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.


Want more on how to elevate from good to great?  Check out my May 22 WEBINAR with Writers Digest University, on just that topic.  Click HERE for more information.

You can even score a $10 discount (off the $89 tuition) by using the code — WDS522LB — when registering.  Which you can do HERE.


Heading off to Wenatchee WA his weekend for two workshop sessions at the annual Write on the River conference.  If you’re up for a last minute spontaneous jolt of writing adrenalin, click HERE.


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