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Thinking Virtually

#24: Episodic Plots, Part One: Television

by Shannon Appelcline
September 10, 2001
edited by Kimberly Appelcline  

"But it's always the same, you know? Grill the bun, flip the meat, melt the cheese .... It never changes. It never gets any better or worse ...."

Thus far I've been talking about singular plots, which is exactly the type of plot you have in a movie. They're one-time affairs, with no need for continuity, no characters who might return, nothing of the sort. (Sure, you can claim a minor exception for sequels ... but that really is a very minor thing. Except for the rare movie like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, which is intentionally created as a part of a larger whole, movies need to be entirely self contained.)

While looking at singular plots is a great way to understand plotting in the simplest sense, it's also a very bad model for MCRPGs--or continuing games of any sort. Because continuing games do keep on going, and thus you need to keep creating arcs, reintroducing old plot points, and occasionally building to satisfying climaxes. And that is what I'd like to examine for the next few weeks ... how other episodic mediums manage to keep things going week after week.

I've got three episodic mediums lined up: television, comic books, and RPGs. Each one is going to get a week of discussion ... mainly looking at the techniques each genre uses to build continuity. And then, in column #27, I want to tie them all together with a big bow, looking at how MCRPGs can learn from all the various techniques.

This week is going to be the longest of the initial trilogy, because some techniques that we meet in the world of television will be repeated in other mediums.

Interlude, Part One: Singular Plots in Television

Before I delve into episodic plots, however, I'd like to take a step back and see just how television deals with plots in the more singular sense--internal to an episode. This is a short digression I'll be taking in each of these columns on episodic plots, because I think looking at singular plots in other mediums can only add to the ideas about singular plots in movies that I espoused in the last three weeks.

As it turns out, there isn't a single answer for how television shows deal with singular plots. Rather, how singular plots are dealt with in television actually depends largely on what particular genre is being presented. There's a big difference between plot in a thirty-minute comedy and a six-hour mini-series.

Today, however, I plan to look at one particular genre--the one-hour television drama--because of everything on the air it makes the best combined use of singular plot and episodic plot--and thus is the best match for MCRPGs. I'm going to be using a bunch of favorite one-hour dramas as examples along the way, among them E.R., Babylon Five, and Wiseguy.

As it happens the one-hour television drama uses almost exactly the same plot structure as movies, as I described in Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part One. It tends to build around a three-act structure with: the first act being the introduction and lasting the first fifteen minutes; the second act being a series of trials, with a high-point in the middle and a low point at the end, and lasting the middle thirty minutes; and the third act being the conclusion and lasting the last fifteen minutes. There are, however, a number of major differences between television and movies.

First, the three-act structure in television isn't nearly as religious as the one in movies, and that's probably a good thing in general. As I've noted before, dogma will inevitably stifle your creative skills rather than enhancing them. If you look carefully at a television show you can see the structure of the acts, but you might not find the beginning of a journey or the point of no return in every single drama, as you can in most movies.

Second, television writers need to really think about how commercials are going to affect their story. Every commercial gives viewers an opportunity to change the channel, and thus television writers often create cliff hangers to keep their viewers through the commercial break. This is especially a problem at the half-hour commercial break, since it's longer than most, and thus television writers usually place a really big cliffhanger there.

Third, television writers often introduce two additional segments. A very short Teaser (or hook or introduction or prologue) may begin the show with a bang, solely to get viewers interested as they're channel-surfing right after the hour, and a very short Denouement (or conclusion) often ends the show, solely to get viewers to watch through the credits, and thus onto the next show that the network is broadcasting. (Lots of shows have Hooks, while fewer have Denouements. Babylon Five is a rare show that I can recall having both.)

Putting it all together, a television show plot can look something like this:

  • Teaser -- very short; gets viewers interested.
    • Commercial Break
  • Act One -- often ending at the beginning of the journey, which also acts as a cliffhanger, but sometimes already moving into Act Two and an early cliffhanger there
    • Commercial Break
  • First Half of Act Two -- often ending with the point of no return, just past the middle of the story, which acts as a really big cliffhanger
    • Long Commercial Break
  • Second Half of Act Two -- often ending with the low point of the show, another cliffhanger
    • Commercial Break
  • Act Three -- ending with the final battle scene, but not necessarily resolving all the threads
    • Commercial Break
  • Denouement -- resolving those last few threads

(As you might have noted, you, the lucky viewer, gets to enjoy a lot of commercials.)

Interlude, Part Two: Moving on to the A, B, Cs

In actuality, the singular plot of television shows is a little more complex than what I've described ... because a single television episode tends to include a few different plots. Most hour-long dramas have a large cast of characters, and a single night's drama rarely centers on one character (or on one big problem). This is where the ABCs of television plots come in.

When I outline the structure of a telvision plot, above, what I'm really outlining is the structure of the "A" plot, which is the most important plot for a night's episode, and thus the one that gets the most screen time. In a completely traditional hour-long drama, however, there are three plots: the "A" plot, the "B" plot, and the "C" plot. The most traditional dramas also try to revolve all of their plots around the same theme, like "couples breaking up" or "taking chances" or something like that ... a practice that amuses me because I get to play solve-the-puzzle during the episode, but can ultimately lessen the impact of your plots if you do it week after week.

(Dogmatics please note, I say "a completely traditional hour-long drama". I've seen very intense nights of drama that only concentrate on a single "A" plot and I've also seen nights of drama which catch up with the entire cast, and thus tend to march down the entire alphabet of letters.)

As you might expect, the "B" plot is less important than the "A" plot and thus gets less screen time. Ditto for the "C". What makes this usage of several plots interesting is that they inerweave, and they usually do so in a way that maintain viewer's interest. If plot "A" is hitting a lull then plot "B" is probably really revving up. If plot "C" finishes three-quarters of a way through an episode, then you can be sure that plots "A" and "B" still have a lot going on.

We'll get back to this next week, when I discuss "braided plots" in comic books, but this idea of interweaving singular plots is actually one of the simplest ways to create continuity in episodic mediums.

No Future!

Thinking about braided plots leads us to the core question of this week's column: how does the episodic medium of television extend plots out over weeks, entire seasons, and even years? How is continuity created out of singular plots?

For a long time, it wasn't.

I started off this week's column with a quote from Pleasantville \--not just because it's a great movie, but also because it offers an insightful look at America television circa the 1950s. As the quote says, "It never changes. It never gets any better or worse."

For many decades, that was how episodic television worked. The show bible provided a setting and a cast of characters, and every week those characters faced some new trouble or problem ... but they never, ever learned from the experience. Think of the original Star Trek or even Star Trek: the Next Generation. Consider The Dukes of Hazzard or Knight Rider. Those were all old-school dramas which didn't change.

Every once in a while a character might die or suddenly move away or something ... but it would be a singular event brought on by necessity (a contract dispute or a real-life death). Beyond that you could expect everything to be exactly the same always, with no changes between episodes, even when life-changing events occurred.

Frankly, it was boring. (And, frankly, the sindicators and the networks both encouraged this type of storytelling for a long time because they thought the American public would be confused by change.)

Dramas have gotten a lot better in the last twenty years, using a number of the methods I describe below to create continuity, but getting out of this sixty-year old trap is still a struggle for a lot of television shows. Many dramas still succumb to the no-future syndrome. It's even more prevelent among comedies, with those who escape actually earning their own title: dramadies--with Roseanne (1988-1997) being one of the earliest and best examples.

Character Arcs

But, let's take a step back from Roseanne, to the start of the "Me" Decade, when television dramas started coming into their own for the first time.

A gentleman named Steven Bochco was one of the first producers to really introduce continuity into the world of television, with his ground-breaking television show, Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). Many of you are probably more familiar with his more recent shows, L.A. Law (1986-1994) and NYPD Blue (1993-).

All three of these Bochco shows really changed the way that drama worked on television because they had character arcs. On the surface, plots seemed to conclude on an episode-to-episode basis, but there was always an underlying continuity of character to the world.

Hill Street Blues was really where this all got started, in 1981, but I'm going to draw my own examples from L.A. Law, as I'm more familiar with that later show. In L.A. Law one of the early character arcs had to do with two of the characters finding out that they were infertile when they were trying to have a baby. Sometimes this arc popped into an episode for just a few minutes, but at other times it had important effects on the overall happenings in the show. The lawyers might view a case that was part of a singular plot differently, perhaps even make a different decision, because of this long-time character arc that they were participating in.

One of the best-remembered plots in L.A. Law had to do with one of the lawyers stepping into an empty elevator shaft, and very suddenly plunging to her death. In many ways it was reminescent of the old no-future plots of television dramas--an actor wanted to exit the show, and so the character was removed from the show very suddenly. But L.A. Law proved itself a member of the next generation of television by how it dealt with things afterward. Some of the characters started thinking about their own mortality, and it caused some very real life changes.

Both of these examples, and numerous others scattered throughout the three Bochco shows, allowed characters to truly change, becoming different people--sometimes better, sometimes worse--as the show progressed. It's hard to find a drama nowadays that doesn't include character arcs, but if you look back at shows thirty or more years old, you'll see this wasn't always the case. If you consider Lost in Space it becomes clear that the Space Family Robinson truly didn't change during their space adventures.

Although the simplest type of continuity, character arcs are also one of the most powerful. The prime points of this type of episodic continuity are:

  • Allow characters to slowly evolve over many episodes.
  • Make that evolution end in life-changing results.
  • Interweave this character evolution with the main plots to pump up its importance and significance.

Digression: Soap!

I suspect what I just described may sound like it's skirting dangerously close to the world of soap operas. To be honest, that's an issue that I was trying to figure out when I first started thinking about this article. How do you differentiate between classic day-time soap operas like Guiding Light (1952-), the old night-time soaps like Dynasty (1981-1989), and modern dramas like Felicity (1998-) and Dawson's Creek (1998-)?

I think they all fall into a continuum.

In any episodic medium--be it television, comic books, or MCRPGs--you have to carefully tread the line between singular plots, which are self-contained within an episode, and episodic plots, which reverberate through days, weeks, or months. A show like Hill Street Blues supplemented its singular plots with some character arcs. Some current dramas, like Felicity go even further, building most of their singular plots around those character arcs. When you get to a show like Guiding Light, it turns out to be just about all episodic plot, with almost no singular plot to actually make an individual episode interesting in and of itself. (And, in my mind, ignoring singular plots in an episodic medium is just as bad of an idea as ignoring episodic plots.)

Here's how it would all lay out in a two-dimensional chart:

           + EPISODIC PLOTS
           | * Guiding Light
           |       * Dynasty
           |            * Felicity
           |                   * Hill Street Blues
           |                         * Lost in Space
                                      SINGULAR PLOTS

For television shows, I feel like a good balance develops somewhere between where Felicity and Hill Street Blues lie on my chart. But, I'm not convinced that's the right answer for all mediums. I think the optimal space for MCRPGs might lie somewhere further left, but I'll save that particular discussion for a few weeks.

Plot Arcs

With the idea of character arcs firmly in place, it was pretty easy for television to move on to plot arcs--where you had continuity that centered around some event or story, rather than always being based on one of the individual characters in the drama.

One of the earliest shows that I'm aware of which really carried off plot arcs well was Wiseguy (1987-1990). In actuality, Wiseguy really had "mini-series" rather than "plot arcs". Vinnie, the protagonist of Wiseguy was an infilitrator who insinuated himself into criminal organizations in order to bring them down. A single case lasted a number of episodes, and then another case would begin. They were really distinct, and although some character arcs carried over, there wasn't a lot of continuity between the actual plot arcs.

Another early and very well known show built on plot arcs was Twin Peaks (1990-1991) which had two plot arcs in its short history, the first and best known being "Who Killed Laura Palmer?", which investigated the mystery of who killed a young girl and why. The plot arcs in Twin Peaks were really intense. Week by week David Lynch revealed more secrets (and more mysteries), constantly adding to the portrait he had created of the small town of Twin Peaks.

Both of these shows did a great job of extending a plot out over numerous episodes. However, probably as a result of the shortness of their arcs, individual episodes didn't have a lot of closure, and viewers felt like they had to watch the entire show to make any sense of it ... And, they were pretty much right too. Both of these shows ended up falling into the same trap as soap operas, but without the assurance that soap operas have of a continuing audience. And so, despite their high quality, both shows ended up cancelled.

I've long felt that Babylon Five (1993-1998) was the first show to do a really good job of creating plot arcs. J. Michael Staczynski (JMS), the creator and primary writer of the show, meticulously laid out a five-year arc, then he laid out an individual arc for each season to get to that end result.

For example, the second season of Babylon Five was about "The Coming of Shadows", and thus we slowly began to learn that there was a strange new alien force out there in the galaxy, and that it was a menace (eventually leading into the Shadow War of season three).

Within a season each individual episode had a strong singular plot. These episodes were more likely to be peripheral to the overall plot arcs toward the start of the season, while they were more likely to be very critical to the overall arc toward the end of a season. And, the overall show followed this pattern, with there being a lot of stand-alone episodes in season one and very few in season five.

Thus, the amount of episodic plot in each episode tended to form a clear pattern as the show progressed:

           + EPISODIC PLOTS
           |                   *
           |                  /
           |              /| /
           |          /| / |/
           |      /| / |/
           |  /| / |/
           | / |/
            S1  S2  S3  S4  S5
               SEASON NUMBER

Long-time readers of this column will see that this graph is a remarkable match for the graph of a "Mountain Plot" which my wife described in Plot Strategies. And, for good reason. JMS wanted to keep cranking up the tension in Babylon Five and he did that by, more and more, telling stories about the important stuff--the episodic plots. And, cranking up tension is the main purpose of the mountain plot structure as well.

Though I adored Babylon Five's story telling technique, it's definitely not the only way to build good plot arcs. In fact, the show nearly got cancelled after the fourth season. There were weird problems with syndication at the time, but the fact that it was somewhat difficult to get involved with the Babylon Five storyline, despite the fact that episodes were usually stand-alone, was likely a contributing factor.

Other television shows have built excellent plot arcs without being quite as heavy handed as JMS was in Babylon Five. Among them are:

  • The X-Files (1993-), which tends to build its plot arcs in a somewhat haphazard way and keeps those plot arcs ("mythology episodes" as they're called) almost entirely separate from their non-arc episodes. For example, in season one we learned that protagonist Fox Mulder was obsessed with UFOs. As the season progressed we saw one episode involving a government base with strange triangular UFOs; another episode where the agents got ahold of an alien embryo; and another episode where we learned about Fox's sister being kidnapped by aliens when he was young. These episodes built an arc by providing information, but other episodes of the season were fairly unaffected.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-), which builds season-long arcs wherein the episodic content tends to grow as the season progresses, just like on Babylon Five. For example the last season of Buffy revolved around a mysterious new sister and an entity named Glory who was seeking something. Early in the season this was mostly in the background, with the viewers learning little bits of information as the season went on. But, by the end of the year, the last four or five episodes revolved entirely around the growing conflict between Buffy and Glory and how that was eventually resolved.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), which was a little slow in developing plot arcs at first. There was a lot of room for continuity, with the Dominion, the wormhole, and the planet of Bejor all nearby, and eventually these things all bore fruit. As the seasons progressed, wars with the Klingons and the Dominion began, occasionally coming to the forefront, but more often acting as interesting backdrop for singular plots. The last season, however, was something special. Most of the year was in tight continuity, detailing how the conflict with the Dominion was ultimately ended.

I've been listing mostly science-fiction shows partially because that's what I tend to watch, but also because they're the shows that have made the best use of plot arcs thus far. There are plot arcs in more mainstream television shows such as The Sopranos (1998-), where the creator says that he creates a minimal plot "spine" for each season, then builds the episodes up from there ... but they're still a rare thing.

Looking at the example of television plots, plot arcs seem to have a number of characteristics:

  • They work best if they're partially in the background, creating singular plots, rather than being the entirity of plots in the show, as was the case with the ill-fated Twin Peaks.
  • They can work best in the background if they're somewhat long, whether that be a season in length or the entire run of a show.
  • As a plot arc builds, it tends to become more important and more squarely placed in the forefront of an individual episode.

The Daily Grind

Though character arcs and plot arcs are the two prime ways in which television shows have created episodic plot, I want to mention one slight variant, which I call "The Daily Grind". Hill Street Blues and E.R. (1994-) both stand out because they tend to be "Day in the Life" dramas. Everything in a single episodes takes place within the constraints of a shift, usually no more than twenty-four hours in length. If you watch an episode of E.R. carefully, you'll see that it almost always starts with people waking up and ends with people going to sleep.

This presents a somewhat different way of looking at plotting. Singular plots do tend to be self-contained within an individual episode because most daily events resolve themselves fairly rapidly. But plots (and character development) also very naturally slop over into additional episodes because some event might take multiple days to resolve.

And thus we can add one more characteristic type of episodic plot to our list:

  • Character and plot arcs can evolve in real time without worry about how they might create a "master" arc.

Closing Notes

And that brings my notes on how television has expanded singular plots into episodic plots to a close. Character arcs and plots arcs are really the prime ways in which this can be done in any medium. Next week's discussion of comic books will expand this toolkit a little bit, and then two weeks from now, with RPGs, we'll start seeing how this ideas have been genuinely applied to the mediums that we're most familiar with.

I'll see you in 7.

Shannon regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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