Kathleen (a.k.a. Kathy) here, coming at you from the fast and furious first days back at school. (For my kids, not me. Although I do love a good pencil case.)
In last month’s post, I mentioned that the secret sauce in my recipe for sanity includes time parked in front of the television. After a few years sans TV, I’ve been making up for lost time. My favorite boob-tube binge of late: The Office (the American version).
I know. How 2005 of me. But re-watching the entire nine-year series in an embarrassingly short amount of time has taught me a few things:
- I want to be Mindy Kaling.
- The small screen can offer big entertainment.
- I feel like Toby Flenderson when he finds an (okay, ANY) opportunity to bring up one of his novels.
- Like other long-running series (too many favorites to name!), The Office is a primer on great storytelling.
Here are a few of my favorite takeaways.
Character is King
Plot may be a story’s engine, but characters are its GPS system. The Office is situationally driven but character guided. At the series’ opening, the characters seem almost stock. There’s the ridiculous boss, the try-hard sycophant, the meek receptionist. Yet just a few episodes in, we discover that they’re anything but one-dimensional. Even Michael Scott, ignorant, offensive and seemingly as deep as a kiddie pool, is layered and complex, a lonely, well-intentioned man whose heart is almost always bigger than his brain. His and his office-mates’ foibles, fears and desires move each episode—and very often, the audience. Something that’s now at the forefront of my mind every time my fingers hit the keyboard.
Veteran TV writer and bestselling, award-winning fellow Chick Ellen Byron could write books on timing—comedic and otherwise—and you’d better believe I’d be first in line to buy them. The Office has timing down pat, from the beat to the pregnant pause to the rule of three, and takes that power to the series arc to create anticipation and engagement. It takes a whopping 28 episodes for salesman Jim to reveal his feelings for receptionist Pam, and that build-up just makes us more invested in what happens next. It’s a great lesson in what it takes to inspire the reader to turn the page—and see the end of the chapter as an invitation to continue rather than a reason to pause.
You Gotta Have Heart
In many ways, The Office is a love story, and not just because of Jim and Pam. It’s about the families we create where we live, work, and eat our lunches. It’s about broken people coming together to fill in the cracks. It’s about the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Part of The Office’s success is its ability to balance funny with heartfelt without ever feeling like an after-school special. It reminds me to dig deeper into the relationships that both form and drive characters. After all, comedy isn’t just about humor. It’s also about empathy. The same can be said for whatever we’re writing.
It’s Okay to Break the Rules
I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest so it’s no surprise that the show’s mockumentary format appeals to me. From its non-traditional approach to showing that love doesn’t always conquer all to trading expectation for reality, The Office wasn’t afraid to take chances. My mantra for 2019, both personally and writerly, is “Be brave.” Funny how a comedy teaches me that time and again.
Conflict Is the Midwife of Plot
As a person who avoids conflict at all costs, it sometimes pains me to put my characters through the paces of struggle and strife. But The Office shows me that no conflict means no growth, no challenge, no change. Which means no story. The show uses conflict to not only advance each episode’s plot, but the series as a whole. As the AV Club so aptly put it, “The series always thrived on the tension between what was and what could be, between what the characters wanted and what they needed…the fact that attaining personal fulfillment meant giving up professional fulfillment.” These dichotomies fuel the sub-plots, the characters, and the series’ underlying theme, making for great storytelling. Hang on, let me get my pencil and make some notes in the margin of my WIP.
The Beauty of Ordinary Things
It’s ostensibly a profile of the mundaneness of office life, but at its heart The Office is a celebration of the beauty of the ordinary, the real, the everyday that makes us…us. The series’ last line is uttered by Pam who says, “I thought it was weird when you picked us to make a documentary. But, all and all, I think a paper company like Dunder Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”
I think so, even in the world of mystery where characters—and readers—cross the transom from the everyday to the unexpected. No matter how unusual the circumstances or exciting the plot, much of a story’s power comes from the ordinary things that unite, divide, uplift and defeat. It reminds me to stay anchored to the human and relate-able. And how extraordinary ordinary can be.
The truth is, I find inspiration everywhere, and this re-watching of The Office is just the most recent example.
So where do you find inspiration? Have you picked up tips, tricks or insights from TV, movies, songs, cereal boxes or whatnot? Do tell!