Wednesday, December 1, 2010

ARTICLE: Daytime TV: A Valuable Addition to Your Writer's Toolbox - Part 2

Hank Quense writes humorous and satiric fantasy and scifi and an occasional work on fiction writing. This material was taken from his book on fiction writing Build a Better Story. See for more details on the book.


Daytime TV: A Valuable Addition to Your Writer's Toolbox - Part 2 - by Hank Quense
(c) 2008 Hank Quense


Character Reactions: Memorable characters display a range of emotions just like people do in real life. The more emotions a character can display, the more life-like the character seems. In the soaps, two primary emotions are used by the characters: hostility and hysteria. A friendly greeting by one character is often met with a torrent of abuse from a second. It’s a rare occasion when a character’s dialog isn’t filled with argumentation, whining or out-right threats. Listening to this dialog becomes irritating and demonstrates what a reader will experience if we writers use limited and repetitious character reactions.

Multidimensional Characters: These types of characters are inherently more interesting to readers than flat, one-dimensional characters. These latter types quickly grow stale and detract from other elements in the story. The soaps, however, specialize in single-dimension characters that never display any variations. Day after day, scene after scene, the characters remain as unchanging as the mountains. The same dialog, sentiments and verbal mannerisms are endlessly repeated. Of course, on TV, the characterization may be rigid but the costumes change, as does is the setting and the background music so the repetition doesn’t appear as static to the viewer as it does to a listener.

High Tension and Drama: Whenever the script calls for a strong emotion such as grief, terror, consternation, fear, love, dread, shock or apathy, the actors whisper their lines. Apparently, this is a code to tip off the viewer that a scene of high tension or deep emotion is taking place. This ploy is especially useful to fiction writers because it demonstrates the effect of uniform emotional responses by the entire cast. It’s not very entertaining and neither will be a story that uses this unvarying approach.


Unnatural dialog: Nothing is more boring to me as a reader then stilted and unnatural dialog. Many novice writers have trouble understanding just what constitutes this type of dialog but the soaps provide countless examples. Characters lecture each other about an aspect of the plot that the entire cast already knows (as do the viewers). Known as expository dialog, it is to be avoided at all costs since the reader will instantly recognize it for what it is. Another facet of the soaps is that characters routinely give long-winded speeches punctuated with words that no one uses in ordinary conversations. Often, the dialog clashes with the character’s persona. For instance, a character portraying a poorly educated worker will suddenly spout large, obscure words that make a listener wonder if the character understands what he just said.

Foreign accents: Writing instructors caution against giving a character a foreign accent. One reason is that it is difficult to be consistent with the accent from one scene to the next. A more important reason is that the accent soon becomes irksome to the reader. The soaps offer endless proof of this guideline. Many of the shows have one or more characters spouting dialog with an accent so wretched it is amusing. For a short while. An alternative to these accents is to let the character use an occasional foreign word in the dialog. The foreign word reminds the reader of the character’s background.

Clichés: Clichés are the bane of writers everywhere. Nevertheless, the dialog in the soaps drips with clichés. Every imaginable cliché can be heard on these shows, and not occasionally but constantly. To listen to this smorgasbord of platitudes is to understand the prohibition against using them.



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Check back on December 3rd to read the final part of this article.


  1. Lest anyone think I spend my days watching daytime TV, I don't. This is how the article came about. Several years ago, my elderly mother-in-law moved in with my wife and I. She watched soaps and being hard of hearing listened with the volume maxed out. I could the soaps in almost the entire house. One day I heard something that made me think, "That's poor writing." After I noticed a few more examples, I started listening more intensely and took notes.

  2. I commend you. I'd have put my foot through the TV!

    Seriously, I don't watch TV. Unless I'm sitting there in the living room (reading or writing on my laptop) and some dialogue on the show my husband's watching nabs my unconscious.

    When that happens, it's either Sam Elliott's voice-over on a commercial, Tom Selleck, or animal noises...

  3. I only watch the NY Giants and the Mets. We have the evening news on but I'm either reading or cooking. My wife watches various show while I read (or play Ipad games)