Wednesday, January 23, 2013

West Wing or... West Awesome?

By Bethany Maines

I think we all know my resolution a few weeks ago to stop watching West Wing marathons was merely so much hot air, and in fact the obsession continues. I admit I watched a few episodes when it was originally aired, but at the time I wasn’t paying attention to the writing. (Yes, I admit, I was paying attention to Rob Lowe, but really, weren’t we all?) This time around I find myself envious, yes, absolutely envious, as the writer’s get away with things that I have always told not to do. The “errors” these writers commit would be egregious in the book world. They bring introduce and dismiss characters at the drop of a hat. They start new plot lines without any warning. And the characters frequently don’t explain themselves to each other, let alone to the audience. Basically, the writing hews closer to real life. Is it because they’re on TV? Is it because they’re better than me? Is it because they’ve got 156 episodes to practice with?

For instance, during one episode Sam Seaborn (did I mention Rob Lowe’s dreaminess) is upset and off-balance because he recently found out that his father has been keeping a mistress for decades. Up until that episode, the audience had never heard mention of his parents, and after that we don’t hear of them again. But in a real life work place frequently co-workers are thrown for a loop by family issues. And you do what these characters did, which is express sympathy and try to prevent them from letting home issues become work issues.

So the question remains – do the writer’s of West Wing get away with their realism because they are so good at it?  Or do we allow this kind of realism because it isn’t on the printed page? Is there something about being in a book that makes us want storylines and characters wrapped up in a neat little bow? Admittedly, the very format of a printed page makes things like overlapping dialogue a little out of reach. However, isn’t there something annoyingly formulaic about a sequel that inserts a little synopsis of the previous book? What do you think? Should we challenge readers more than we do?

Update: For those who are keeping track I have released my first new story of the year! You can find The Dragon Incident at Amazon now for $.99. It will be available for Kobo and Nook in April. You can learn more about this new series at


  1. Bethany,

    You're wrestling with something I've been dealing with for some time. In my Skeet Bannion books, I'm trying to keep things real. So in the first one, Skeet's struggling with her angry, alcoholic, and now-ailing father and with her ex-husband who doesn't want to be ex and is not above using her father to get to her, all while dealing with a complex murder investigation as part of her job. Oh, and she also has to struggle with the bureaucracy at work that's making her investigation more difficult. I did this because real life is like that--at least, mine is! I got tired of reading these mysteries where the protagonist has nothing but the murder(s) to deal with.

    In the first book, Skeet also winds up responsible for a teenage boy, something she's definitely not ready for! In the second book, she has to deal with the emotional ups and downs and rebellions of an adolescent male while investigating another murder for her job--oh, and the recuperating father and manipulative ex still.

    It's a fine line, though. I try to always tie these subplots into the main plot, so the reader doesn't feel they're distractions. I do think people will stand for things in TV and movies that they won't in books. Some of that is because readers tend to be sharper and more knowledgeable than the average viewer, I think. So they don't let us get away with as much. :-)

    1. That is so true! I don't want to leave dangling plot threads around, but it does seem like there should be more room to indicate that the world my characters exist in is fully developed and not a closed system (ie not every person they bump into is related to the plot). And really, there is always the possibility that I'm not executing the technique as well as the West Wing writers. ;) But - we shall persevere!

  2. Here’s a fun fact: while in the last couple of seasons the writing was done by others, Aaron Sorkin wrote all episodes of the first four seasons of The West Wing pretty much by his lonesome (granted, it was at times his crack-cocaine fueled lonesome, but like Denzel Washington’s character in Flight, maybe it was a necessary evil?).

    Television moves fast (shooting an episode a week— 30-45 fresh script pages every 8 days!). And there are changing demands of other talent: a featured character is digging in his heels over a change in salary—may not be here this coming season, so let’s turn our attention elsewhere (here’s looking at you, Rob Lowe!). Or someone you contracted for three episodes won’t do more even if you feel the character caught fire because they have another gig. And, TV is generally written and designed to tell the episodic narrative. That is a different animal than the novel. Even novel series have a naturally different pace and delivery. And, factor in that the writer is never in control of how the work is filmed. Even the few who get plenty of control (as I hear Sorkin does on The Newsroom) are still working with a creative piece that must have the contributions of actors, directors, producers, etc. to unfold to the audience. Novelists have editors, but still . . . not the same.

    I don’t think we have to give realism so much of a foothold, either. It’s sort of a spin on not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good: real is great, but you don’t need to be perfectly real to make a good story. Doesn’t the truth sometimes fell unreal to us all? I read years ago a parody of “Life of Johnson” called “Life of Don Johnson” (it was the heyday of Miami Vice!) that showed the “real” every waking moment of a day in the life of Don Johnson and the funny came in when we saw how boring a transcription of anyone’s quotidian world is! When I taught writing briefly some years ago, I used to try to get people to think about how while it was a wonderful and fun tool in writing to both people watch and eavesdrop on open conversations, etc., it was worth realizing if you “used” ALL of that, it would be boring. We cherry pick. It’s a writer’s talent for finding the compelling and sweeping aside the dull.

    I really enjoyed so much of The West Wing but I thought one aspect of the writing was a flop. I think the characters, while given divergent and interesting backstory, etc., all sounded the same. Think about it. Don’t the character voices of Sam/Toby/CJ/Josh/Donna all sound alike? The same witty patter, the same kind of jokes, the same righteous outrage, etc. Probably because of the style of the writing and the fact that it WAS one writer’s voice shaping the work. To me, this is the hardest part of writing, not just finding your voice as a writer, but finding and displaying the various character voices within a story. And, of course you can make the defense argument that people in that kind of circle do tend to be much alike. You can’t sit in with the band if you don’t know the tune.

    One last thing: I think it almost works better to have the snippet of “real life” make an appearance and disappear because of two things: first, done right, it helps develop our understanding of the character, and, secondly, it doesn’t make me feel like something is missing. My example: I came late to the viewing party of “Sex and the City” and after a while it bugged me that except for one episode where Miranda’s mom died (sight unseen and conveniently living off in Pennsylvania and NOT in “the City”) and when her mother-in-law, played by Anne Meara, recurred as a character, none of those four women ever seemed to have ANY family. No parents, no siblings, no cousins who came to visit the big town, etc. A total vacuum. It was just weird.

    You know what else is weird? How I am so chatty on this topic today—this can only mean I’m avoiding what’s on my desk for deadline this month! It’s pitiful, really. Thanks for inspiring me and giving me a running start at today’s work!

  3. I never really liked the West Wing--and I'm not sure why.