What We Can Learn from Episodic Television

(Check out my guest blog today on The World’s Strongest Librarian, a  very cool website by Josh Hanagarne, who is the world’s strongest – and tallest – librarian.)

A genius plotting technique straight out of primetime drama.

Long ago I was giving a screenwriting workshop at a facility that was also hosting a novel writing workshop in another room.  Rumor had it the instructor, a very successful mystery author you may have actually heard of, was having a little mean-spirited fun at our expense. 

Wonder if he’d still have been a smartass if someone had ever wanted to adapt one of his novels for the screen, and then told him he wouldn’t be allowed to write the screenplay – that’s how it happens, by the way – because he didn’t have the right chops.

Writing can be an elitist avocation. 

Novelists look down their noses at screenwriters, who are paid orders of magnitude more money, who, because of that fact, in turn look down their own noses at them

Published authors look down on at self-published authors.  Literary types scoff at genre writers.  Genre writers diminish authors working in genres other than their own. 

And critics who have never published anything longer than 700 words look down on all of us.

It’s all bullshit, folks.

Truth is, each corner of the storytelling world has something to offer the rest of us.  The more we know about what makes other genres and literary styles work, the better we’ll be within our own respective areas of focus.

That includes television, too. 

Especially some of the really good stuff running in primetime these days.

Watching the season premiere of Burn Notice this week (the USA Network number one rated cable drama, and my favorite program), it occurred to me that we can all take a page from the primetime TV drama book.

It’s a little kernel of pure storytelling gold that, like story structure itself, may have escaped you if you weren’t aware of it.  Once you know what it is and why it works, you’ll never not notice it again.

Best of all, you just might even use it to take your own stories to a higher level.

This spectacularly powerful storytelling technique resides at the confluence of plot and character.  At the collision of backstory with dramatic tension.  At the crossroads of sub-plot and sub-text.

And if that sounds like some advanced stuff, it absolutely is.

If you’ve wrapped your head around the basics and are looking for a little graduate level nuance to separate your story from the slush pile, pay attention.

Straight out of primetime television.  Who’d ‘a thunk it.

Foreground Plot versus Background Plot

It sounds so simple once you hear it.  But it’s precisely the thing that keeps you coming back to a successful series and its lead character – in television and in novels – week after week, season and after season.

It goes without saying that a good story – your story – has a primary plotline.  Your character has a need, faces a problem, is in quest of a solution, embarks on a journey to reach a goal.

And of course, there is opposition to that goal, some person or force that stands in their way.  Sometimes that opposition resides within the hero (internal conflict), but usually it is an external antagonistic pressure that must be conquered, provided the internal demons are conquered first.

This is storytelling 101.  Think of this storyline, the one that launches at the First Plot Point in your story, as the foreground plot.

Now for the magic ingredient, straight out of the boob tube.

As the foreground plot unfolds, it does so in relationship to a background plot.  This is a pre-existing, more personal set of problems and life-circumstances for your hero that are either dealt with simultaneously with the foreground plot, or set aside temporarily while the foreground plot is addressed.

Examples abound.

In The Good Wife, the hero’s politician husband is in prison for lying to the grand jury about his affair with a hooker.  Her teenage children are in rebellion, and she is a junior associate at a snotty law firm driven more by the politics of money than justice and client welfare.

And yet, every week, layered on top of this daunting set of circumstances and challenges, our hero is given a case to solve, an innocent to protect, a dark and shadowy icon of power to dethrone.

This foreground storyline resolves in an hour.  The background storyline remains from week to week. 

In Burn Notice, the exact same dynamic is in place.  Our hero, Michael Weston, is a spy who has been burned, tantamount to being fired and just short of being dead.  He is left with only two friends and his highly-tuned wherewithal as a lethal spy to try to discover who burned him, and why, all in quest of getting his job back.

But that’s not the foreground plot of each episode.  With that as the background plot, he takes on yet another job to defend an innocent against the forces of evil.  At the end of the hour he’s saved his client while also dealing with yet one more background blow from the unseen forces that want him to disappear.

Name a primetime drama, any drama, and you’ll find this dynamic in place.  Even the soapy ones like Grey’s Anatomy offer us a once-only 60-minute foreground plotline set against the on-going angst of the background plot.

Stories that focus on one story at the expense or omission of the other, leaving the story with a singular plot focus, come off as flat.  Stories that offer both a foreground story and a lingering background plot give the character rich motivation and lend a context of character empathy that offer a richer experience than either plotline alone.

Are you doing this in your stories?  Maybe you should.

But before you do, be careful of these seductive traps.

Sometimes a background story becomes fodder for sub-plot, but not necessarily.  It merely needs to be present, lending context.  If there is something about the background story that can be resolved within the confines of the story at hand, rather than left lingering, then it is indeed a sub-plot.

But you don’t have to resolve your background plot to make it effective.  After the hero saves the day, we might see her or him return to the lingering problem that was there before it all started, which is a great segue to a sequel.

In fact, the background story is the very essence of a series character. Think Harry Potter in his continuing quest to find his parent’s killer, which is always lurking in the background of whatever storyline resides front and center of episode in question.

Also, don’t confuse background plot with character backstory.  

Backstory is what happened in the hero’s life before the story begins, thus defining the character’s world view, fears, preferences and inner demons. 

A background plot exists both before and throughout the story in question, and calls the character to action rather than simply defining their past experiences.

Think of it this way: backstory is what happened before your story beings… background plot is what is happening to the hero before the first plot point introduces the foreground story.  It remains in play, but takes second fiddle to that foreground story until it is resolved.

 You need both.

Don’t confuse background story with sub-text

Sub-text is the landscape of thematic relevance that provides the unspoken tension and ground rules that drive the motivations and behaviors of the players.   Sub-text can arise from your background story, but it can and should be more than that.

In the great drama House, for example, the sub-text is the hero’s inner demon that prevents him from connecting to other human beings.  This is neither foreground nor background story – it’s sub-text – but it does inform and color both.

Watch and Learn

Complex as all this may sound, in execution it comes off as fluid and very natural.  The best way to wrap your head around it is to experience it.

As in, turn on the television.

Now that you know what you’re looking for, you’ll easily sense its presence the next time you pick up the remote and flip channels.  The more intimate you become with a program and its hero, the more you’ll understand that the background plot is the bedrock of the program itself.

If Castle wasn’t writing a novel based on his assigned police detective mentor, you probably wouldn’t tune in next week.  That dynamic, which fuels the escalating relationship between the hero and the ridiculously sexy Detective Beckett, is what separates this otherwise generic whodunit from all the other primetime crime shows.  Each of which, it must be noted, sports a background plot of its own.

At least, they do if they hope to get renewed.

What is your hero dealing with before, during, behind and after the foreground plot of your story?

A compelling answer to that question might just get you published.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

26 Responses to What We Can Learn from Episodic Television

  1. Shirls

    Larry this view is really liberating. It means one can produce a plot for a novel without having to solve all of the hero’s life problems within the confines of that plot.

  2. Anna T.S.

    Thanks for this article, in particular the distinction between background story, backstory and subtext.

    Anna T.S.

  3. Larry,
    Great post, I think Dexter is a really interesting show in these terms because they are so unafraid to wash the back ground plot away each new season. They have running backstory, a strong subtext and a clear new foreground plot each week but introduce and solve back ground plot regularly. I love this as a viewer because shows that have one back ground plot for five or seven years tend to, in television terms, jump the shark.

  4. This is so true and set out so clearly. Thanks!

  5. Us old folk probably remember the TV series “The Fugitive” which is a great example of long-running background plot on a weekly foreground plot.

  6. Martijn Groeneveld

    Hi Larry,

    about Harry Potter. Returning elements in the books are his pride and anger that always lurk under the surface of his emotions and sometimes even pull him away from the direction he needs to go. He does need to resolve these traits before he is able to face Voldemort in the end. So is this part of his story background plot, in wich case there can be more than one of those in a story, or is it sub-text.


  7. And don’t forget “24.” The writers on that show clearly have fun doing their job.

    Thanks for this post. This is a really good way to look at story.

  8. Mary E. Ulrich

    Hi Larry,

    Okay, I liked your examples of “Background Plot” and “Foreground Plot”–made sense, got it.

    BUT, you lost me with how this relates to internal and external plots. Is the “sub-text” the same as internal plot?

    I’ll be watching Castle tonight, maybe you can translate.

    Your points about the background and foreground plots also reminded me of series books. ie. when Nora Roberts writes a trilogy, if I am understanding you correctly, the background story is what unites the books and is then resolved at the end of book 3. Hope I got that right.

    As always, thanks for helping solve the writing mystery.

  9. I think you’ve just solved my problem. I knew there was something missing from the story I’m writing but I couldn’t pinpoint it. This just hit it on the head. Rewrite time! Thanks for the insight.

  10. @Mary — please don’t confuse foreground and background plotting with internal and external conflict. The latter deals with the relationship between the character’s interior landscape and the exterior obstacles that present themselves.

    Those exterior antagonists come in two flavors: background and foreground plotlines. The internal character issues apply to both.

    I’ll admit, they’re overlapping issues, but I encourage you to view them differently.

    @Martyjn – see Mary’s answer above. Same issue — you’ve described Harry’s interior landscape only. It relates to, but does not define, the foreground and background plotlines. Those are always exterior in nature, just as they are always played out in context to the hero’s interior issues. As you suggest, these are all sub-text, not sub-plot. Harry’s attraction to a female classmate would be a sub-plot, his continuing quest to avenge his parents would be a background plot, while his shyness andemerging boldness would be sub-text to both.

    Hope this clarifies.

  11. Trish

    Another great article, Larry. It’s nice to start the writing day with new aspects of the craft to ponder.

  12. I was actually just writing an entry about this subject in my personal journal the other day. A friend made the comment that “real writers don’t watch television,” as though TV cannot be as intellectually stimulating or as complex as written works.

    I watch a LOT of TV( and “Burn Notice” is the one TV show my husband and I both love). And although I have no desire to ever write screenplays (or teleplays, for that matter), I’ve learned quite a bit about storytelling by watching TV shows hit or miss.

    I love to read, and I devote significant time to books every week, but television is a completely different medium. And I think I like TV for the same reason that I loved series books as a kid–at the end of a stand-alone novel, you abandon the characters at the end. When a television show reaches the end, you know you get to check back in next week. And the background plot is why you do it.

    Anyway, great article–really don’t need my ramblings to follow it.

  13. Awesome article. I’m so glad to see someone else mentioning this as I’m usually to embarrassed to tell people that I’ve picked up some pointers from watching television. There are shows out there (like Burn Notice and Castle, two of my faves) that are good examples of some fantastic writing.

    Thanks for this.

  14. Thanks to all for your great comments on this post. I was hoping it would hit home for writers looking closely at the heart of their story to see how to liven things up.

    In rereading it, it hit me there’s another, really quick and dirty way to summarize this, so I thought I’d share it: give your hero a life… a life in full swing before you clobber them with the main (foreground) storyline… not an easy life, but something that’s challenging, exciting and interesting… a life with conflict in it (this is what separates it from a backstory, it’s a pre-existing storyline that goes backstage for a while… something they have to either put on hold or co-manage to navigate the foreground story. You can come back to this background plotline — or not — if it works, and you can — or not — resolve it after you’ve resolved your foreground story.

    So many options, all good. And all of them better than a one dimensional storyline that doesn’t go as deep into the hero’s life as does a background story lurking… well, in the background.

    Start looking for this in the stories you experience, be they on television, in movies and in books.

    Such analytical story consumption is the most valuable thing enlightened writers can do to prepare and motivate themselves to attach their own stories with a higher level of skill.

  15. Patrick Sullivan

    I wonder how far you can take this. After all, even scenes have the primary front story in the conflict of that particular moment that makes it worth the reader’s time to see it, as well as the background currents of the larger ongoing story with the current arc, on top of the actual background story for the entire book/series/whatever. Does the onion peel that far while still giving us something useful and juicy enough to sink your teeth into?

  16. @Patrick — very astute. Nice. Scenes, and even moments within scenes, are opportunities to layer complexity, nuance and expositional value. The degree to which that happens is, I would say, the essence of the “art” of storytelling itself, perhaps the very thing that separates “masters” from the rest of us. Sometimes the background is a subordinated storyline, sometimes it’s a sub-plot, sometimes it’s sub-text, sometimes its a stew comprised of them all.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Patrick. Makes for a challenging and inspiring line of inquiry.

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  18. I’m always looking for writing tips, and you always provide great ones. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  19. And here I was just thinking maybe I should ask you about how story structure works with subplots.

    Frankly this is one blog every writer should be reading with their cornflakes.


  20. Clint Daniel

    Thank you, this has, in some way, renewed my passion for writing. I can feel it in my bones, and it gives me new possiblities to explore and to create in my writing. I’ve never been able to grasp the concept of background and foreground story, but your explanation allowed me to see it the way I needed, and I’m excited to use it in my writing.

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  22. As usual you’ve made me think hard about my MS. And you’re dead on right about back and fore stories. Fortunately I think I did that, but after this post it will be a more conscious consideration of my writing process. Thank you for all of the insight.

  23. Megan

    Loved this post. I’ve been stumbling with this very issue in my WIP and it’s like you read my mind, went to work, and delivered a post just for me. Thank you.

    BTW, I’m looking forward to absorbing your wisdom live in Wenatchee this year!

  24. I realized while reading this post that in my novel-in-progress, the background story that’s simmering for the first half of the novel becomes the foreground story for the second half of the novel, and vice versa. They both get resolved together at the end. Hopefully, that structure will work out. Now that I’m more conscious of what’s happening, I can work on making the shift a more dramatic twist. Thanks, Larry.

    Something else novelists can learn from television—If you struggle with dialogue, try watching soap operas. Not for the quality of the dialogue, but for pacing and the way the dialogue conveys story and conflict. Think you’re above it? Think again. A good writer uses all the tools at their disposal.

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