Writing Lessons from Gossip Girl

Note: Those who hang around my blog know that I like to take examples from published stories and extract writing tips. My critique buddy Amitha Knight does the same, but with TV shows. She is the author of today's guest post. Check out Amitha's blog Monkey Poop for more TV related writing tips and publishing news.

It's no secret that I love Gossip Girl. Even if you don't, you have to concede that it is a very successful show.

Here are some tips on crafting characters I've come up with from Gossip Girl:

#1 No one is perfect

Don't be afraid to have your main character make mistakes. The bigger the mistake the better. On Gossip Girl, everyone's favorite Love-to-Hate character Blair isn't the only one who messes things up for everyone else. Remember Dan's affair with a teacher? Yikes. And what about when Vanessa lied to her friends so she could be the head speaker at an important event?

#2 Bad things happen to good characters without fail

As a writer, I am often afraid to let bad things happen to my characters, but isn't that how we capture an audience? If nothing scary ever happened, how could we ever relate?

Ex: Jenny quits school to pursue her dream of being a fashion designer, but things do not work out, and she ends up practically homeless. Another example: Serena is pretty and popular, but her fame often gets in the way of her friendships and relationships and often leads her down the wrong path (drinking too much, meeting people who want to take advantage of her, etc.).

#3 Likable main characters don't have to like each other

Chuck and Dan don't have to get along for us to like them. In fact, it's fun watching them argue with each other and realizing that they can both be right and both be wrong at the same time. This happens in real life all the time. Personality conflicts can make enemies of good people. Likewise, people who start off as best friends don't have to stay that way...

#4 People change, but not completely

Blair has grown from the first season--she is more trusting of others and has more self-confidence--yet she is still as conniving and manipulative as ever. She just feels bad about it more now than she did before. If Blair ever stops doing despicable things, I'm pretty sure I'll stop watching the show.

#5 They look great and (more importantly) even the "poor" characters wear great clothes you could never afford

Okay, not so sure how to turn this into a writing tip. Anyone?

But not every episode of Gossip Girl is perfect. Episodes that fail for me often contain one of two things (and hopefully not both):

#1 Plotlines designed to shock and as a result feel forced (kind of like this poster)

Ex: Big news! Serena killed someone and is keeping it a secret from everyone. And when the whole secret comes out we learn…oh wait. it was on accident and not really her fault. Lame.

#2 Poorly disguised rehashing of plots

Ex: In previous seasons, Dan realizes over and over again that he has changed as a result of knowing rich people (yawn). This season, Vanessa realizes she has changed as a result of going to a private college with rich people (oh please!).

This second sounds like obvious advice but, take a look at your work and you'll be surprised. I've had to delete several chapters once I've realized how similar the plotlines were to another story I had written (sometimes even within the same book). Those of you working on series have to worry more about this than other since you have to be really careful that the cool thing you pulled on your character in book 1 doesn't get pulled again in book 3 (or 5 or 7).

Any Gossip Girl fans out there? Have you learned any valuable writing tips from watching this show?

Images from CW and anatomyofamuse

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  1. Nice post! I watch gossip girl - love the clothes! Agree with most of your points, but usually, there are many things that irk me about the show. Something must be working, as I keep watching..:-) I think Nate has developed as a character quite a bit from the first season. And I love Chuck (though he has been a bit too good ever since Bart died)

    There are times when their dialog just grates on my nerves. Like when Rufus goes to the train station to meet Lily after they find out they have a son, and then they end the episode with this over-dramatic, "Just tell me one thing, is it a boy or a girl?" Really? That is is the only thing he wants to know? That is the first thing he wants to know?

    I also feel they start up this over-dramatic plot lines and resolve it way too quickly. Think you have already covered it actually - Build up this major drama and then, as we expect something big to happen, it just turns out to be oh-so-lame.

    For a long time, I kept wondering why there was no talk at all about Serena's father. And then they suddenly bring it up with the Carter episode. Some foreshadowing would have been nice.

    I better stop, I could go on forever. But don't get me wrong, I love the show - I watch it when I want to be mindlessly dumb, and just enjoy pretty clothes and watch rich kids' problems. But I honestly think, I learn more about what NOT to do than what to do in terms of the writing/plot etc.

  2. I actually tried to stop watching Gossip Girl last year because I had too many TV shows backing up on my DVR to-watch list. Funny thing was... I couldn't stop watching it. It repulsed me at times, yet I always come back for more. I don't actually like any of the characters or relate to any of them, but I like watching about them. Weird. My favorite couple has become Blaire and Chuck, making me realize that the "villain" can still be lovable. I agree with you about the imperfections--it has taught me that real people with real flaws and messy problems are much more interesting than those without.

    Oh, and I think the build-up for next weeks "OM3" episode is one of those suspenseful things that will turn out lame. Anyone else think so?

  3. Great post, Amitha! Pretty timely with the Parents' Council thing, too!

    I think you could make #5 (clothing) into a writing tip by thinking about consistency. The show used to have Jenny "afford" clothes by making them, or through theft. If the show had established this sort of idea for all the "poor" characters, we'd have something to grab on to in terms of consistency. As is, with everyone wearing posh designer clothing, the show makes it harder to suspend disbelief--viewers break out of the show setting to say "as if" etc.

    One point you didn't bring up - how annoying Dan's "I'm such a great writer everyone loves my work and I write a complete story per day" shtick is!

  4. Oh yes. I am very envious of Dan's writing success. He's a freshman in college and has already been published by the New Yorker (granted in a high school writers section). I also wonder: do some writers really have assistants? (He was an assistant to a "famous author" in a previous season). If so I think I might need one :)

    I kind of like Dan better in the Gossip Girl books because he is more obviously an eye-rollingly snobby wannabe poet.

  5. Came to this post a bit late, but I am a huge Gossip Girl fan. And as a writer, I am constantly analyzing it after the fact. So many times, the writers of that show have had me close to turning off the TV thinking, "Oh no! They ruined it this time!" Then they turn around and pull it all back together even better.