Watch TV, Students! …Am I a Bad Teacher?

Find exemplars wherever you can.

Last week while talking to my creative writing class about various structures they might try fitting their fiction into I found myself suddenly using the movie The Hangover as an example of a classic story form. My students, all of whom save two had seen the movie, were excited to talk about something they actually liked and engaged in willingly outside of class. “Oh yeah, that movie was so funny!” they exclaimed while I tried to backtrack a little in order to make sure they understood that we were still having a constructive, academic conversation. We’d talked a bit about journey stories already, and several students had attempted writing road trip stories, knowing from reading our textbook that it’s usually a bad idea to write a scene that places one character alone in a car unless they are thinking about something active outside of the car, a flashback maybe, since a one-person scene tends to lack energy or conflict, two things that stories thrive on. So I ask them, “Why do you think the writers chose to place four men together in this car? Why not two?” One student said that if there were only two guys the story couldn’t have existed because one of the guys has to go missing for the plot to go on. “Okay, good point, but why four? What is each character doing in this movie? How does each one play an important role in propelling the plot?” That’s when the conversation improved. We talked about how each character has a vastly different personality from the others and how they are really archetypes. The ringleader, Phil, is the reckless antihero. Zach Galifianakis’ character plays the fool, the trouble maker and comic relief. Ed Helms, or Stu, is the straight man, the conscience of the group, albeit a somewhat warped one since he’s lying to his overbearing girlfriend to go on this trip. And, finally, there’s the main character, Doug, absent for most of the film, who is the catalyst for most of the events we watch. He’s missing. His friends can’t remember why and have to find him and get him back to his bride who is waiting anxiously back home.

Maybe this wasn’t “literature” so to speak, but I could totally imagine Shakespeare writing a similar plot-driven comedy that concluded, of course, with a wedding, all of the characters safe and happy in the end (besides maybe Stu’s witch of a girlfriend who didn’t deserve to be). There wasn’t a big, deep message in this movie, right? I mean, what would we take away from this? Don’t drink whatever the weird brother-in-law-to-be is serving. Try counting cards at a Vegas casino; it’s worth it. Lie to your partner as long as you can so s/he doesn’t know you’ve totally screwed up. Vacations full of debauchery are are good idea as long as you make it home in one piece. These aren’t lessons. They’re jokes.

We aren’t supposed to learn anything from this movie. We’re supposed to be entertained. This, in my opinion, is an important lesson for young writers to learn. First, young grasshoppers, you must entertain your readers. Then, once you’ve got them within your grasp, you can do other cool stuff: teach them, make them uncomfortable, inspire them, break their hearts, etc.

I encourage my students to watch movies and good television all the time. (We’ve also talked about shows like the brand new, hour-long drama, Parenthood, as well as Big Love, Weeds, and True Blood.) Maybe this is bad. Maybe I should feel guilty about it. Molly Giles, in her visit here last week, mentioned that it seems like many of the writers she sees in her MFA program at the University of Arkansas are really good at showing what’s happening in a story but are terrible at getting inside the characters’ heads, and she blames moving pictures: TV, movies, etc. Someone else in the workshop suggested that it might be our over-reliance on the “Show, don’t tell.” mantra we’ve been worshipping since the imagists, in which case, it’s William Carlos Williams’ fault.

I’m not sure who’s to blame for students’ inability to write a contemplative scene, but it may be my fault, too. I’ve seen too many stories from beginning writers that start with a paragraph or two of exposition that spells out what we’re supposed to take from the story before it’s even started. Another common story start that I want to strangle out of my students is the one where the first two or three scenes are setting up the real story: We had been best friends for ten years…. I was driving with my friends cross country…. I loved that girl more than anything…. Ughh. Often, I want to tell them to just stop writing about love or friendship or whatever it is that seems so comfortable to them that they tell it like they’re writing instructions for how to [fill in the blank]. But I’m a firm believer that no subject is unworthy of being written about. It’s not the subject that matters, it’s the way the subject is handled, and that’s where television and movies come in. If they can’t pull us in, we won’t watch and they’re doomed. Same with short stories.

Am I a bad teacher? Am I ruining my students’ ability to write “real literature”? I don’t know, but in my defense, we read lots of literary stuff too (Raymond Carver, Charles Baxter, Wells Tower…), but even when they say that they really enjoyed one of these stories, they never get as excited as they do when I say, “Hey, have you guys seen Californication?”

8 Comments

  • Jason says:

    I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately, as in “How do I get someone to prefer reading my story over watching an episode of Lost?” To do so, I have to in some way be just as entertaining.

    I think writers often think of television as one of the baser arts, but you mention of Shakespeare in the post is apt. He both entertained, and while doing so, made some of the most profound observations on human nature the world has known. Of course, there are still writers out here who try to bridge that gap, but it’s not an easy one to bridge, and as a writer, you risk the criticism that your work is ephemeral or unimportant if you are entertaining.

    Still, the most successful writing does both. I remember reading Crime and Punishment in high school, thinking this 500 page Russian translation is going to be boring, but they’re making me read it anyway. I went home cracked it open and within the first 50 pages Raskolnikov kills an old pawnbroker with an axe. You mean, this was written in the 19th century? Wow! It was kind of mind blowing. Still, the murder plot and investigation were only a method of investigating something deeper.

    As for show don’t tell, we’ve ingrained that too deeply into the writing psyche. To be a good writer, I believe you have to be able to do both and decide when one or the other is appropriate. There are certain details necessary to propel a story that don’t always warrant their own incident or anecdote or scene to illustrate them. If that’s the case, just tell. One line. Exposition, get it over with, and keep the story moving.

    Anyway, that being said, watching good television can be good for young writers to see both what they’re competing against and to learn how to artfully construct a plot. Just remember, you should set some time aside to do plenty of reading too.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Well put, Jason. I think sometimes we forget how entertaining canonical literature is. We get stuck on the fact that Crime and Punishment is old and long and Russian and forget that there was an axe murder in the first few pages, which is certainly a hook, one that we may be cautious to use nowadays for whatever reason.

      As for “Show, Don’t tell.” I think one of the reasons it’s so popular, besides the fact that, to a certain extent, it’s true, is that beginning writers are SO good at exposition, pages and pages of exposition, that teachers like me want to get them to stop it altogether in the fear that they won’t get it if we just ask them to moderate their use of it. In the end, though, I agree that a balance is necessary, and some of my students are starting to get that, which is nice.

      • Sam Ligon says:

        I think telling is fine and good and necessary. Explaining never is — at least not in fiction.

      • Jason says:

        I hear you regarding overuse of exposition in student writing, and I think teaching the cannon is part of the reason for this.

        Demons, which a lot of people feel is one of Doestoevsky’s finest novels, is almost unbearable to me. The reason: the first 100 pages are almost entirely exposition. He TELLS the reader details about his characters the whole time and nothing eventful really happens. But that was one mode of writing back then.

        One of the most important reasons to read contemporary writing is to see that this isn’t how people write anymore, and one of the main reasons it doesn’t work is that you’re competeing for attention with television, not to mention the other million people out there who want to become writers too. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone purposely compromise their ideals to be successful, but try to have a realistic idea of what it takes to be successful and what is considered effective now. Good question to ask: if you hadn’t written this, would you want to take the time to sit down and read it? Because you have to realize that asking for the amount of time it takes to read a story is a big deal. People are busy, they have lives. Why should they read your story in particular?

        They tell you in intro writing classes you can’t write like Dickens and Austen anymore, which is a good lesson, but in order to see that you need to get the student’s pulse on what’s currently going on in contemporary writing.

        Teachers also say show don’t tell, and this is also very good advice for beginners. In fact, there have been a lot of writing dos and don’ts lists online recently, and I find it highly entertaining to read the comments sections for them becuase people get so angry. Rules are to be taken with a grain of salt. Most rules are created for beginners to say, “This is what’s commonly done wrong.” It doesn’t mean you can’t do a, b, or c, but if you choose to attempt a, b, or c, you need to find a way to make it work and usually only seasoned writers know how to get away with breaking the rules.

        Anyway, I think a lot of literature students/aspiring writers buck up against contemporary literature for the same reason they buck up against TV. Classic writing has a track record. It’s been around a long time, and when reading it, you’re not wasting your time on something that may or may not enrich you. Plus to a certain extent you don’t have to form your own opinions; you can just regurgitate what previous scholars have said. It’s more dangerous to read people like Marilyn Robinson or Michael Chabon or any other successful literate writer currently working because, though respected, they haven’t been canonized yet. And though it would be great if you could get students to subscribe to literary journals, I’m not sure that happens all that much.

        Anyway, all this is just to say, an understanding of contemporary arts is important, and I think most younger writers starting out aren’t equipped with this knowledge, which is why you end up seeing the excess of exposition.

        Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons too.

  • Dan J. Vice says:

    Okay, I’ll be this guy:

    The difference between Shakespeare and TV is that despite their convoluted plots and stock characters, Shakespeare’s plays aren’t plot- or character-driven, they’re language-driven. All you had was dialogue, and the dialogue was only a half-step removed (if that) from poetry. There are long, long speeches in Shakespeare’s work unrelated to plot or character. It’s about the lines.

    Of course students are more engaged by TV or movies than they are by stories and poems. It’s what they are used to. It’s what they’ve seen since birth, and it’s more immediate and superficially entertaining (i.e., colors and lights and bells and whistles) than text. It always will be. Setting entertainment as the goal, in order to “compete” with Lost, is a losing battle.

    BUT: Of course literature is entertaining. They don’t know that because they have no experience with it. They aren’t engaged with it right away because it’s a whole different kind of engagement. They can’t write good scenes is because their model for all storytelling is televisual and cinematic, where acting and photography and music and editing come together with writing to do the work.

    This is so long. What the hell is my point? I think it’s this: “Entertainment” is relative, and ill-defined. I think George Orwell’s critical essays are entertaining. I think Warner Brothers cartoons are entertaining. I think it’s entertaining to hold class discussion about the ways media shifts change our culture. (My students may think otherwise.) I am not particularly entertained by U2, or Agatha Christie, or The Hangover. So I don’t know if hitting students where they live, so to speak, is as important as we worry it is.

    All right, I’m done. Except to say: “Have you guys seen Californication?” sounds like the beginning of a teacher/student harassment case.

    • TJ Fuller says:

      Well said, Dan. I concur.

      Also, the funniest thing I read today will probably be: “Have you guys seen Californication?” sounds like the beginning of a teacher/student harassment case.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      You’re so right about Shakespeare’s plays being language-driven and that being the important difference between his work and, say, The Hangover. You’re also right about entertainment being relative, but for my students, I seem to have hit on a common love when I bring up movies or television as a way to talk about storytelling. I do, however, think it’s important to “hit students where they live,” so to speak, because it engages them (entertains them even), which gives me a chance to actually teach them something. One thing I didn’t bring up in my blog is the fact that we often talk about moving, imagistic texts like film in comparison with the literary fiction we’re reading for class. And my students are smart. They get that what they’re watching on television isn’t “Literature” with a capital L, but they’re also savvy enough to understand that it’s doing something well and that they might be able to steal from it. For example, my students have been pretty bad, as I mentioned in my post, about starting their stories with exposition. “When Julie’s heart was broken by Todd, she never thought she would love again….” Icky. I want to put it down right away. So I bring up the show Parenthood, which the first episode starts in a tense, energetic scene with a mother calling her brother to report that her teenage daughter is missing while at they same time she is directing movers as they pack up her house. In the first ten minutes of the show, we know who all of the main characters are, we know something that they desire, and we know some obstacle in their way. While talking about that, I bring up “Cathedral,” a Raymond Carver story that we’d just read where not much happens and the story starts with about a page and a half of internal back story. “Why do both of these story structures work?” I asked my class. “What keeps us reading?” From that we were able to talk about ways to get inside characters’ heads without killing the energy in the story, ways to show and tell. I guess my point with this post is that, while I feel kind of guilty about introducing craft discussions through television and film, I’m finding that students get it and like it and remember it, and maybe that makes it worthwhile.

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