Red pencil amongst a row of pencils in black and white

No doubt you’ve heard the maxim that good writers need to be good readers. Stephen King goes a step further, advising that “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” In “How to Make a Living as a Writer,” James Scott Bell recounts how he read lots of books strategically in order to better understand plot points and know “when it might pay off to leave a ‘blot‘.”

I agree with both gentlemen that it is important to read. Fortunately, I love books so reading to write is far from a dismal task. That said, as I stretch my creative wings to give life to my first novel, I’m fast realizing that reading to while away a few hours is quite different from what I call “structured reading.” It takes time to scribble notes on index cards about intriguing phrases, events or characters or reread passages to observe technique.

Because my goal is to both publish a novel and have it optioned for television or film, I decided that my study plan should include viewing as well as reading. As a result, popcorn in hand, I returned to a movie and television series that each caught my attention last year – Fifty Shades of Grey and The Fall.

I originally read the trilogy by E. L. James (her pen name) because I was curious to know why more than one hundred million books had flown off the shelves around the world, making Fifty Shades of Grey an unprecedented bestseller. The first movie in a series of three earned nearly $600 million in box office sales, despite anemic reviews from some critics. Coming upon The Fall on Netflix was lucky happenstance because this UK crime series had me at hello. I was not alone. The Guardian describes this high rated show as “one of the best BBC dramas in years.” Irish actor and former fashion model Jamie Dornan stars in both productions. The Fall returns this year for Season 3 and Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed will appear on the big screen in time for Valentine’s Day 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Whether you regard either or both shows as high art is a discussion for another time (as is the topic of how the acting rates). What is undeniable is that enough consumers have tuned in to plump the piggy banks of its authors, screenwriters, producers and distributors.

Further similarities have not gone unnoticed. Each work exposes the viewers to the duality of its main characters at the same that the audience is urged to reconsider gender stereotypes about strength and emotions. Another mind bender is the extent to which each outside observer gets to personalize the experience, absent a solid back story about why key players are motivated to behave as they do. As Indie Wire reporter Zack Sharf points out, The Fall‘s creator and writer, Allan Cubitt, “constructs Paul Spector much like E. L. James does Christian Grey. Both men are abstract in their overall design, thus allowing the viewer to project an identity onto the respective character in a way that is enticing and evocative.”

The same ambiguity applies to the lead female characters. Questions abound. Is Anastasia Steele stronger than we think? Is she lulled into a relationship with Christian Grey because she came from a broken home or is she truly smitten with this wealthy power broker? Is senior police officer Stella Gibson emotionally out of reach because of a dysfunctional relationship with her father or a past romance gone bad? Who inspired her career ambitions? What is the basis of her keen understanding of the human condition? How can she have empathy for individuals who commit heinous crimes?

From a writer’s perspective, this pair of rich character stews makes one think. Do we want to entertain our readers (viewers) or provoke? Should our characters entice by their actions alone or do we need to fill in the blanks? Can a character be too complex and mysterious? As I penned in “Legal Thrillers and Investigative Reporting Books and Movies Take Work,” there is a delicate balance between fluff and tough. Sometimes they overlap.

Whatever you conclude about Fifty Shades of Grey and The Fall, big revenue suggests that the creators have tapped into the ongoing want for a good yarn. I like this quote by UK author Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”