With the return of (slightly) cooler weather, the appearance of Halloween items in Target, and lots of writing work to get done by the end of the year, I’ve sadly had to give up most of my slothful summer TV watching. Not that I’ve backed away from the remote control altogether of course–not with 2 of my very favorite shows on! Vampire Diaries had its season premiere last week, and Mad Men is more than halfway through season 4 (now officially Best Season Ever!). And I realized something as I watched Don Draper dragging himself up out of the muck on Sunday–all this TV time is not wasted. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from these 2 shows, one to apply to my own writing.

On the surface, Vampire Diaries and Mad Men are very different shows. “Young” vamps, humans, witches (and whatever Tyler is now) in a (supposedly) Southern town, falling in love, getting into terrible danger, violent events, and wearing cool clothes, and 1960s ad execs in New York falling in and out of love (sort of), getting into danger with internal demons and societal expectations, and wearing cool clothes. But they have one vital characteristic in common–nothing ever turns out like you expect. It’s always better, deeper, darker, more shocking. I don’t often shout at the TV, but I’ve recently done it with both these shows. “OMG, Damon didn’t kiss Elena, it was Katherine!” and “OMG, Betty opened the drawer!” Did not see those coming.

Where Vampire Diaries is very fast-paced, with vital plot twists in every episode and characters killed right and left, and Mad Men is famous for the slow burn (things build and build until we’re stunned by how it all explodes), these unexpected twists always come from the characters themselves. They’re never really out of left field, the actions and events arise from the characters’ flaws and secrets and desires. We’re not knocked over the head with how we’re supposed to think and feel about the characters, we’re allowed to figure things out on our own; no character is ever all good or all bad, but made of shades of gray.

These are also both very character-centered shows, as any romance novel centering on human relationships must be, and I like to think about plots in a Mad Men sort of way (not that Don Draper is any sort of hero!). What’s the unexpected twist, the sudden action, the mystery that arises from all we’ve learned about the characters and decisions they’ve made about themselves and what they want? What would they do when the moment of truth arrives, what is true for them and not a cliche?

Now it’s your turn! What are some of your favorite shows or movies, and what have you learned from them? Do you watch Mad Men or Vampire Diaries, and what do you think of the seasons so far? Is Betty still in love with Don, for secret, and will his reform last? What is Katherine really up to in Mystic Falls?

And on this day in 1812, the Moscow fires broke out. A good time to enjoy the 1812 Overture!