What I Learned From Boardwalk Empire

The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire wrapped up a few weeks ago.  And then I did an ecstatic sort of jerky happy dance  when I learned they were signed for a fifth season because I am so, and I mean SO very addicted to that show.

I watched each episode like someone in a catatonic trance.  I would often re-play a scene more than once, much to the annoyance of my hubby.  This happened if I didn’t quite get what was happening, which, with the vast amount of characters, is like trying to remember the names of all the new people you ever met at parties.  But, for the main characters in the show…no need to worry.  You’ll certainly remember them for several reasons – intense reactions, followed by unthinkable actions, and a sort of, holy crap, did you see that type of plot advancement.

The show is brutal, but it’s about organized crime, not a cupcake party.  It pushes boundaries, so much so that many left me with my mouth hanging open.  (Like the scene between a mother and son I could not believe they aired.)  The show is complex, with a lot of different things happening, and cliff hangers galore.  Some episodes leave characters lounging in limbo land.  You might not find out what is going on with them until several episodes later, or maybe not until the next season, or maybe not at all if the writers feel they’ve done all they can with them.  Like the character Nelson, who is one of my favorites.  He lost his wife after she discovered what he’d been up to.  (boinking another woman, as well as going undercover – without his boss’s permission – to catch the main character Enoch Thompson selling bootleg liquor – i.e.Nucky.  Nelson used to have a strange fervent religious streak that has somehow been neglected – or maybe the writers were trying to make him more sympathetic…IDK).  Anyway, we’ve not heard from Nelson’s wife since she caught him playing house with another.  You never know, they might resurrect her in the future, shake up ole Nelson’s world again – now that he’s living in sin with the nanny and the two kids he’s now had by her.  Oh, and he’s got himself mixed up working for the mafia.

The writers of this show assume one major thing about their audience.  They get it.  They get it even when they are cryptic in the dialogue or pick up on some aspect of a character’s situation mid-way.  They believe in the overall strength of their plot, the underpinning action along with the character’s wants and needs to carry it all off.  And even with some of their most notorious and cruel characters, they’ve developed personality traits and habits that make you sympathetic, or at least get why they are doing what they do.  They write about rage, lust, greed, family ties, love triangles, broken trust, dirty deals gone even dirtier, betrayal and death, lots of death.  You know, all that good stuff.  The do another thing.  They surprise the hell out of you.   You never see it coming.

Even though I’ve never done it, I realize writing for a television show is quite different than writing a novel.  For my current WIP, which I’m attempting literary suspense (we’ll see how that goes) I believe I have a little bit more leeway in developing my story.  And although I know about show, don’t tell – or only allow a tiny bit of telling, I think studying the way this show moved the story along quickly, resolved conflicts, created new ones, and made their characters interesting was simply an unexpected, and unintended (yet totally awesome!!) outcome.  I’ve got to learn to trust readers will get it, and that  I don’t need to spell everything out.

Have you ever used your favorite television show as a way to analyze your own writing?



Yes, but not TV, movies. In my second novel three events shadow scenes form three amazing movies. I didn’t copy them but was inspired by the overall ‘heart’ behind them.

Kramer vs. Kramer, the twist…shocker, after all his angst and pain Meryl actually lets Dustin retain custody because it is what’s best for the child. Yup, I do the same thing. The kids are flying off to Italy because their mother has won custody sort-of (power vs. little guy) and wham-o, they get to stay with dear old dad. (Funny though, when I wrote it, K vs. K did not come to mind until rewrites).

Where the Heart Is, another twist as a result of happiness out of obligation and forgiveness.

Parenthood, the last scene in the hospital when the family is awaiting the birth of…you don’t know until the last minute whose baby it is. After all the hilarious and heartbreaking bullshit the family has been through that whole scene of family gathering to welcome a new member is ‘legend’ to me. How could I not have my wonderful families gather and wait?

Yup, inspiration comes from many places, TV, movies and from the wandering lady who sits outside the grocery store every single day, mumbling to herself while waiting for the bus.


Story is everywhere, TV, movies, books, songs, people’s lives…
It’s all waiting for us to learn from, we only have to look at it with all we have switched on.
Even the silliest reality TV shows can teach us things about psychology, human nature, greed, posturing for profit. Not to mention shows like The Voice being able to teach us, not just story, but business — how to build a career, or not.
Sometimes we learn what to do, other times what NOT to do.
Open up, learn from everything.

One more thing. Don’t fall for the Show Don’t Tell thing too much. A 300 page novel that only shows, and never tells, can hardly fit a damn thing in it. It’ll be slow and boring, or obscure and full of holes. Just don’t tell EVERYTHING. Balance is the key.
If you think that’s wrong, choose a favourite novel, sit down and analyse it, sentence by sentence for a few chapters. You might be surprised.


    That is so true (story is everywhere). I imagine that’s why I seem to be in la la land most days. I suppose I could call it book analysis. 🙂 And I completely agree what you say about the Show Don’t Tell and not going overboard, although I probably still have the bad habit of telling too much. (My CP said “stop explaining everything!”) I’m going to take your advice – which I appreciate immensely! thanks, Mr. iPants!


I don’t think I’ve ever used it to analyze in the best sense of the word…or maybe I have. I’ll catch something in dialogue and compare it to we thing else and try to use the idea. Or I’ll feel something I’ve written is validated in comparison to something I see similar on a TV show.


    I’ve used other shows before (or movies), but nothing like BE. I think that’s b/c it’s got such strong, interesting characters. They can do some really bad things, but they make them show their weaknesses too. I could go on and on, but it works so well that I’ve found myself really studying how they do things.


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