Television’s Love Affair with Books

Lawrence Levy, TV writer and author of the Mary Handley Mystery series, digs into the book-to-screen business.

television Lawrence Levy

A couple of questions I regularly hear: why and how did I move from TV to novels, and why are so many books being turned into TV series? There’s a lot here, so to borrow lyrics from Richard Rodgers, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

The main answer to why I moved from writing TV to writing novels is passion. I found a story about which I was so passionate that I put a successful TV writing career on hold to write it on spec. Although my first novel, Second Street Station, could easily have been a TV series or movie, I felt a novel was the right first step. Besides the fact that show business is rarely receptive to period pieces (they’re expensive to shoot), I wanted to get down my exact perspective on the characters without having to depend on actors and a director to make my work come to life. It was this passion—and partially the ignorance of how difficult it is to sell a book these days—that kept me going.

Strange as it may seem, there are aspects of TV writing that helped me write a novel. First and foremost, I consider all writers to be storytellers. Every book, TV show, and movie are in some way incarnations of the simple bedtime story you tell your children, hoping to enthrall them. Although your story can and should be more sophisticated, you want the reader to ask, “And then what happened?”

In TV, you have to tell a story in a short amount of time, so there’s no room for unnecessary or extraneous details. That helped me in writing novels. My aim is to keep the story going, and though there may be times when I have to stop and describe a table or a door, I keep it brief and to the point. I feel that lengthy descriptions can be boring, and you stand a good chance of losing the reader. Also, much of television has commercials, so you have the added challenge of making sure the audience comes back after the break. That’s why we often write to the break with a surprise or story turn just as they leave for commercial. Books have chapters, and I try to end each chapter with an enticement for the reader to read on. It has worked for me. The third book in my Mary Handley Mystery series, Last Stop in Brooklyn, comes out next week, and I’m currently writing book four.

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As for the other part of the question, the main reason for the deluge of novels on the TV market is simple: content. Content is king in television, and with so many more channels and streaming services devouring material, it makes sense that the television industry would look to outside sources.

Of course, that isn’t the only reason. With the competition getting fiercer every day, it’s only natural for television providers to lean toward content with a built-in audience. A bestselling novel brings a following that will probably tune in for an episode or two—then it’s the job of the show to keep them hooked. Back in the early years of television, Broken Arrow (based on the novel Blood Brother), Peyton Place, and The Thin Man were just a few TV series based on books. Today it’s much more widespread, and the scope has changed from mostly action series and some soap operas to a wide range of genres. Game of Thrones, Outlander, True Blood (from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series), Dexter, The Handmaid’s Tale and Zoo are just a handful of TV shows based on books that networks would never have considered years ago. The easing of censors’ rules has certainly contributed to this, but the competition for content is the strongest driving factor.

Many books provide well-developed characters in dramatic situations with the potential for countless more stories being told about them (book series, then, provide even more). After all, what constitutes a successful TV series: characters in which the audience is vested being put in interesting situations where they reveal more of who they are. Of course, the sore point for authors is that often their characters aren’t depicted as the author had written or envisioned them. They might hate the TV series, but they can soothe themselves with perks the show brings: rising book sales, a per-episode fee, and a percentage of the profits. Obviously, authors like Stephen King get a lion’s share—but new, unknown authors with a savvy negotiator can be thrown some tasty crumbs.

A bit of good news for authors is that there are more and more instances of TV trying to stay true to the books on which they’re based. It’s widely thought that Game of Thrones has done a great job with George R. R. Martin’s books, some even daring to say that the TV writers have improved upon it by making what is perceived as a convoluted narrative much more understandable. Of course, one doesn’t know how Martin would respond to that, but they do have his input. Bosch is another series that seems to be portraying Michael Connelly’s detective character faithfully. As the quality of TV continues to improve, we’ll probably see more of this trend, which is a lot more satisfying—and a lot less gut-wrenching—for us authors.

My advice is that if you are an author who is fortunate to have TV knock at your door, try to negotiate your involvement with the series. At least you’ll be able to voice your opinion. They might not listen, and it might cause you to tear your hair out, but you’ll have the satisfaction of having tried.


Featured image: Sergey Mastepanov/Shutterstock.com; Author Photo: © Fran Levy

LAWRENCE H. LEVY is a highly regarded film and TV writer who is a Writers Guild Award winner and a two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for various hit TV shows such as Family Ties, Saved by the Bell, Roseanne, and SeinfeldLast Stop in Brooklyn is his third novel in the Mary Handley Mystery series.

About LAWRENCE H. LEVY

LAWRENCE H. LEVY is a highly regarded film and TV writer who is a Writers Guild Award winner and a two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for various hit TV shows such as Family Ties, Saved by the Bell, Roseanne, and SeinfeldLast Stop in Brooklyn is his third novel in the Mary Handley Mystery series.

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