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everything you wanted to know about writing*
*can be learned from csi: ny
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

In some ways, I'm a writing snob. I've been guilty of snarking about Twilight although I haven't read it. I do think some books are just better than others. But I consume mass media in, as the Coneheads say, mass quantities, so I'm not one of those litfic MFAs who thinks there's something noble in not owning a television. People who write are all writers. Different skills are required for different genres, and different media. Writing for the web isn't like writing for "The New Yorker". Writing brochures isn't like writing textbooks. Even within the book zone, someone who can write hard-boiled detective fiction may have no skill writing peppy poppy chicklit, and vice versa.

But they're all skills, and skills can be learned. Practice makes perfect. And if you're a writer, no matter what you write, every single type of writing has something to teach you.

So here are a brief series of writing lessons found in an unexpected place: roughly 80 episodes of "CSI: NY".

Character is everything. Obviously CSI is a franchise, and there are three types: original flavor "CSI", which is set in Las Vegas; followed by "CSI: Miami", the first spinoff; and "CSI: NY", which is the newest but not that new, with five full seasons. They have certain things in common. Technicians, police officers, and other characters analyze the forensic evidence at a crime scene to figure out what happened. With cool music and pretty people, they make lab work look far sexier than it must surely be.

So why do I find "CSI: Miami" absolutely unwatchable, "CSI" initially interesting but no longer compelling, and "CSI: NY" a completely addictive pleasure?

Simple: the characters.

Now, granted, I probably watched at least two dozen episodes of "CSI: NY" before I realized not every character was named Danny. But even before I knew their names, they seemed like interesting people, and they spoke like people speak. The focus of the show isn't the characters' lives, but they each contribute something, and they're flawed, imperfect, three-dimensional folks, not automatons whose role is to spout off "the trajectory of the through-and-through indicates that he was shot at close range" or "I promise you, this folder remains on my desk until we catch the man responsible."

Contrast that with "CSI: Miami", wherein Horatio Caine is always meaningfully pulling off his sunglasses to intone Something Serious And Insightful, or the original "CSI", which I haven't watched since the writers decided that Gil and Sara had been having a long-term relationship they just hadn't gotten around to telling us about. Or contrast it with what most people say about procedurals: that they are about plot, not character. The same plot handled by different characters would be a different show. These writers know what they're doing. And hats off to them for that.

Formula isn't a dirty word. Of course the show has a formula. It's not quite as hardcore or inflexible as the "Law & Order" formula (uninvolved people stumble over body, cops are called in and question three suspects, arrest someone at the halfway mark, at 0:45 we find out it's definitely not that person, and the final twist hits at 0:58) but it's still a formula. There's an A-plot and a B-plot. Someone finds important trace: a hair, a fiber, a smudge. The guy who performs autopsies snaps off his glasses and snaps them back on again, and tells us something we need to know. It's a formula. But within it, there's plenty of variation. The victims and the murderers and the suspects are different people who do things for different reasons. "CSI" eventually devolved into a near-weekly retread of Unexplained Murder Explained By Investigating Quirky Subculture. "CSI: NY" hasn't. The episodes belong together, but they're not the same, if that makes sense. In other words, you don't find yourself watching one halfway through before you realize you've actually seen it before.

(Which is a problem with "Law & Order", though the rewards of viewing a large number of episodes is brilliantly summed up by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine when she says, "Catch three episodes, it’s a procedural, catch 200, it’s a pointillist character study."

(You also have to love Nussbaum for referring to the first, long-running series of "Law & Order" as "Law & Order: Original Famous Ray's.")

So. What's the lesson here? Some writers deride formula, and "formulaic" is used as an insult, but there's nothing inherently wrong with formula. It's how you use it that counts.

Love is a crutch. As a latecomer to the show whose viewing schedule depends on the whims of SpikeTV, I haven't seen absolutely every episode, and I see them mostly out of order. But the main characters of "CSI: NY", Mac Taylor and Stella Bonasera (played by Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes) are sort of the mom and dad of the team. And in a lesser show, I'm fairly certain they'd have been knocking boots by Season 2 at the very latest. On this show, they don't. (Unless it's in one of the two dozen episodes I haven't yet seen, but I doubt it.) It isn't always necessary, when you have a main male character and a main female character, to get them together. It's downright refreshing when you don't.

Character is everything. Yes, it's worth saying twice, because it's that important. If you create interesting, multi-dimensional characters, that's the most important thing. Regardless of genre, regardless of medium. I've just started reading Wally Lamb's latest book and I find the main character so odious I keep setting it aside. Your characters don't all have to be likeable. They don't have to be positive role models. But they have to be engaging and interesting, or you'll lose readers/viewers.

I'll leave you with the perfect illustration of this maxim. In one season there was a crossover between "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Miami". Horatio Caine actually came to New York, and interacted with Mac and Stella and the rest of the gang.

It was funny and horrifying and amazing. Because he spoke exactly like he did on "CSI: Miami" -- that self-important, unrealistic, that's-not-dialogue-it's-monologue style. Either the writers of "CSI: Miami" were allowed to write his character, or the writers of "CSI: NY" were consciously imitating his "CSI: Miami" style. But it wasn't right. It was awkward and uncomfortable when he barked out conclusions he didn't actually have the information to back up. He stuck out like a clown at a mime convention.

If character isn't right, nothing is right.

Here endeth the lesson.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


must-see, but not on tv
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topic: television
published: 8.4.10

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topic: television
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sandra thompson
6.1.09 @ 9:32a

I haven't subscribed to the New Yorker for over fifty years for nothin'. Of course, I'm a writing snob. But that didn't keep me from actually reading all the Anne Rice vampire novels. You can probably make a case that damned near anything is "formulaic:" Shakespeare, Grisham, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I actually remember an American lit professor say, "Part of Faulkner's formula is a bunch of 30 page sentences. You get used to it and they're there for very good reasons." I don't remember any thirty page sentences, but I do remember a lot of very long sentences with all kinds of labyrinthian clauses. And I enjoyed the lit major joke. I liked David Caruso on NYPD Blue, but he's my least favourite character on CSI Miami, although I like all the other characters and watch the show nearly every week. There's nothing wrong with being a writing snob, I wish to emphasize.

ken mohnkern
6.8.09 @ 10:10a

Similar: Someone in my writing group admitted to reading the Twilight books all in one sitting (or one weekend or something). My snobbery immediately burst out, but our brilliant instructor gave her this advice: Go back and read six pages at random. Examine those pages, the sentences, the words used, the situations set up. What succeeds in those pages? How do they make you want to continue reading? How did the author do what she did?

jael mchenry
6.8.09 @ 11:53a

Snobbery is a fact of life, but there's so much you can learn when you set it aside, and I think your instructor's advice is a great example of that, Ken. Sentence-level writing, how you put words together, that's only one small piece of the package. How you can do all the other stuff -- that's just as important, and when people write off whole genres or media, that's something they lose the opportunity to learn more about.

tim lockwood
6.9.09 @ 11:20a

If I may, I'd like to offer the definition of "characters" as "people who live out an interesting story that makes them who they are," thereby making "story" a sub-element of "character". If they don't do anything interesting or nothing happens to them, they are only cardboard cutouts of quirky people. Story is what turns the 2-D cutout into 3-D. As a writer, you are not only their creator, but their god. You are in complete control of their destiny, and if they don't have a destiny, they don't have life, and the reader has no reason to read about them.

The part you mentioned about "formula" is where the definition of "interesting" comes in. Interesting to whom? Just you? Teenage girls? Bored housewives? Geeky 30-year-old overgrown boys who live in their parents' basement? All of them are a potential demographic, and can define what happens to the characters.

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