Story Structure… for Television

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by Larry Brooks on May 14, 2014

I’m doubting that many of us write for television.  But I’m betting that most of us watch it.

As students of story architecture and story physics — that is you, right? — we tend to look for evidence of the principles in play in all of the fiction we consume, a large percentage of which is on the small screen.  Especially lately, television is producing some of the finest dramatic and comedic content available anywhere, in all genres.

But, does it model the structures and principles we look to for story optimization in our novels?

Here’s my take on that. 

A reader submitted these questions:

1. How would I apply the Story Structure method on a TV series with an episodic plot that continues each season?

2. How would I use the Story Structure method if I have multiple Point of View characters?

3. Can I add in plot twists during each phase (The Set Up, Reaction, Attack and Final Act) or does it have to only be in Plot Point One, The Mid-Point and Plot Point Two?

4. Is this the only way to structure a story or are there other ways? (Not that this isn’t amazing but I’m just wondering.)

Here are my responses.

The principles, though adapted for length and (literally) commercials, apply directly to each EPISODE of a TV series.  The proportions and page counts are different, though, to accommodate length, specifically to ramp into and out of commercial breaks.

The over-arcing concept of a series, though, doesn‘t.  Which is why when novelists try to imitate that episodic TV format in a novel, it usually doesn’t work.

Most TV series — all of them, in fact — are driven by a singular conceptCastle, for example (a primetime crime series, on the light side),  is about a novelist (Richard Castle) who shadows a New York City detective, who happens to be smokin’ hot, as research for his fiction… that’s a concept, not a premise.  Each episode, though, IS a premise. The overall series is where we look to find the concept, and then each individual episode has its own premise and structural arc, standing alone as a story.

The problem happens when novelists, looking to emulate this structure, create a viable concept, then simply deliver a series of episodes within a single novel.

An exception to this is the new trend toward “serialized seasons” (like The Following or True Detective, etc), which play as one story (a singluar premise; there is no resolution at the end of each episode) told over 8 or 12 weeks. This is different than, say, a season of Castle or shows like The Mentalist, in which each weekly episode stands alone.

Multiple POV characters — hard to do. But doable nonetheless.

The POVs need to be dealing with, looking in at, the SAME core story thread, rather than telling multiple stories form multiple points of view. Nelson Demille did this well in his novels The Lion and The Lion’s Game, and I took a page from him in my novels, Bait and Switch and Deadly Faux.

Also, the bestseller The Help (Kathryn Stockett) used three different POVs for the same core story. In all of these examples, a given POV has its own chapter before changing POV in the next (or another) chapter.

In other words, avoid multiple POVs within a single chapter.

Plot “twists” — you can have as many as you want.

The only guideline is… those milestones (hook, first plot point, midpoint, second plot point) still need to be there, in the right place, doing the right things (the given function of the given milestone). That’s why this is a framework, rather than a formula, you still get to (you have to) create your own story relative to exposition.

Is this the only way to structure a story?

Well, basically… yes.

Some stories have softer perceived segmentation, some mess with the proporational length of the sections… but pretty much any story that works, especially in today’s market and over the last 30 to 40 years, fall in line: setup… FPP… response… midpoint… proactive attack of the problem… plot point… resolution.

That paradigm is not really all that flexible, but it’s still art, allowing us to take our chances with what we decide to do.

These principles — the four part model, and the story physics that drive them — are there for one, and only one reason: the story WORKS BETTER this way. They aren’t rules, the open market “enforces” a perception of them being rules because stories that don’t line up really don’t work all that well.

So when an editor criticizes, even (usually) without even mentioning any of this “modeling” (example: editor says “the story takes too long to kick in… there’s not enough going on, or not enough tension… I don’t relate to the character enough… the ending is flat…” whatever) what they’re REALLY saying is you need to shift things and elevate the story forces — because it isn’t working all that well, as is.

When you do that, when you follow your editor’s advice, you ARE working with these very same principles, whether you like or use the vernacular, or not.

They’re like gravity that way.  Gravity doesn’t care what you call it.  But it’s always there to pull you back to earth.

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*****

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{ 9 comments }

MikeR May 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm

One slight point / clarification: “multiple point-of-view characters” could mean two different things.

The simplest of these is tantamount to “switching cameras.” Both POV characters are witnessing the same scene and/or interacting directly with the same story. Both their viewpoint and their influence upon that story are basically interchangeable. That, to me, is a very “cinematic” concept that doesn’t really play well in a story. =Storytelling= has far more options available to it than a purely-visual medium does.

The more complex, more interesting, and, I think, more “storytelling” point-of-view is one where the different POV characters inhabit different parallel stories. The “Hero” character is locked-in to the master story, but the characters who provide different POVs might also be related to other related, tangential stories. Their perspectives with-regard-to the master story are not 100% that of a participant in only-that story. They have a different point-of-view on the master story, they come from a different frame of reference, and they also have a different potential influence upon it.

Robert Jones May 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Maybe I should have saved my last comment in the previous thread for this one…since we’re going Hollywood.

I’m not a big television viewer, but I do catch up on shows that get some decent acclaim on either Netflix or DVD. And I certainly prefer how some of the more recent shows are leaning more towards each episode being a chapter within a larger story.

Going back to the 90s, most TV shows, even the better ones, tended to have a master plot that comes in and gives us plot points that lead to a season cliff-hanger. Then the rest of the episodes just become stand-alones, mini- adventures with the larger adventure. Which still enabled some continuity, at least. G back further than that and each episode of most TV series was just an episodic adventure–some good, some not so good.

So depending on what someone is currently watching, it may well appear that structure is all over the road. But little by little they’ve tightened structure and plots because someone finally realized they are more inclined to get people to come back the following week if the story is leading somewhere. Thus proving the attention span of the average person can be held longer than five minutes when you actually present them with something interesting.

Can we all say, “DUH!”

Tony McFadden May 15, 2014 at 5:42 am

Great post, and timely. I’m adapting one of my books for a TV pilot / series and as preparation I’ve been watching a lot of TV (at least that’s the excuse I’m using around the house).

While each episode follows the story structure arc (NEEDS to follow the story structure arc), the whole series, particularly in darams, also follows a story arc.

In Castle, it’s who killed Beckett’s mother.
In Person of Interest it’s the behind the scenes, dirty cop activities of HR, and their exposure
In Mentalist it’s the hunt and capture of Red John (with various permutations).
In King & Maxwell (a TV series that WAY outshines the source book) it’s King’s “error” resulting in the assasination of a presidential candidate, and his search for the truth.

If you’re writing drama – particualrly crime drama – for TV, if you don’t have that season arcing plot, you won’t have much of an audience. And since it plays out over 12 or 24 or however many episodes, you need to structure that season-length plot accordingly. FPP at the 25% episode (3 of 12 or 6 of 24, a context shift half way through the season.

It’s great fun tying all these things together.

Tony McFadden May 15, 2014 at 5:43 am

(darams – dramas. I think I suffer from sleep deprivation induce dyslexia)

Larry May 15, 2014 at 7:44 am

@Tony — great point about an overall arc. The Harry Potter books did the same thing (who killed his parents) while each book had a specific dramatic question (plot). The good TV shows do what you describe, others not so much (pure cop shows, like Hawaii 5-O and Unforgettable -, often have the setup/concept in place, and the characters– in Unforgettable it’s her memory gift — but without that bigger arcing context. Thanks for culling this out, it’s a very valuable perspective. Larry

Mindy May 15, 2014 at 7:46 am

This was an interesting and thought provoking post and comment thread – you guys make great comments! My brother Clark made me watch True Detective while visiting him; I never thought about writing for television until that show. That’s compelling story telling that gives this writer the enthusiasm to consider that sort of writing.

Larry May 15, 2014 at 8:12 am

@Mindy — “True Detective” was fresh and iconic primarily because of the writing, those little Sorkin-esque monologues from both guys. If you think about it the “plot,” the case, was pretty straight-forward (though really dark and squirmy), a serial killer who has escaped capture all these years, nothing really more complex than than, we see the Detectives working through the clues.

But… there were those layers. The interrogations trying to link the one guy to the crime, and how it gradually exposed the checkered relationship between those two detectives, providing a gateway to all those subplots. Truly a deep dive into the dark soul of the obsessed and the oppressed. Brilliant stuff. L.

Robert Jones May 15, 2014 at 9:51 am

I haven’t watched “True Detective.” Sounds like something I need to add to my list. There seems to be a growing backlog of shows I need to catch up on.

Shane Arthur May 15, 2014 at 10:38 am

Larry. Didn’t you mention one time about a specific book that dealt with writing television screenplays?

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