do chores and things. They are comfortingly formulaic, so I’ve learned to anticipate when certain plot actions happen, and what the dialogue is, without taxing my brain! But Death in Paradise is my perfect escape, because of the sunny setting and different, friendly characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rosemary, I guess I’m too visual-or too lazy!-to do chores while the TV is on. I haven’t seen the Great American Family mysteries. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a terrific post Maggie. There are some brilliant recommendations here and a couple of shows that I am unfamiliar with. And yes, old favorites ARE my favorites too – many of the new shows here in the UK are becoming a bit cliched – clinging to a formula. When I ask my daughter questions about things being too formulaic she looks blank and says – ‘but I’m just watching telly, Mum.’ I find it very hard to watch anything without having that inner critic of either – wow, that was clever or – why on earth would they do that? These are three of my all-time favorites for character development and series’ resolution: The Americans, The Bureau (French sub-titles, Amazon Prime) and Spiral (French sub-titles, Amazon Prime). Yes, I know sub-titles mean you can’t snack at the same time as watch – but I was blown away by the writing. When each series ended, I felt utterly bereft.


  8. Hannah, thanks for the recommendations. I’ve watched many shows with subtitles, and somehow manage to snack! These days, I turn them on for all shows, as actors don’t project like they used to.


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