Damien Black

Old Nick's Letters

Welcome to Old Nick's Letters, a series of blogs and occasional videos compiled by the writer whenever he feels the constellations are propitious.

How TV has influenced my writing

I am a very visual writer. This stems partly from my love of literature, but I think it’s also fair to say that my preoccupation (read: obsession) with television has informed my approach to writing. More than that, I feel there is something intrinsically episodic about my writing. The individual chapters in my debut dark fantasy novel Devil’s Night Dawning are of course part of a larger narrative, but each one has been written as a set-piece complete with its own title. Perhaps more crucially, each chapter follows a certain theme or themes and focuses on one particular character or group of characters.

For instance, the second chapter looks at the protagonist Adelko’s background, and is written very much as a coming of age story, viewed retrospectively from his POV as he stands on the brink of becoming embroiled in the biggest adventure of his life. It covers themes such as innocence and curiosity.

The next chapter revolves around Vaskrian, a not-so-humble squire with burning ambitions above his station. The narrative is much darker and grittier, addressing the themes of masculine violence, ambition and honour. Unlike the preceding chapter it is also very much a story happening in the present, as the squire’s hot temper gets him into an escalating situation that ends badly.

Both chapters are episodic in that they could each be read as standalone pieces. They also have a very different flavour from one another. One is set in a village in the middle of nowhere, while the other is set in a castle that is the seat of a regional power. Both explore different themes and strike a very different tone. Yet both are undeniably part of a single wider world, and ultimately the same story.

This approach to storytelling strikes me as being reminiscent of many of the TV shows that have exploded across our screens in the past decade or so. Series such as The Wire, Game of Thrones and Walking Dead intertwine a much larger story around a disparate group of characters, each with his or her own challenges, speech patterns and core values (or lack thereof, if your name happens to be Marlo, Cersei or The Governor). Different episodes tend to focus on different characters or groups of characters, and in so doing present us with a different story every time.

I am obviously far from being the only one to have picked up on this trend. Game of THrones is based on the book series by George RR Martin, himself a veteran of TV production: A Song of Ice and Fire is influenced by television and was therefore ripe for a TV adaptation – perhaps one reason behind the show’s riproaring success. Just look at Martin’s strict character-based POV chapter structure and you’ll see what I mean.

I wouldn’t say this trend is totally new, but it seems to be more prevalent in novels nowadays, particularly fantasy ones. I recently read Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and was struck by how quaint the ‘single narrative/one protagonist’ structure seems, even though she wrote the book relatively recently (in the mid 90s).

Of course I wouldn’t dream of asserting that the multiple character POV is the only way to go: I enjoyed Hobb’s book. But given that most authors born after the war will have probably grown up watching a lot of TV, it seems perhaps inevitable that we should increasingly be influenced by it. What’s more, the proliferation of availability on the internet thanks to Netflix and similar providers seems to have accelerated this process.

What do you think about this subject? Feel free to get in touch with your views – I’d love to hear your opinion!