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.
I always tend to prefer serial shows rather than episodic ones. However, I do certainly like the idea of more shows that were episodic developing a more season-wide or multi-season-wide story. I like to see the characters and plot lines develop over time. It makes it much more interesting than just watching a bunch of non-connected episodes of Law and Order or NCIS, for example.
Concerning serial shows, they all win for me. Although, in the current one I am viewing, I see no purpose of the gay sex gagging blowjob scene in one of the episodes. Completely unnecessary for understanding the plot, in my opinion.
Thank you so much for your help. I have a question regarding the Police procedural episodes. I was wondering if could give an example of the “Progress”, “Point of No Return”, and “complications and higher stakes” in a show like Castle or CSI? I was also wondering if there is a formula for inserting the B plot moments (personal lives) into the the A plot (solving the crime)? Thank you again for taking the time.
Hey, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the help you have given the writing community. It is no doubt you have a very good grasp of these structures, and as a beginning writer, it is unbelievably valuable.
I have what I hope is a simple question for you, but I have been struggling with a new tv series idea I am attempting to write the first 1-2 episodes for, and then spec out the rest before attempting to get it in front agents, etc.
Here is my question, which comes in two parts. For a new tv-series, where I am attempting to introduce the characters, set up the world, etc. Would it be ok to treat the first two episodes as one entire structure, since I am finding impossible to contain what I need to in the first 10 percent of a 60 page episode, which I believe is on page 6 or 7, the New Situation, and then to follow that up at 25% which would only be 15-16 pages in. To set up a world, new characters, a situation, etc, I am finding it very hard to get any depth with that little time, for my particular story anyway.
So would it be a bad idea to then treat the first two episodes as one entire structure, and if so would that then follow that the first 10% would at least be 12-14 pages in, and then the first act could end at around 30 or so pages in? Or do you think that would delay it too long for the audience, and then also cause issues when I need to end the first episode right around the ‘Point Of No Return’? Sorry, that was a few more question thrown in there, but really I am just concerned with what is usually done to solve this issue. I just feel like making it all contained in 1 60 minute episode would cheapen the entire story honestly. Very curious what your thoughts, and advice might be.
I realize I am a little late to the game, but wondering what you think of drawing out the 6 parts of the inner journey across multiple episodes, and then have each episode also in themselves follow a 6 part structure mostly in terms of an outer journey as well. I just think that for the inner journey, trying to show any character arc in 40 mins seems difficult, while the outer journey totally makes sense.
So perhaps over a 2-episodes for a pilot, or even over an entire season, where the character arc happens for the main characters in a slower more detailed way.
Anyway, I am really curious what you thoughts are, and if that makes sense.
I have a question I read both your 5 key turning point article and this one. My question is. I would like to use your structure to write a comic book series. Now my question is how would you write the pilot “episode” which would be my first comic. Seeing as I’m not going to make them super long. Any advice would be appreciated.
Firstly, I am very new to the ‘scriptwriting’ business and am currently immersing myself in ‘the knowledge’! This article has been really useful for structuring individual episodes, so thank you!
What I’m struggling with is plotting story arcs across a whole series. Is it advisable to use this structure but separate it across a series for different storylines as they develop, change and conclude, as well as using it per original ‘main’ story per episode that the story arcs feed into?
Any insights would be greatly appreciated!
Dear Michael Hauge!
I think it is much easier to identify the act-structure in a procedural than in a serial.
In Mad Men for instance, with its ultra slow pace and yet so much goin on character-wise, the (implied) act-breaks are hard to identify.
Am I thus right to assume that serials offer more leeway concerning act-structure as compared to procedurals?
[…] I read your article on structuring dramatic TV series and how to apply your 5 Key Turning Points. As a comedy writer, I was wondering, can the same […]
Your book has been the best and most clearest material to assist me in my writing. Period. Ever since I discovered your 5 Key Turning Points, I can honestly say, I truly understand “the formula” for writing film and feel confident to actually let people read my work!
So here’s my question: Above you talk about drama series on television and how to apply your 5 TP’s–can the same structure be applied to a 22-minute sitcom? As a comedian (who loves drama like the next person), I write a lot of comedy. I am always looking to strengthen my craft. I am hoping your 5 TPs work for sitcoms as well!
Thank you for sharing your knowledge,
The 5 turning points can apply to sitcoms, with some variation. An established sitcom will usually develop a number of characters who evolve into heroes or protagonists for the series, resulting in A, B and C stories, each following the 6 stages. And because we already empathize with these characters and know their everyday lives, the OPPORTUNITY and NEW SITUATION are often eliminated, and after the opening, an immediate CHANGE OF PLANS will lead to that character’s pursuit of his or her goal for that episode. In other words, after the pilot for a sitcom, each episode will have 4 turning points and 5 resulting stages for each of the A, B and C story lines. Hope that helps.
I have been studying many of your lectures on youtube, and I just want to thank you for making some of you knowledge free. Not all of us have the time (or money) to walk away from life and really put the time in it takes to master the craft — however, the information available out there is very helpful in the meantime. For me personally, gives me the information I need to get started.
Aaron – Happy to do it – and good luck getting started on your new adventure!
I started in television as a production assistant. I didn’t make it to the writers table and begin to take jobs as a substitute teacher. Fast forward 20 years and I now enjoy a career as a high school English/Journalism teacher. Needless to say, my initial passion to write for television tugs at me constantly. My question: Do you think ageism would make efforts to revitalize that dream useless? I’m a minority female over 45.
Kathy – I will answer your question very soon in one of my regular Q&A Newsletters. If you’re not a subscriber, just click on the orange FREE KEY STORY QUESTIONS! button to the right of the article above. Thanks for asking!
Dear Mr. Hauge:
Happy New Year, thank you for your thoughtful candid post I found it extremely helpful as I am just starting to wet my feet with creating original scripts that will ( hopefully:) sell one day. I appreciate your sharing information which I can learn from and know that one day I too will be able to call my work – “good”.
Take Care and Be Well
Thanks for the kind words. And as you “wet your feet,” do two things: 1) Write every day; 2) Read at least one screenplay every week. Enjoy the journey!
[…] speaking, many TV array return, again and again, to an underlying regulation that works, week after week. Every part looks some-more or reduction a same, and even if it’s a […]
[…] speaking, most TV series return, again and again, to an underlying formula that works, week after week. Every episode looks more or less the same, and even if it’s a serialized […]
[…] speaking, most TV series return, again and again, to an underlying formula that works , week after week. Every episode looks more or less the same, and even if it’s a serialized […]