Teaching the ‘Law and Order’ Short Story

February 25, 2014 | 15 books mentioned 12 7 min read

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At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.

covercoverThe selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.

covercoverAlthough my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.

Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.

This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.

covercoverWhat they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.

I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.

When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:

“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”

“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”

(General murmurs of approval.)

“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”

“That one is amazing.”

Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.

coverMy students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.

I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.

coverGood fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.

Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.

What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.

One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.

coverI reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.

Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.

Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.

Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.

Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.

In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.

My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.

They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.

teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University and Johns Hopkins University. His debut story collection, We Were Flying to Chicago, publishes May 2014.


  1. If children only watch television, then that is what they will reference. At the risk of sounding smug, if you want them to become more familiar with literature, they have to read it. Pure and simple.

  2. I facilitate an adult writers’ workshop at a local community centre with an enclosed library. The participants can be divided almost equally into readers and non-readers.

    The readers trek up to the mezzanine loaded down with all kinds of books. They want to tell the class what they read last week, what poet they discovered, why such and such a book is a pot boiler. Their writing gets fanciful, inventive and they bring new work each week. If it’s good enough, I suggest where to submit.

    The non readers glare and tune out. When asked why they don’t read, they either shrug and say, “it isn’t my thing,” or “I might be influenced by what I read.” These people write the same thing week after week, barely type it up, let alone submit, and usually drop out after four or so months. This is especially true the week after someone brings in a treat because they have had an acceptance or brings in the contributor copy.

    Since the group is supported by space and publicity contributed by the taxpayers, I can’t turn anyone away. However, having read this article, I think I will start sending home a questionnaire including their reading habits so I will know what I have to deal with.

    I can’t say I enjoyed this article, but I certainly relate to it!

  3. Are they all aspiring screenwriters? Or people who write to express themselves rather than for an audience? I just cannot fathom the urge to write coming from anywhere other than loving to read. Writing, for me, is always about the pleasure of words and stories and communicating with others — all of which I learned from reading! Working in a bookstore in high school opened my eyes to much wider reading practices, since I had been almost strictly a sci-fi/fantasy reader before age 16. But what are their models? How can you know that you WANT to write if you don’t pay attention to writing? One of my best poems as a teenager was a straight up Neruda rip-off: you have to model yourselfs on others first (well, you know that — I am speaking to your students here) in order to figure out HOW writing works.

    And I say this as someone who has become very dedicated to TV shows since the growth of shows with good writing, with clever dialog and deep characterization. The one thing TV has over reading is that it can be a social experience, whereas reading is almost always an individual one. Maybe you aren’t getting enough loners in your classes? I guess my social awkwardness as a kid paid off…

    I consider myself a reader first, and a writer very much second.

  4. With reference to Jack M, I would include adults who only watch television. Tele vision is a powerful “drug”. I do not own or watch television these days,so I have never watched any of the tv shows Kevin mentions in his article.
    When I was very young we had to “watch” tv through the radio, you cannot do this these days. Try not watching tv for a week, whilst at home, it does feel strange at first, but the effort is worth it. You can always read a book ( any book)

  5. I’d rather watch TV than the books you recommend. Yikes what a stiff. Your penchant for the literary is blinding you. Read Elmore Leonard.

  6. Wait, why are they there? I don’t watch TV or films – I grew up without them and never developed the attention span. No, I don’t think that makes me more refined (hah!) but I’m not fighting tooth and nail to get into a screen writing or film studies class. So, again, why would they bother?

  7. As a lit major, I took a creative writing class as a lark…and was shocked by how it was filled with people who did not like to read. The lure is self-expression and seeing their name in print. In other words, ego ego ego.

    That said, it would still be interesting to expose the lit devices that make shows like Breaking Bad and the Sopranos so great (not visual devices only, but the *storytelling*). They were obviously written by people who read a lot. It might be interesting to dig into the literary influences of George Mastras (an author in his own right: http://www.georgemastras.com), Vince Gill, David Chase, etc. It might not convert them all, but worth a shot.

  8. As a school administrator and a language teacher, I’m torn between two loyalties in this fun argument. TV watchers who are tacitly literate can write creatively, I think; but, only readers can grow in empathy. The visual media are powerfully sympathetic, but while I can cheer for Katniss in the movie, I can only walk along sie her in the story. I appreciate this teacher’s willingness to honor the watchers while still inviting them into the stories. I’d love to take the course.

  9. Both the writer and her students need to hear about fanfiction, where the possibilities of writing meet the characters of whatever medium and make, fairly often, beautiful, nuanced music together. Anne Jamison’s book Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17675435-fic) is a good introduction.

    Television is a weird cross between sitting around telling sad/funny/shocking stories of the deaths of kings and everyone else, and having corporately sponsored narratives piped directly into your hindbrain. Learning to think about the stories and reflect on one’s responses and takeaways (about crime, men, women, caring, sex, humor…) is both socially responsible and fascinating. TV doesn’t have to mean the death of independent creativity or thought.

    If you’re looking for the exposure of literary devices in TV, Google “Acafanmon, Sherlock S3 meta” and enjoy.

  10. I would also suggest that, when teaching, put some time in the syllabus to discuss writing as it applies to television (teleplays), and how that type of writing compares to the writing of literature. This way, you can say the discussion of TV is “off limits” until you get to that section of the syllabus.

  11. to Jack Getz; “Yikes,” really? Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Conner, Graham Greene? Have you ever read this stuff? Easy-reading great fiction…

    (I would however quibble with Gatsby as one of the ‘best books” – highly overrated, I think.)

    Incidentally, at the libraries where I work (I’m a sub throughout the county) many of the employees are far more familiar with (indeed chat endlessly about) television shows than good contemporary fiction or authors.

  12. I teach creative writing and gen ed lit to university students, and I’ve encountered similar things; first off, I want to say I like that this author acknowledges the earnestness and scholarly goodwill of his students. I agree; students do want to learn and I think they also want to read–they want to consume good art in all mediums, and I’m always upset by teachers who rant otherwise.

    But I don’t think things are so dire for the state of our students or literature. I think, for one thing, Law and Order aside, there’s lots of good television out there–I sometimes augment classes with discussion of tv episodes. They’re a valid source of discovery–young artists should be encouraged to let other art influence their work.

    Secondly, I know that I had a pretty unrefined taste as an 18 year old. I liked sentimental music and gimmicky writers, and some of the stories I find beautiful now bored me terrible. But if I hadn’t taken contemporary writing courses, I’d have never known where to find something better. As the author points out, a teacher’s job isn’t to tell students what to like, but to give them to tools to evaluate art honestly and to recognize their own definitions of art, and to give them resources to find good writing when they finally want to read. I don’t expect my students to read now, but I expect when they get out of college (which is an incredibly busy time for students–they’re trying to graduate in four years while being on their own for the first time) and they get a job and have more free time and are just calmer, more mature adults, they’ll turn back to books. And if I’ve done my job, they’ll have a place to turn back to. A lot of my friends who I thought were philistines at 18, 19, 20 because they didn’t read now turn to me for book recommendations, and recommend them to me. Thank goodness I never let them catch onto my snobby attitude–they might have developed a distaste for books and the jerks who read them

    Silently lamenting that your students don’t like Denis Johnson but they do like Dexter won’t make them read more Denis Johnson. But you might get them to do it if you say, “Omg, you like Dexter? Then you’ll love this!” As long as we act like out student can’t appreciate good art, they won’t. They can tell when we don’t expect a lot out of them, and they rise to meet those expectations.

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