TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.

A link between depression and inflammation?

A recent Science Alert article announced the results of a large study involving close to 86,000 people in the UK: There’s an association between a higher risk of depression and a higher level of bodily inflammation.

What does this mean?

We don’t know. I love how, like most of science journalism, a bold and promising headline gives way to paragraphs of doubt and descriptions of methodological limitations.

An association between depression and inflammation in the body may mean that one increases the risk of the other, or that there’s another factor (or factors) contributing to both.

You can think of some plausible scenarios that tie the two together. For example, someone with depression may eat more poorly, and maybe their poor diet elevates their levels of bodily inflammation. But we don’t yet understand the mechanisms at play, and jumping to conclusions may put people in harm’s way (for instance, if they try to treat their depression with anti-inflammatory meds).

That said, eating a more nutritious diet is a good decision to make regardless of the relationship between depression and inflammation. And it’s interesting to follow research that explores the interaction of mental and physical health. Many people impose a barrier between brain/mind and body, but our brain is a part of our body, and our systems are complex.

In defense of the ordinary (responding to a comparison of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre)

I was recently talking to a friend about books, and she said that Jane Eyre (of Charlotte Bronte’s novel) has a much stronger character and more interesting story than Elizabeth Bennet (of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). What’s the point of reading about Elizabeth Bennet, when you can read about Jane Eyre?

It’s true that Jane Eyre overcomes more difficulties than Elizabeth Bennet. But why even compare these two characters? I’m not sure.

They come from very different novels. Different in tone, style, subject matter, scope, time period, and authorial intention. Elizabeth isn’t meant to be like Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth has ordinary imperfections and leads an ordinary life for a woman of her social class. That’s part of what makes her story interesting.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

One of the reasons I appreciate Jane Austen’s writing is because she understood that the ordinary can make a huge difference. The commonplace decisions you make and small-scale dilemmas you face are part of the moral fabric of your life.

Austen understood the power of a remark spoken in a thoughtless or bad-tempered way – how much it can hurt someone, damage a relationship, or project a bad impression of yourself. She understood what can happen when you fail to put your pride aside, when you give unhelpful advice, or when you form an impression of someone’s character too quickly and in a limited context.

Something small-scale can still produce a good deal of misery. Or it can bring joy to people, if you behave with integrity and with consideration for them.

Austen’s novels do have some heightened drama as well – like Wickham running off with Lydia. But even the more dramatic incidents stem from so-called small or ordinary decisions.

For example, Lydia gets into the sort of trouble she’s in partly because of her parents’ carelessness in letting her travel when she’s clearly not mature and well-behaved. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet aren’t abusive parents. They aren’t extreme in their behavior. They’re silly (Mrs. Bennet) and largely uninvolved (Mr. Bennet). These milder weaknesses in character still have a huge impact on Lydia’s life, and the lives of all the Bennet sisters.

Similarly, when Austen explores marriage compatibility, she doesn’t focus on the more extreme cases of terrible marriages (like when a wife is locked in an attic). She presents more commonplace problems, like when a spouse is consistently selfish, coldly overbearing, or gratingly pompous (so they’re monologuing at the table while you try not to carve out your ear drums with a dessert spoon). Or maybe your spouse is more shallow than you or shares few of your values, to the extent that you can barely have a conversation with them or see eye-to-eye on anything.

Most people aren’t going to face the kind of dramatic decisions that Jane Eyre needs to make. And even if they do, most of their lives will still be made of more ordinary but still meaningful moments.

A lack of appreciation for the ordinary can lead to callousness. For instance, there are people who say they love humanity and want to aid humanity – but they’re rude to their waiter, unfair to their employees, dismissive of their friends, and indifferent to their spouse and kids.

I’m not writing this post to criticize people’s feelings about fictional characters. It’s fine to have a preference for different kinds of novels, or to love more than one kind of fictional character. You don’t have to read and enjoy Austen. As for Charlotte Bronte’s works, I prefer Villette (largely because of how she wrote the first-person narration). In any case, I think Austen’s understanding of human nature in more ordinary contexts is one of reasons her books are enjoyable and valuable.

(The image is from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the left is Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle. On the right, the inimitable Mr. Collins, played by David Bamber.)

10 Writing Nightmares

A version of this was published on an older (now defunct) blog of mine. Enjoy! And let me know if these bring up any bad memories.

1) Misspelling the name of the person you’re writing to in an email or cover letter.

2) Producing an embarrassing typo for a word like ‘batch,’ ‘feckless,’ or ‘public.’

3) Putting the finishing touches on a 10-page essay, only to re-read the essay question and realize you didn’t answer it.

4) Repeatedly misusing ‘matriculate,’ ‘genuflect,’ ‘obfuscate,’ or any other polysyllabic word that was supposed to make you sound smart.

5) That brilliant manifesto/sonnet/one-act play you wrote last night? What it looks like the next morning.

6) Working on a 5000-word paper that’s due in less than 24 hours and based on volumes of source material you haven’t yet read.

7) Forgetting to delete something from your submitted work, such as a note you left for yourself. (“What am I even talking about?” or “Find source to back up this nonsense.”)

8) Basing the central argument of your essay on a logical fallacy or on your misreading of another person’s work.

9) Running out of ideas.

10) Submitting a piece of writing before you’ve fini

A Window Into a Surveillance State

I recently read Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Several years after the wall was torn down, Funder went to Germany to talk to people who had lived in the East German state, known formally as the GDR (German Democratic Republic). For her book, she interviewed victims and agents of the Stasi, and explored not only what their life was like back then, but how it changed once the wall fell.

The Stasi, or secret police, enacted a pervasive and powerful surveillance system. They amassed copious amounts of information on private citizens, including all kinds of mundane details. They collected information in a variety of ways, from intercepting mail to using informants.

When reading about the effects of the Stasi’s tactics, I started thinking about the surveillance we live under with the Internet, with cameras everywhere, with data harvested by governments and powerful corporations, with various algorithms making decisions about our lives, and with people eager to be informants and judges. I’m not claiming that my life in the U.S. is like living in the East German state. But it’s important to think about what Stasiland shows us, the dangers we face in a state of exposure and surveillance, including:

Continue reading “A Window Into a Surveillance State”

Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People

It’s common on social media to see some gorgeous image from the past with people sighing over it saying how much happier life was back then.

A photo like this one, for instance, of a lady in a flowering meadow. The photo was taken in the 1950s.

The lady is smiling at the camera. And she’s pretty, and there are flowers all around her. Of course she’s happy, right?

We don’t know.

Continue reading “Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People”

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

The Limitations of Artificial Intelligence…

… and what they reveal about human limitations and strengths. Two quick examples:

Watch this video, which focuses on a picture book while asking important questions about how our brains work vs. how AI works. At what age will a young child understand what happened to the thieving rabbit? Can AI understand the story’s shocking conclusion?

And consider this recent article from CNET on the biases in algorithms (a topic I posted about before). People sometimes think that AI-based decisions will somehow be objective, free from biases and errors in judgment. But what data do algorithms get trained on? And who gets to say what’s a fair AI decision and what’s not?

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?