Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The power of writing

I have had occasion to write about Roy Peter Clark on this blog earlier. His Writing Tools column on Poynter Online is not only a great read but also a terrific learning experience. Take, for instance, his post on what writers can learn from Glee, the smash-hit musical that was shown on Star World recently and which was phenomenally popular with youngsters.

First, in the introductory three paragraphs, Clark gives us the lowdown on Glee even as he explains why he is a fan.

Next, he discusses why Glee works so well, listing four points:
  • The power of mixing
  • Diversity of cultural expression
  • Depth of characters
  • Expect the unexpected
In "The power of mixing", Clark warms to his theme by going back in time to Shakespeare and comparing the Bard's approach to writer-director Ryan Murphy's finesse in Glee:

Shakespeare was harshly criticized in the 18th century for his violations of the classical unities of time, place and action. Unity of action, for example, would never have permitted the comic Porter to play the bawdy fool immediately after the assassination of the king in "Macbeth." The Bard's ability to mix theatrical modes is one hallmark of Shakespeare's greatness. In the same spirit, the creator of "Glee" teaches us the power of mode mixing.

Murphy has done something with "Glee" that may be unprecedented in the history of television: blending the best aspects of comedy, drama and musical expression without making the audience experience the show as a cacophony.

Clark also gives us the comparable examples of I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Then, in "Diversity of cultural expression", we read about the many different characters in the show. As we read on we understand why the story works. And if you have watched the show, as I have, you will experience an epiphany, as I did, when you read that last sentence:

Authentic diversity can never be expressed through tokenism. The stereotypes in the show, out of context, would constitute, at best, a guilty pleasure for the audience. What makes "Glee" work is that no single character bears the burden of representing a whole group.

Next, Clark tackles "Depth of characters". There's so much thought that has gone into the writing here, as Clark continues to expound on Murphy's magic:

Every significant character has something at stake, some defining issue that gives the writers an opportunity to explore character. Artie (Kevin McHale) dreams of dancing, but is in a wheelchair. Quinn (Dianna Agron) is president of the Christian crusaders for chastity, but, of course, winds up pregnant.

Kurt worries that his father cannot love him completely because he likes show tunes and interior decoration and not football. Rachel (Lea Michele) has a world of talent and an unquenchable need for stardom, but an empty place in her heart caused by a mother she has never known.

Finally — and this is so important for viewers and readers, and therefore so important to writers — comes the principle of keeping the audience on tenterhooks: "Expect the unexpected".

Each time you think you understand a character fully, the writers throw you a curve.

Clark then sums up his exposition by outlining the seven lessons to be drawn from Glee for writers. And because he talked about Shakespeare earlier, Clark ends his column by giving us his theory on the link between Lady Macbeth and Sue Sylvester, the coach in Glee.

Read Roy Peter Clark's article in its entirety here: "What writers can learn from 'Glee' ".

Isn't it amazing how watching a TV show can result in such an explosion of ideas?
  • If you want further proof of  Clark's greatness as a writer and journalist, you must read "Three Little Words", his touching story about a journey of trust, betrayal, and redemption. Make time to read it. You will marvel at the writing style — this is what journalism is about.
UPDATE (June 15, 2013): An e-mail from Roy Peter Clark that I will always treasure:

From: Roy Peter Clark <>
Date: Sat, Jun 15, 2013 at 12:13 AM
To: Ramesh Prabhu <>

Ramesh, thank you for your kind thoughts and your generous words.  I'm delighted that "Writing Tools" is working for you and your students.  And cheers to you on your own devotion to the craft.  -- Roy

Roy Peter Clark
Vice President and Senior Scholar
The Poynter Institute
801 Third Street South
St. Petersburg, Florida 33701
office:  727-553-4227

author of:
 "The Glamour of Grammar:  A Guide to the Mystery and Magic of Practical English"
 "Writing Tools:  50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."

  • Both the books mentioned above are available in the Commits library.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Mr. Clark on everything. Not only because I am a certified Gleek but also because there is so much truth in what he says. I like that way he uses the term "shake things up" and also when he says that we should "trust the audience to suspend disbelief." I mean we know something that is happening in a story is not realistically possible but we just want to believe in it for that particular moment because it just makes us happy. And what is wrong with that?


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