A brief thought on Television Prose

Can we have an honest moment? Between us readers of sci-fi, fantasy, and possibly other genres of fiction, who are by and large most of the readers of this blog? That’s good, I’m glad you’re open to the idea. Now, I’m just going to come right out and say it.

Most genre fiction is not very well written.

Note that I’ve phrased this in a peculiarly English way, avoiding the more direct American approach of shouting that most genre fiction is the written equivalent of a huge steaming turd of words. But there, now I’ve said that too.

As a reader and occasional reviewer my tastes in SF / Fantasy and genre novels tend towards the well written. I do enjoy the occasional Star Trek or Warhammer franchise novel, where the existing visual splendour of those stories makes up for less than stellar writing. But when it comes to original storytelling, I like good words, organised in fine sentences. When I find SF / Fantasy writers who can wield words well, I become a lifelong fan. But that is a rare event.

(At around this point somebody usually quotes Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap”, which is the standard defence for the fact that 90% of SF writing is crap. Any field that NEEDS a standard defence for that accusation surely has a problem.)

(Shortly after that comes the old “It’s about the story not the sentences” chestnut, which, ok, if you really believe the sentences can be separated from the story in a novel, I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching the next Avengers movie produced on HI-8 camcorders.)

I was put in mind of this subject by K M Weiland’s post on “omniscient POV“, which I read with some interest. I don’t intend to critique that author’s teaching, which is well delivered, although I disagree with much of the content. But I do want to pick up on a specific point in the post which I find quite revealing.

“The problem with the omniscient POV—and one of the big reasons editors are no longer so keen on it—is that it’s dad-blamed tough to write. As you’re learning, this is largely because it’s a difficult concept to get our heads around in the first place!”

Hrrrrm. Well. Omniscient can be dad-blamed hard to write. But so in fact can Weiland’s preferred style, limited third person. Also interesting, of the two styles, limited third is far more artificial, which might make it a more difficult concept to get our heads around. An omniscient narrator is how stories have been told for millennia, and written down for centuries. Limited third person is only a few decades old, and is quite clearly a response to another narrative form. Television.

(For a high quality guide to the slippery nature of POV try How Fiction Works by James Wood.)

It’s for that reason that I call close third person, when it’s done badly (which is very often), Television Prose. It’s fundamental aim is to make the experience of reading a book much more like the experience of watching television. The story is presented through discrete scenes, focused on character actions and dialogue. Stories written in Television Prose also tend, ever more, to ape the dramatic structures of film and television. All of this CAN be great, different kinds of story SHOULD influence each other and share techniques. But I find Television Prose to be a problem for a separate but related reason.

Television Prose covers up bad writing.

But it doesn’t cover it up very well. Good writing is hard to write, regardless of the style it’s in. It takes a lot of skill and, crucially, time. But if you’re going to produce a lot of bad writing, often at high speed, then the limited third person style of Television Prose will hold together better than almost any other style. It’s basically descriptive in nature, which is easy to write and easy, if generally uninspiring, to read. With a kick-ass cover, in a popular genre, badly written Television Prose can often do just enough to please readers who, just as with franchise novels, are drawing on the stock imagery of visual media to do the imaginative heavy lifting.

And what’s wrong with that? I hear some folks saying. Nothing. You go ahead and read what you will, I’ll be over in my ivory tower enjoying my finer things. But. I do offer a mild warning for writers, who are getting this advice about “close third person ” all over the place these days. Learning to write in this flat, unimaginative Television Prose style is like learning to sing by copying pop stars who use auto-tune to sing. It’s a shortcut that, unless you win the hack writer lottery, will take you to a dead end. If on the other hand you put in the hard work, and really learn to write well, that’s a skill you will never regret having.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

5 thoughts on “A brief thought on Television Prose

  1. I look at my bookshelves and I’m in awe at some of the crap I’ve read and enjoyed uncritically over the years. But now I’ll give every book a random-paragraph test before I commit to it. It only takes a few lines to show that a writer can write, the same way that a few notes will tell whether a singer can sing.

    I assumed that my tolerance for bad prose had diminished through over-exposure and creeping old-fartery, but a bit of back-sampling has left me less certain. Whether it was due to an old-style education or the lost art of the editor, it seems that until around the mid-seventies even the lowest pop-culture paperback hack could produce a balanced sentence and structure a paragraph. As to what happened then… well, I have theories.


  2. Reminds me of a conversation I once had with someone who saw no distinction between a novelised script and a novel. Having done both I felt qualified to sound off. My point was that in fact they’re polar opposites; in script-based writing we’re standing outside the characters, inferring their inner lives exclusively from what we’re shown… what we see them do, what we hear them they say. Whereas the usp of the novel is that we’re inside the heads of the characters and looking out. I can still remember the lightbulb moment when I realised that I could have a character thinking one thing while saying another and even imply a third point of view (my own), all at the same time.

    I think also it was the era of Forsyth/Archer/Conran and that two-dimensional, minimally functional narrative style, when every tabloid columnist was knocking out a bestseller in their summer break. Publishers went for that bigtime.


  3. I’m interested in better understanding the ‘why’ of your argument.
    What is it that is specifically lacking in the prose you refer to? Too little use of interesting words and structures for language, or the opposite?. Involved as I am in writing and reviewing, I am increasingly seeing advice to strip out and par down so much – adjectives, settings, inner thoughts, exposition, explanations of actions or motives and so on. By doing so what do we end up with? Virtually a script for a film or TV show? I see a similar trend in the plotting tuition – moments of truth and reflection for example, a final resolution that is nice and tidy for the good and bad guys. Just like in real life, not. Does anyone believe that a real baddie understands or cares why they are bad? Or that an action hero gives it much thought before doing the thing they are training or even born to do?


    1. Sadly I can’t give a full answer. It’s simply too involved, and more on the scale of something I would tackle as a short course. But I can give on eexample. Television Prose is overwhelmingly focused on scenes. Scenes are the basic building block of film and television. But while books contain scenes, they have to be balanced with narration. Passages that move you through the story. Television Prose gets bogged down in one scene after another, and you lose the basic quality of a story being told on the page. Best I can offer for you here.



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