Culture Spice: Light & Shadow: The Writing of a Popular Dramatist




Interested in more exploration of the shades of light and dark as related to writing drama?  How about a juicy popular drama that’s getting lots of attention? ABC”s Scandal definitely ranks with Masterpiece Theater on PBS. And because popular art and happenings matter, especially when it’s really effective and transforms something, juicing out something cogent about the thing, person or place, it’s what writers and culture critics love to pounce on. As a creative writer and someone excitedly awaiting the release of my first novel in a couple of months,  I can’t resist some writer down-time with more TV drama writer talk. It keeps me in good writer’s shape.

So, here is what I’ve learned and re-learned about creative writing from dramatist Shonda Rhimes, creator of the buzz-utopian television political thriller, Scandal. Rhimes is also the creator of the long-lasting (eons in the world of television), Grey’s Anatomy. Take these words with more than a few grains of salt from a writer (me) who survived a graduate MFA program in Creative Writing and still has the nerves and heart to still be writing. These writing craft tidbits are specific to all genres of fiction writing, regardless of the form it will finally take i.e, a novel, a play, screenplay or television drama.

  • Know and commit to your characters… love them. This is an essential element for a story that viewers won’t forget. If you don’t truly love your characters, how can you expect viewers to really finally jive with them? Characters aren’t duplicates of some other story. They are real here and now.
  • Dramatic continuity is almost everything. Even if characters change a lot, viewers need to recognize some part of the core character/s they’ve been introduced too from the beginning and as characters evolve.
  • The element of surprise in the story is movement and surprise!  Dramatic surprise is not only a technique for moving your characters forward in the narrative, but also an effective way to convey a sense of excelerated pace and story dynamic. It keeps the viewer guessing and a sense of moving with the story.
  • Where there is reality, there is the surreal. This really is a fact of life. That old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” is often true. It’s just that our logical selves dismiss or distrust anything that we can’t immediately recognize. Yet fantasy and science fiction writers thrive on this concept.  I recently watched the film version of Ray Bradbury’s Farhenheit 451 and was mesmerized by the film maker Francois Truffaut’s ability to bring to life the reality of the surreal in Bradbury’s science fiction classic.
  • Characters say real things (dialogue) when you really love them and know them, and in Rhime’s drama, wonderful actors are the icing on the cake!
  • Cultural tidbits in the story line can be divine! In Rhime’s drama great soundtracks, amazing costumes, the latest technology, urban invincibility and lots of morning coffee at Pope & Associates, evoke the Gods of comfort, style and musical landscapes that make us glad to be alive despite whatever the latest national or world news is. These writerly details render essential story.
  • When you overwrite, it’s because you’ve lost connection with the story or you need more time in space to develop a character or idea.

Now you might be asking; can you give us some examples from actual Scandal writing? Yes, here are a few without my feeling the urge to put out the artist’s donation box.Take the characters Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope. Since the start of Rhimes’s drama , these two characters have been amazingly consistent in terms of who they are and their motives. We don’t have to guess much about what they do next and yet there’s just enough we don’t know that keeps us interested.

Obviously, Rhimes loves her characters– her darlings that she’ll never kill. This idea is related to the second thing; dramatic continuity is almost everything. Especially on prime time network television, a writer’s ability to sustain a story-line is critical if you want to keep viewers. It’s mostly just true anyway unless you’re seeking to appeal to a very specialized audience.

Are you overwhelmed by popular culture via the internet and social media? Well, creative writers can never get enough of it if they want to keep writing. Not only does Rhimes really know her characters, she also know the times, history and world her characters live in. Which brings me to a final point; when writers with deadlines write often and fairly quickly, one of the maladies of the trade can be sometimes overwriting. I reflect on one of the first pieces of fiction writing I sent to a San Francisco magazine publisher a long time ago, in which a really nice editor sent it back with a note saying; I liked your story but it’s overwritten. This is easy for a writer to do (although sometimes it can be just a matter of preference or lack of experience),especially when the goal is more focused on meeting a deadline than actually writing a story you’ve had time to reflect on and develop.

I refer to the only example of overwriting in the drama I’ve noticed so far; when the character Quinn in the recent Episode titled: Vermont is for Lovers, Too (played by the brilliant Katie Lowes) confronts with a gun the character Charlie (the intriguing George Newborn) in a parking garage. When Katie backs down from shooting the repulsive killer and he remarks that, “I like you…. it’s probably what you’re trying to tell yourself right like me too” it seems the dialogue isn’t needed. Katie’s expression of repulsion makes the scene come alive and it’s enough.

In the case of Rhimes and her team of writers, undoubtedly time and deadlines are not as flexible and an occasional overwrite goes with the work. Yet, the award winning drama continues to produce the exception week after week, even when at times a few extra words aren’t needed.

Yon Walls



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