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The Beauty in Ordinary Things

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:

  1. I want to be Mindy Kaling.
  2. The small screen can offer big entertainment.
  3. I feel like Toby Flenderson when he finds an (okay, ANY) opportunity to bring up one of his novels.
  4. 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.

michaelscott

Pacing Matters

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.

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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 documentaryThere’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!

 

33 thoughts on “The Beauty in Ordinary Things

  1. I pick up tips and tricks from movies and TV all the time. Joss Whedon is, in my mind, the king of ensemble casts, where each character has weight and no one overwhelms the others. And the Marvel movies are superb examples of storytelling.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m fascinated by Peaky Blinders, especially how its plot twists. So I have started watching it from the beginning outlining the episode as I go along and then stopping periodically to analyze what each scene is about, focusing on character and plot twists. The trend that emerged quickly is that conflict is the midwife of plot. Every scene is drenched in it, even the sex scenes because inevitably those two people shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing with each other. Most of the conflict is obvious yelling and fighting. Some is insidious and looming. But it’s there everywhere. The downside is that if I write the next morning, my characters all have cockney accents.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. What a beautiful post, Kathy! Thanks so much! And how true about the beauty of everyday things.

    I too have trouble with inserting conflict into my books, being a conflict-averse kind of person. But you are so right that it’s what ultimately drives the story. One of my most recent favorite binge-watching shows is Jane the Virgin, partly because it’s telenovela style writing means there’s lots of conflict but that–unlike American style soap operas–it’s always resolved quickly. (And love that hilarious narrator–he should win an Emmy. Is there an Emmy for narrators?)

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I have never seen The Office, but now you have me intrigued! One of the best things about not watching much TV is being able to watch every episode of a series one right after the other. I’m doing that with Murder, She Wrote right now (I’ve seen most of the episodes before, but it’s been so long I have no memory of them). And yes, that show has definitely given me some insights into writing mysteries. Reassurances, too. Whenever I worry whether I might have too many murders happening in my small town, I only need to look at Cabot Cove.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Love the office. Great post Kathy!

    I have been loving watching movies that correspond with the “story grid editors roundtable” podcast. I get to watch movies (in jammies) and then pretend to be productive by geeking out with the podcast on story structure.

    Liked by 4 people

    • It is sooooooooooooooooo cringey. I’ve actually had to leave the room during some particularly cringe-worthy moments. (Turning it off wouldn’t suffice.) I think it speaks to the power of writing and the depth of the characters. Boy, do they make us FEEL.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Definitely cringeworthy! I didn’t care for it either—at first. I think, in the end, that’s what makes this show so appealing. You really do “recognize” the characters—and then you realize that they’re all multi-layered in their own ways. It takes a little while, though, to see that…but maybe that’s it’s appeal, the surprising discovery? Karen isn’t really that Karen you *think* you know from your own office, but it takes ages to find that out. (If that makes sense?)

      Liked by 3 people

      • Makes total sense! It’s the face we show the world versus who we really are. I love books/TV shows/movies that allow us to discover what’s beneath that bluster, arrogance, humor or whatever. To me, covering our vulnerabilities with a certain mask or behavior feels true to life.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post, Kathy! You are a brave writer, with a great sense of “comic timing”! My characters are much braver than I. In real life I’m conflict averse and confrontation phobic. But I’ll throw characters into those situations. It’s somewhat cathartic — and better them than me, lol!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Kathy, what an amazing post!! You are so right about everything, in my view. And I’m going to consider all my TV viewing now “studies in craft.” Currently I’m watching a very cool Icelandic noir series (yep—with subtitles!) called Trapped. Wow. It’s a whole other world (the characters are sooo polite to each other, even when questioning suspects, chasing them sans guns, or escorting them to the slammer). Talk about avoiding conflict…Against the dramatic physical setting, and a few uniquely grisly circumstances, they are ordinary people, drinking tea. But as Agatha Christie said (I think), anyone has the potential for murder. Brrr.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Kathy, I love this post (and The Office)! I’ve always been suspicious of people who say they don’t watch TV because I get so much from so many shows. You’re absolutely right about the characters on The Office. It’s a simple premise, workplace dynamics. But people come back to it over and over again because of these lovable, flawed, goofy characters. I learn a great many lessons about writing from watching TV. One of my new favorite binges is “Justified.” It’s set in rural Kentucky with the main character (played by the delicously dreamy Timothy Olyphant) someone who grew up in this tiny, poverty-ridden, backward, proud place. But instead of following the criminal path like so many there, he became a federal marshal. Talk about characters! I love all these weirdos! Again, it’s an ordinary modern-day crime drama. But the chaaaaracters! Study them and earn a PhD in character arcs. Another series that taught me a ton is the American version of “Shameless.” Ordinary family drama set in lower-class Chicago. But the chaaaaracters! I want to hug and smack every one of them. Yes, every story needs a plot. But without these complicated, funny, pathetic, screwed-up, lovable characters there’s no reason to care.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Wonderful post, K! So thoughtful and lovely. Love The Office AND Christopher Guest mockumentaries (both of which take cringey to genius level, which the best satires do so well).

    Coincidentally, Becky and I were just talking about Best in Show at our Sisters in Crime book club this week. And character arcs. Not at the same time. But still…

    “the beautiful in ordinary things” = ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I watch a lot of mysteries, natch. But, recently I’ve been re-watching “As Time Goes By.” I love the characters and the humor. And I think Jean (played by the fab Judi Dench) would make a wonderful cozy mystery heroine. She’s naturally nosy and always trying to solve other people’s problems. If only they’d had her stumble across a body or two!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Kathy, this is spectacular. It should be shared in writing classes. And not just because you gave me an incredibly generous shout-out. 😉 And the “Dinner Party” episode of “The Office” is one of the best pieces of comic timing anywhere.

    I get inspiration everywhere. From life. From books. From films and TV. Two recent favorites: VEEP awed me in its ability to create incredibly hard jokes that were totally character-based. It’s truly a lesson in that. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus is brilliant in everything she does. She’s completely unafraid to be unlikeable, hence she sticks every joke landing. Lately, I’m hooked on SUCCESSION. Again, a cast of reprehensible characters, yet I can’t stop watching, rooting when I found a vulnerability and squirming when someone is flat-out horrible. The family dynamics are fascinating. And there’s humor – dark as hell, but wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Dinner Party! Comic timing (and cringiness) at its best. (Jan’s song! Arrrgh!!)

      So true about VEEP!! I just watched a really great interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfus about how she got in touch with her inner toddler for the role. I so agree that her fearlessness to be true to the character, no matter how flawed, makes it all work so perfectly.

      I don’t know SUCCESSION, but you had me at reprehensible characters and dark-as-hell humor. This all counts as research, right?

      Like

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