Everything I Learned about Writing a Novel I Learned from Television

Aja Gabel

Nov 03, 2012

Sometimes I'm sitting here, trying to write more and more pages of a novel, and I feel despair and loneliness, and I think about seeing if anyone's tweeted anything funny lately (@mat_johnson usually has), and then I think of Homeland. I'm talking about the Showtime television show. You know, the Emmy award-winning, Manuchurian Candidate-esque series about a mysterious Iraq POW come home, with Brit-hunk Damian Lewis and several remarkable cry-faces from Claire Danes? It's a good show, one that tests the limits of your suspended disbelief, but a good show nonetheless. Anyway, I think about Homeland, in particular an episode toward the beginning of the first season, where Claire Danes's CIA agent can't figure out if the Damian Lewis's POW has become a terrorist or not. After she tries to parcel out his lies from his truths, she decides that he must be lying, he must be a terrorist in hiding, that he's "playing the long game." So she decides to play the long game back, deceiving him in the hopes that her lies will pay off way down the line. The long game. I'm familiar with playing the long game in short stories. You plant something on page two that pays off on page eighteen, and ta-da! You're done. Everyone's satisfied. But playing the long game in a novel is infinitely more complicated. You plant something on page 38, and then it has to get slowly but fully developed by around page 100, and then pay off (or not) towards the end, somewhere in the late 200s or early 300s. And that long game has to weave in and around every other character's long game, to make one ultimate monster long game. The conclusion I came to is that being a novelist is just as hard as being a double agent. Then I did my best Claire Danes cry-face here at my desk. There was no Mandy Patinkin to comfort me. It's the slowness that's getting to me. Writing stories really does teach you nothing about writing a novel. I feel like a beginner writer here, wondering if each sentence will mean anything to anyone but me, wondering if this plot is getting so pregnant with ideas that it will never come to term. How to possess the patience required for a novel while also maintaining the condensed verve of a story?
Last summer, I was at a writing residency with Tom Piazza, one of the writers for the HBO show, Treme. I am a big Treme fan, though I mostly watch it alone, because the episodes are quiet, contemplative, subtle, with music--jazz, classical, big band, folk--as much a character as the humans. One of my favorite moments is from season one, where a major character's death is indicated in two simple shots: first you see the character standing on a boat, looking out over the water. The camera pans away, and when it returns, you see only the boat and the water and the sky--character gone overboard. I hounded Tom Piazza at that residency about how television writing works, especially when you're working on a show that has as much creative impact and as many cultural considerations as Treme. He said at the start of each season, all of the writers spend weeks hashing it out in the writer's room, deciding on an arc for the season, mapping each character's journey through the ten or so episodes. Getting to know the big story, if you will. Then, each writer claims an episode and gets to work adding nuance and manipulating scene and dialogue, arranging deaths of characters in dramatically subdued shots. In other words, they played the long game in the beginning, but each episode was an exciting short game. Hey, I thought. I can do that. Let's call chapters short games and the novel as a whole a long game. How about I just put in the time to figure out the pivots of the long game, the necessary fake-outs and mini-climaxes, and then set to work writing each section as a short game? That way, what I have to sustain will be all figured out, and I can go at each major moment in the story with the same passion and energy I would a short story. In other words, writing a novel isn't as hard as being a double agent. It's only as hard as writing Treme. Which is still hard, don't get me (or Tom Piazza) wrong, but it's not like I'm trying to blow up the vice president or anything. Maybe I'm discovering something facile through my serious devotion to quality television shows. Trying to make my love of television into the study of writing. Maybe next summer I'll realize something dumb about literary violence during the final season of Breaking Bad. I continue to test my theories. But recently, I saw a movie trailer that has a very similar plot to that of my unfinished novel. After storming around the house cursing Philip Seymour Hoffman's name for a few hours, I calmed down and realized that the movie only has its audience for two hours. If I'm writing the equivalent of a television series, I get them for ten hours or more. Suck it, movie! You're playing a short game. Ta-da!