a Women Writers' Showcase
by Janice Parker

Teachers have long used visual aids in their classrooms. We writers have a potential visual aid at the click of a button. Its called television! WHOA, isn't TV listed among the top ten wasters of our time? Yes, and for John Q Public this may be so--turn on boob tube, turn off mind. But, writers, how about turning on the TV and turning on the brain at the same time? It isn't the program that counts as much as the ever-inquiring writer who frequently asks: WHY? HOW? With two minor adaptations here is a ready-made classroom of unlimited scope.

Take Notes
First: Instead of flopping on the sofa with your favorite snack, choose a chair and have pen, paper and a VCR tape handy. We perceive much more quickly than we can possibly put thoughts on paper. Thus, a tape, which can be replayed, stopped, or viewed in slow motion, gives our slower fingers time to catch up with our speedier brains.

Second: mute or turn down the sound. This technique automatically sharpens your visual awareness but it does require some practice. You might like to play around with some old tapes first, or if taping, turn down the TV’s sound so that you can replay the tape later with the sound. This is very much like developing the art of reading mysteries...the visual clues are there but with no sound you must actively hunt for them.

Click the Brain ‘On’
Then as you click on the set click your brain into gear as well. Why is a scene, character or mood set the way it is? How does a program hook viewers? Is it the action, characters, or behavior? Even the commercials have lessons. If you're like me, nine times out of ten you will encounter an ad immediately. So, learn from it!

Ads as Hooks
Some people claim that the ads are the only part of TV worth watching. They may say this in jest but when you stop and think...In less than the time it takes to read this, a commercial must; 1. Grab a viewers attention, 2. Extol the virtues of their product, 3. Leave the viewer in a pleasant frame of mind – and do all this in sixty-seconds! Isn't this much like a writer’s job? We offer a hook to get their attention, a story that unfolds to a satisfactory conclusion, and no guilt for having spent the afternoon with a book instead of a broom.It would be pretty hard to put a cereal bowl anywhere but a kitchen table--so what is done in this ad to make that ordinary table as attractive as possible to make this product different from products x y and z? What of the wall behind -- busy wallpaper or a subtle pastel? What else is on the table, fruit, milk carton instead of pitcher? Why? Even the color of the carton is important. Does an adult, a child, or an animated character advertise this product? What about the age, sex, eye color and other features of the character? Did that character speak or perhaps convey a message with facial expressions?

Much as a writer puts his/her work out for public reaction, so does the ad writer put that ad out there for the viewers’ reactions. If the readers,...oops, viewers… sat through the commercial instead of hightailing it for the 'fridge, and were left with a warm and fuzzy feeling, the ad writer succeeded. So does a writer gain recognition when the fridge is forgotten. The reader is apt to pick up another book by the same author.

Soap Sense
The soaps as well as the courtroom dramas rely a great deal on their characters to keep people watching. The soaps are like books without a final resolution. The courtroom dramas are more like a series of incidents, but each has information a writer can make use of.

Characters abound in the soaps, or daytime dramas as they prefer to be called nowadays. In spite of convoluted plots and outrageous behavior, people fall in love with or detest, particular characters. They form a strong opinion of that character and his or her predictable behavior. What makes us love or hate this person? Is it his looks, body language, clothing? Does he stand straight and tall in the face of disaster, or is he slinking along corridors with his face partly hidden from view? What tells us that this is a villain or hero? How are the minor characters important to the show? Why are they there? Follow one character throughout an entire scene. How is he/she contributing, even when not in close-ups? You might like to tape several segments then edit them, to zero in on that intriguing hero/villain you wish to study. And, the soaps’ characters must stay true to their onscreen personalities from episode to episode. Viewers will catch them if they don't, as our readers will catch our characterization inconsistencies.

White hats quickly identified the good guys in the old westerns. The ‘good guys’ are equally recognizable in today's courtroom dramas. Flanked by flags, in a paneled room, the person seated above the rest and clad in a black robe, obviously controls the situation. Other than the nature of the cases appearing before them they could all be lumped into one bin. Why is one more appealing than another?

Primetime Mood and Theme
Primetime brings us the movies; programs with an opening, characters, conflicts and a conclusion that changes at least one life forever. Where does the story open? How does that set us up for what is to come? What time period is being used and is that important to the plot or theme? How does the first shot of the hero or heroine give us clues as to his or her underlying personality? If John Q is first seen, slouched over a littered kitchen table, shirttails out, unshaven, in the light of an oil lamp, has he lost his wife, his job, or is he drunk? The presence of the oil lamp suggests an earlier time frame.

We'll form an impression of him immediately, just as our readers form mind pictures of our written characters. Where the story goes from here is anybody's guess. Only the author knows for sure--and she ain't tellin'. As more characters appear and conflicts begin, do they change John or does he change them? Taping can be very useful here because you have the advantage of replay to pick up those unobtrusive clues...I often reread books that impress me. How did that clever author manage to slip that one by me? Is there anything here I can use in the future? And, finally, what are the reader's, oops, viewer's, feelings as the last scene unfolds, fulfilled--they'll be back, uneasy--they'll think twice.

Onscreen Classroom
Television can be a fascinating classroom simply because it exaggerates. Where else might  polar bears advertise soft drinks. Villains on soaps who never see a jail cell. Movies re-run time after time to repeat viewers. Why? Best of all; TV is readily available 24-7, doesn't care if you are 5 or 5,000 miles away from the source, or if you live a chaotic life with three members of the diaper set in the house. When you click on the set, click on your mind as well and let your idiot box become a writer's resource!

Janice Parker:  I am a retired public school teacher and college assistant professor who began a writing career at 60+ and I live in the mountains of Vermont. Hello Linda, Thank you for the invitation to submit a story. I did this as an assignment for Venita Helton because I thought it would tickle her funny bone and received cartoons along with her constructive comments. I've used those to rewrite but have not chosen a submission site. Anything to do with lawyers? I don't think so.
Contact Janice.