STORY STRUCTURE: Structuring TV Episodes

Many of you have asked how effective the elements of my 6 Stage approach to plot structure are when applied to one-hour dramatic television series. Even though an episodic series has recurring characters and lasts an average of about 40 minutes (more on commercial free cable), the same principles apply, with just a few exceptions and modifications. (If you’re not familiar with my 6 Stage approach to plot structure, please see the article entitled STORY STRUCTURE: The 5 Key Turning Points of All Successful Stories. For a much more detailed explanation, including the 6 Stages of the hero’s Inner Journey, get the CD or DVD of The Hero’s 2 Journeys.)

In one-hour episodic series (and most sitcoms as well), the first two stages (the Setup and the New Situation) are combined. Since we already know the heroes (who are always the lead characters of the series) and are familiar with their everyday lives from all the previous episodes, the opening scene is usually the Opportunity (the 10% turning point in a feature film). The heroes then move immediately into the New Situation. From there the structure is basically identical: after the heroes figure out what the new situation is, they begin pursuing a visible goal that will carry them to the end of the episode.

Take, for example, episodes of two series that were broadcast this week: Castle and Mad Men:

Castle opened with a dead body crashing down on a car. This is typical for television mysteries and police procedurals (including The Mentalist, Lie to Me, and all the incarnations of CSI, NCIS and Law and Order), which invariably open with a crime, or the discovery of a crime. This is the Opportunity, and in the next scene, Castle and Beckett are examining the crime scene, figuring out what happened. Once they identify the victim, interview his ex-wife and hypothesize the motive, they formulate some plan for pursuing the most likely suspect. This marks the Change of Plans – when the hero begins pursuing the Outer Motivation (in every mystery or police procedural, it’s to find and arrest the killer). When they think they’ve solved the crime, and that the killer is dead, Castle inadvertently says something about his daughter to Beckett and realizes that they were wrong – that the killer is still on the loose. This is the Major Setback for the episode. (This is also a familiar device for this show – that the B Story involving Castle’s mother or daughter will somehow tip him off to the key to solving the mystery.) They finally arrest the killer at the climax, and the aftermath (as usual) wraps up the B story and closes with the two heroes together in some lighter moment, having brought the bad guy to justice.

Mad Men couldn’t be much more different in plot, tone, style or genre from a police procedural. Yet it follows the same basic structure. The opportunity for hero Don Draper is introduced immediately. Betty is divorcing him, and a much bigger company is taking over his advertising agency. After initially reeling from these two events (his New Situation), he begins pursuing his two Outer Motivations for the episode (stopping her from divorcing him, and forming a new agency with the other partners). Both of these goals are resolved – almost simultaneously – at the Climax of the episode, and in the aftermath, he phones Betty (to show his resignation to his new life without her), and he and the others toast the new company they have successfully begun – to show us the new life that will await him in Season 4 (this was the final episode for this season).

Castle is a closed series – each episode is self-contained, and (other than a small recurring story line involving the murder of Beckett’s mother), they could be watched out of sequence without any confusion.

Mad Men is a much more serialized series – most of the story lines carry on from one episode to the next, as, to varying degrees, with Fargo, The Wire, True Detective and In Treatment. But even with these ongoing story lines providing the major thrust for these series, each episode will have some goal for the hero to accomplish within that hour.

A last word of advice. While the Six Stage approach can be very helpful, as I outline in my book Writing Screenplays That Sell, the essential step in writing an episode of any existing series is to record at least 3 episodes of the show, and read the screenplay for a fourth, taking notes on each one. Determine the elements of the show (the structure, the characters, their behavior, their dialogue, etc.) that are consistent throughout the series (such as the intertwining of Castle’s family life, or his relationship with Kate, with that week’s crime). Then be absolutely certain that your script adheres to all of those rules for the series.