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What Fiction Writers Can Learn From "The Wire"

April 2, 2010 Character, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Opinion, Plot, Scene, Writing 12 Comments

By Becky Tuch

A little late on the uptake, I know, but I just discovered the HBO series, “The Wire.” If you have not yet seen this show, I suggest that you check it out. If you are a fiction writer and you have not yet seen it, then I’d like to posit that this show should be on your mandatory viewing list.

Why? Aside from an intricate web of complicated and fully developed characters, an in-depth exploration of police work that borders on scathing social critique, and cliffhangers that will make your neck hairs bristle, what can you, a fiction writer, learn from watching “The Wire”?

Here are just a few of the many lessons I have gleaned from this extraordinary show:

Little Traits Make Big Themes

Take Detective Jimmy McNulty. Here is one of the chief detectives in the Baltimore Police Major Crimes unit. He is a passionate and skilled detective—“good police.”

But when we see him off-duty, he is a dysfunctional train wreck. He drinks too much. His ex-wife hates him. He can’t keep his you-know-what in his pants, even if it means sleeping with the prostitutes he is supposed to be arresting. Worst of all, when he finally gets custody of his two boys, what does he do? He loses them in an arcade because he’s been having them “front and follow” a local drug dealer.

Not only do these glimpses into McNulty’s personal life make him a dynamic and fully rounded character. But they also lend to “The Wire”’s larger thematic issues: How can police ever fix the city’s problems when they can’t even fix their own? How is the havoc wreaked by the police similar to the havoc created by the very people they are trying to arrest?

When developing your characters, it’s worth thinking about how your characters’ nuances and personality quirks might also contribute to the larger theme of your book. In the case of Jimmy McNulty, the failure of his marriage works both on a personal level and as part of the show’s larger question: Do our social institutions actually work?

Respect your audience.

I am continually impressed by how much this show demands of me as a viewer. I am not only expected to follow every character’s individual story line, but to hold those story lines in my mind at all times.

Let’s go back to McNulty. In a very short scene, we see him attending a parent-teacher conference with his ex-wife. He shows up late, tries to talk to the teacher, has no idea what to say, his ex- is rolling her eyes at him.

Then, we cut away. We see high-rolling drug dealer Stringer Bell pouring himself a drink. His partner, Avon Barksdale is in the room with him. They haven’t yet spoken.

Then, we cut away.

In lesser hands, or in soap operas, the dialogue would be like this:

McNulty: “Wow, I sure hate attending these phony events with my ex-wife. Especially since she resents me for cheating on her when we were married, and she’s always giving me a look like I can’t quite get my act together, which is true, because I love my career more than anything and drink way too much because of it.”

Stringer Bell: “This whiskey tastes good, but might taste even better if there weren’t so much tension between me and Avon, because of all the secrets I’m keeping from him regarding some not-bad but certainly morally complicated things I did while he was in jail.”

You think I’m exaggerating. But if you’ve ever seen a soap opera, you know. They repeat themselves. They repeat the story lines. They repeat what happened in last week’s episode, as well as what happened in the scene that you just watched, because maybe you didn’t fully process its implications.

Why? Because the writers think you are dumb. They treat viewers like people who are not paying attention, who are too distracted or clueless to follow all the narrative threads.

Not so with “The Wire.” As a viewer, you either remember why McNulty’s ex-wife resents him. Or you don’t. You are either glued to your seat’s edge waiting for Stringer’s betrayals to be discovered. Or you’re not. And if you don’t remember and you aren’t riveted, that’s too bad for you. The show moves on. It doesn’t wait for slow-pokes.

It respects its viewers’ intelligence.

Have dangerous characters.

When Omar is on screen, the viewer feels like something terrible is going to happen. Someone is going to die. It might be one of Omar’s enemies. Or it might be Omar. You can’t look. But you have to know. So you wince and stare and pray that no one gets hurt.

But sometimes, Omar isn’t out to kill. He just wants to get a box of cereal. If he were to articulate this idea, he would say “Omar wants cereal,” because referring to himself in third person is just how Omar do.

Like anyone, Omar goes out to get cereal. He walks a few blocks to the store. He goes inside. He makes the selection. He gets frustrated because there’s no Honey Nut flavor. He asks the clerk, “Y’all don’t got no Honey Nut?” He shakes his head in frustration. He pays for the plain cereal. He asks the clerk to throw in a pack of Newports. He pockets the cigarettes and carries the cereal in a plastic bag. He walks home.

The scene is riveting. You can’t look away.

A character like this is a character worth having. The person doesn’t need to be a killer in the sense that Omar is. Not every story is that violent. But it pays to have a character whose presence is dangerous. Maybe it’s a woman to whom a married man is attracted, and her very presence threatens to disrupt his happy marriage. Maybe it’s a man who knows someone’s secrets, and every time the man appears the reader is afraid he will spill the secrets, and someone will get hurt.

Whoever it is, a character whose very presence embodies the threat they pose to the other characters will be someone readers will be riveted to see. Even if that character just goes to get a box of cereal.


These are just a few things I’ve learned from this brilliant show. Anyone who’s had a conversation with me over the past few months knows that I could go on and on. About the way the public school system is portrayed. About the level of detail and insight this show offers. About how it should be mandatory viewing for every sociology student. But I guess I’ll keep it short, and I’ll leave the discoveries to you.

Afterall, I respect you as a reader.


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. E. B. Moore says:

    Your advice is right-on, but I have to admit I became suicidal after watching several episodes and couldn’t continue. ‘Six Feet Under’ teaches many of the same lessons and laughing is part of the deal.

  2. Nichole Bernier Nichole says:

    “And if you don’t remember and you aren’t riveted, that’s too bad for you. The show moves on. It doesn’t wait for slow-pokes.” Excellent stuff, Becky. A great reminder to respect the reader’s intelligence.

  3. Necee says:

    Terrific post, Becky. I love when a TV show (or a book or a movie) expects me to think, and to fill in the blanks rather than explaining every damn obvious detail. And I agree with Liz that there are other shows that do the same thing. My own personal TV-crack is MI-5. From the BBC. Fast-moving, complex, thrilling, and they have no respect for their “stars.” I’ve seen at least 5 main characters get whacked. Talk about killing your darlings…

  4. Leslie Greffenius lesliegreffenius says:

    I remember one day, as a teenager, watching “As the World Turns”. Pamela was thinking about getting an abortion. I took a break for a year, and watched it again. At that point, Pamela was on her way to get the abortion (though many people had been killed or blackmailed in the meantime.)

    Shows aside, this is an interesting and thought-provoking post. The mistake novice writers often make, I’ve heard, is setting out to make some case or other. But as with the dysfunctional police officer in “The Wire”, maybe, delving into character can work to this end.

  5. JJ says:

    One more show to put on my list of show to watch. Rats.

  6. Chris Abouzeid says:

    Hey, I still haven’t finished The Sopranos. And I have a full boxed set of The Office that hasn’t been cracked open yet. (Some people collect unread books on their nightstands. I collect unwatched TV shows.)

    Nice post!

  7. THE WIRE crackles. Sadly, I now watch TV like I read books–one eye on why it’s working or why it’s not. When I totally get sucked in, then I know it’s working AND then I need to go back and figure out why.

    My suspension of disbelief is getting too much of a work out. Great post, Bex.

  8. Dell Smith says:

    I love this post. Watching good TV is like watching an inspiring film or reading a great book. Thanks for reminding me that, as a writer, ingesting any good story told well is a crash course.

  9. Sharon Bially says:

    Becky – this is funny. Yes, there’s much we can learn from pop culture like TV. Question is — how the heck to ever find the time to watch TV between work, writing and kids?! I haven’t watched television in almost a decade. Maybe that’s why I haven’t managed to break in?… Oh, the paradox.

  10. […] blog Beyond The Margins. Like me, Tuch is a recently-converted enthusiast of The Wire. In her post What Fiction Writers Can Learn From The Wire, she notes that what makes this television show work so well isn’t just the complexity of the […]

  11. […] Beyond the Margins. Like me, Tuch is a recently-converted enthusiast of "The Wire." In her post "What Fiction Writers Can Learn From 'The Wire,'" she notes that what makes this television show work so well isn't just the complexity of the plot […]

  12. […] Beyond the Margins. Like me, Tuch is a recently-converted enthusiast of "The Wire." In her post "What Fiction Writers Can Learn From 'The Wire,'" she notes that what makes this television show work so well isn't just the complexity of the plot […]

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Becky Tuch

Becky Tuch
Becky Tuch is the founding editor The Review Review, a website dedicated to helping writers navigate the world of literary magazines. The Review Review has been listed by Writer's Digest Magazine as one of 101 Best Websites for Writers. Becky has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Somerville Arts Council, and her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Glimmer Train, Briar Cliff Review, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize. Other fiction has appeared in Hobart, Graze, Folio, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She has blogged for Virginia Quarterly Review, Grub Daily, and is one of the founding members of Beyond the Margins. She teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Learn more at Read Full