They say television can be educational. I agree, but usually when I think of educational television I think of documentaries, historical dramatizations, biographical movies, and shows for children. But what about the other stuff? Is there anything educational to be gleaned from shows like Lost or How I Met Your Mother?
I think there is. In fact, I think there’s one very important lesson to be learned from watching fictional drama. The drama, you see, is created by writers; human writers that draw from their own life experiences to dream up dramatic situations that will keep viewers glued to the screen. The situations may be fabricated, but if there weren’t something real in them, they wouldn’t grip us. So how do they do it?
In my studies (read: power watching TV series on Netflix), I’ve noticed some recurring patterns. I’ve come to think of them as the Rules of Drama. There are three: Love, Loss, and Lies.
Rule #1: Love
When creating fictional characters, writers need to think about what motivates them. What do they care about? A character that doesn’t care about anything is unrealistic and ultimately unrelatable. So they have to care about something. And the more they care about whatever it is, the more dramatic it will be when they lose it.
Rule #2: Loss
There’s nothing particularly interesting, emotionally speaking, about someone wanting something very badly and, well… having it. We like to watch people struggle to get what they want. We want their gain to mean something, and to come at a price, just like in our own lives. And when someone loses something they love, we want to see them get it back. But they have to love it and lose it first, otherwise who cares?
Rule #3: Lies
Love and loss are universal human experiences. They are the stuff of genuine drama. But writers of TV series have a unique problem. They have to keep the drama going, sometimes for hundreds of episodes. If you pay attention, you will be positively astonished at how frequently they use one simple device to accomplish this: Lies! Fictional characters lie constantly, often by promising what cannot be promised.
The reason I find this interesting is that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy focusing on honesty, and I credit that for most of the good things in my life. Love and loss are unavoidable. Not loving is not living. And eventually, you will lose everything. But you don’t have to lie. So don’t.