Sep 30, 2011

Story in Television

The best writing coming out of the American entertainment industry is in TV drama. The competition from film isn’t even close. For decades, TV has been film’s little brother, patronized by the “real” talent as the place where you go when you can’t make it in the big leagues.

But in the last ten to fifteen years, TV has shot past film and become the home of the best and the brightest. While the big studios have competed over which new superhero will give them the next tent pole, the cable channels, and to a lesser extent the networks, have nurtured writers who have given the world an extraordinary number of original, deep, and compelling stories whose high quality extends, in many cases, over many years.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. First and foremost, writers, not directors, control the TV medium.
The auteur theory, one of the worst ideas to come out of the 20th century, put the director in charge of American, and world, cinema. What the auteur theory misunderstood is that the quality of film and television is not based on them being visual mediums as being incredible story mediums. Because writers control TV, they make story, not spectacle, the key element in the production, and audiences have shown again and again that story is what they crave.

The multiple episodes that constitute a TV season, and the fact that these episodes must be written by writers on staff, means that TV writers go through a training regimen experienced by no other writer in the world. To get onto a writing staff you have to be highly skilled. But your training has only just begun. Until a writer has worked on a TV staff, he or she has no clue how intense the pressure is to produce great writing in a fraction of the time. With the non-stop deadlines of a TV season, it is not uncommon for a staffer to write a high-quality, shootable script – approximately one half of a feature film – in one week!

The result of this crucible of storytelling is that TV writers learn the craft fast and they practice that craft week after week, on the run. Plus, unlike their screenwriting brethren, TV writers get to see what they write up on screen, often within weeks of writing it. This feedback is invaluable, and found in no other story form.

All of this leads to a key point: if you want to be a working writer, and the very best writer you can be, turn your sights to television. TV, like film, is tough to break into, even more so since the Great Recession of 2008. But the fact that TV is run by writers means that if you learn the craft of story, especially as it is practiced in TV, you have a much better chance of being hired by people who ply, and appreciate, the same craft.

The crucial element here is: story as practiced in TV. TV has surpassed film in American entertainment not just because writers control the medium, but also because only in the last ten years have writers learned to take advantage of the unique powers of the TV medium itself. For years each episode in a TV season was a complete story, known as a “stand alone.” The episode problem was introduced in the opening scene – a crime, a law case, a disease – and it was solved at the end of the hour. Notice this limits the TV medium to being a mini- movie, repeated 24 times a season.

But once TV writers, and cable and network executives, realized that the true canvas of the TV medium is the season, not the episode, TV finally came into its own as a story medium that could dwarf the power of film. (The pioneer here was Steven Bochco with Hill Street Blues, but this process really kicked into high gear with The Sopranos.) The 90-120 minute unit of length in film suddenly jumped ten to fifteen times. And the storytelling model shifted from the two-hour commercial film to the 19th century novels of Dickens, Balzac and Stendahl, where complexity of plot hit its apex in the history of storytelling.

Instead of a single hero completing a single plotline in a two-hour film, you had a huge cast of characters working through multiple storylines, known as a serial, over a 13-24 episode season. You also had the possibility of creating a story world that had so much detail the show could believably stand for an entire society. The result was masterpieces like The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost and Mad Men.

To master story as it is practiced in television, and have the best chance of breaking into this medium, you have to study the top TV dramas and tease out the story problems that writers of these shows solve day in and day out. Ability to solve story problems quickly, and with originality, is the single most important quality of a professional television writer. Let’s take a look at some of today’s best dramas.

AMC’s The Killing is a Crime-Detective story, and Crime-Detective is the most popular genre, not only in American television but throughout the world. When you are trying to break down the story beats in a particular show, it is always a good idea to start with the show’s genre. The unique story beats of a particular show are usually an outgrowth of the inner workings, and the inherent restrictions, of its genre.

The Killing is based on the Danish series, Forbrydelsen, and the tag line for its first season was, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” That tag line, and the show’s setting in the gray and rainy Northwest, recalls the one-season wonder, Twin Peaks, whose tag line was, “Who shot Laura Palmer?” The tag line tells you the primary desire line of the show, what the hero(es) want, and desire is one of the three or four most important story elements of a show. In 99% of all crime stories, “Who killed X” is the desire in a particular episode. In The Killing (and in Twin Peaks), this is the desire of the entire season. In other words, The Killing is a serial, not a stand-alone crime show, and that makes all the difference.

This means the writers must create, and service, a huge web of characters, many of whom had the motive, and opportunity, to kill Rosie. Since the killer will not be caught at the end of each episode, the show will necessarily have a slower pace and will deprive the audience of a satisfying solution at the end of each hour. This episode-ending solution is the primary draw of the stand-alone show. So the writers have a huge story challenge: how do we work through the vast array of suspects in a way that both gives some shape to each episode while also sequencing us to the real killer at the end of the season?

Some of the solutions the writers use include cross-cutting among many story lines, not just the main investigation line, greatly increasing the number of false clues (also known as red herrings), and focusing suspicion on a new wrong suspect every one or two episodes.

The failure of the writers to definitively name the killer at the end of the first season raised howls of protest, since the show’s story structure makes the final revelation of “who done it” even more important than usual. Of all the explanations I’ve heard for this “mistake,” the one that makes the most sense to me has to do with the biggest story flaw of a serial detective show whose desire line extends over the entire season. Once you tell the audience who killed the lone victim, what makes them tune in at the beginning of season 2? This is precisely what killed Twin Peaks.

Boardwalk Empire, an historical epic combined with the Gangster genre, is designed to take advantage of the big-canvas story complexity of the TV medium, as seen in The Sopranos and The Wire. An epic is a story in which the fate of a nation is determined, or illustrated, by the actions of a single person. And there’s the main story problem: how do you connect the huge cast and multiple story strands of an entire society to the desires of a single man?

By choosing gangster Nucky Thompson, head of the Boardwalk Empire at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, to be the fulcrum character, creator and show runner Terence Winter has a natural hub for the story wheel. Nucky is a king in a democracy, and his desire to sell illegal booze to a thirsty nation unifies all the smaller desire lines in each episode and over the course of the season.

With Mad Men taking the year off, The Good Wife is the best-written show on television. This accomplishment is remarkable given that it is a network show, which typically means more interference from executives and the need to please a broader audience base. The Good Wife, a legal drama, uses the primary story strategy found in most American dramas today: combine the crowd-pleasing simplicity of the stand-alone with the critic-pleasing complexity of the serial. Alicia Florrick, the lead character, tries (and usually wins) a case each week. But she must also navigate the political and personal currents that come with being in a cutthroat law firm and having a husband who cheated on her and recently won the race for District Attorney.

This means that The Good Wife is really about situational ethics, about whether a good person can balance conflicting moral challenges and remain clean in the real world. The story challenge for the writers then is two-fold: come up with an ingenious way Alicia can win the weekly legal case for her firm while also slowly tightening the vice of her moral jeopardy as the season progresses.

Over the first two seasons, the writers have met these challenges with flying colors, primarily by weaving multiple conflicts from opponents both within and outside the firm. But it’s the emphasis on moral conundrums that really sets the storytelling of this show apart.

Mad Men has been the best-written show on television since its debut (with four straight Emmy wins for Best Drama). Like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men is an epic historical drama, with multiple characters and story lines, all focused around an emblematic main character, in this case ad man Don Draper. Once again the central story challenge for the writers turns on the desire line of the show, or lack thereof. The reason the vast majority of shows in the history of television involve cops, lawyers and doctors is that these characters all have a clean, quantifiable desire line – solve the crime, win the case, save the patient. But Mad Men is set in a business. So what’s the desire for the episode, or, for that matter, the season? The goals in the ad business are ever changing, and all the major characters have their own personal, often hidden, agendas.

Without a unifying desire line, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has created a totally new TV story structure, one based on the contrast between American ideals and reality. Don and his fellow mad men (and they are almost all men) are in the business of creating and selling the American Dream. But when they go home to their suburban families, we see an actual life not filled with freedom and promise but defined by limits and lies.

The story challenge for the writers is, first, to set recognizable frames for each season, based not a clean desire line but on how each of the major characters moves between slavery and freedom in modern America. Within each episode, the trick is to come up with a story sequence that highlights the contrast between the Dream these characters sell and the harsh reality they live.

These are just a few of the myriad story challenges writers must solve when working on a writing staff today. Make no mistake: for show runners, it’s all about the story. TV drama is the most exciting game in entertainment right now because the medium has finally found itself as an art form. If you want to play in this high-speed, high-stakes game, you have to show that you have mastered the craft of the TV story. Then everyone will be begging you to play for their team.