Bestselling author Caroline Green wants to talk telly! Not how much you watch, but how taking the opportunity to watch with your writer's hat on can be of real benefit...
The two most important things you can do to improve your writing are 1. Read as much as you possibly can, and 2. Write.
As Truman Capote said, 'It takes a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing.'
Another form of storytelling is there to help too, though, and that's watching telly. Now, you may be thinking you do far too much of that already but stick with me here. I genuinely think that as writers, we can pick up a lot from watching good quality television.
So much of storytelling comes down to that basic ingredient: strong characterisation. To write page-turning books of any genre, you need to create characters who readers will want to spend time with and avidly follow on whatever journey you take them on. Whether you're writing a gritty crime novel for adults, a YA romance, or a fantasy novel for middle grade readers, that same rule applies. And the reason the type of book doesn't really matter is because the processes involved come back to how we respond as humans to other humans (characters in the story). It doesn't make any difference that they are only figments of someone's imagination.
Fictional characters must always go through change as they progress through the story, dealing with the conflicts that are thrown at them and responding to them so that they grow or develop as people. You may worry that your characters are static – they don't have the space to change as much as they should. But this should happen even if your characters are literally incapable or leaving their setting. For example, have a look at the BBC television programme Ghosts, which is about a couple who inherit a stately home inhabited by a bunch of bored and frustrated spooks. But as the series goes on we learn about each individual ghost's storyline and how they ended up in the stately home. The programme makers have worked hard to relay their individual journeys in a relatively small number of short (very sweet and moving!) scenes. As a viewer, we learn they are fallible, foolish and real. Just like real people.
At the other end of the scale, watch a high stakes, dramatic programme like Narcos on Netflix, which is about the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The characters in this do wicked, terrible things, yet we desperately want to know what will happen to them. We may despise what they do, but we still need to be part of their journey.
Some programme makers use a technique I call the law of unintended consequences to pull us in and grab our attention. When a character acts in a certain way, try to throw as many curveballs at them as you can to throw them off course. Put simply? Put your characters through the wringer. Watching the likes of DS Catherine Cahill in Happy Valley trying to negotiate a complicated life while solving murders, or Andrea Martel in the brilliant French series Call My Agent, whose job is to juggle an actor's agency bursting with egos while dealing with her own family life is stressful...but it's the good kind of stress that keeps you glued to a screen.
By remembering to make people care about your characters, and by searching for ways to introduce complications into their lives, you can achieve the holy grail: a book that demands its pages are turned.
Caroline is leading our How to Write a Page Turner writing course this October. Book your place here.
Writing as Cass Green, Caroline's debut adult novel The Woman Next Door was a Number 1 e-book bestseller and her second, In A Cottage, In A Wood was a Sunday Times top ten and USA Today bestseller. She is also an award-winning author of fiction for young people. Her first novel, Dark Ride won the RONA Young Adult Book of the Year and the Waverton Good Read Award. Cracks was recommended on Radio 4’s Open Book programme and Hold Your Breath won the Oldham Book Award. She is the Writer in Residence at East Barnet School and has taught writing at City University and for Writers & Artists. In 2021 she will publish the first of three genre-bending police procedurals, all to be published by HarperCollins.