(Writing 101 post, fair warning)
When we make serialized content, from comic issue to television episode, we deliver it in discrete chunks. Each of these chunks should feel somehow complete while still dragging the audience forward to the next installment. I know that over the long run you have a lot of cool stuff, well-thought out character dynamics, epic deep background, but how do we start when we’re just staring at that blank page? How do we build the basic … chunk?
First, some vocabulary. People tend to use two words interchangeably when talking about narrative structure: “plot” and “story”. E.M Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “”‘The king died and the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’, is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” (Have you read Aspects of the Novel yet? You should. Now.)
Fair warning, I tend to alter those terms in my discussions, for purely personal reasons. ”Plot” to me is the engine, the machine of causality driving the narrative. ”Story”, to me, has an emotional feel. I think of Neil Gaiman stories, fairy stories, “tell me a story”, etc. “Story” is the whole package, the characters’ emotional journey, all that … feelings goop. I can abide a poorly plotted tale that winds up being a good story, but struggle to think of a bad story saved by a strong plot. No one ever walked out of a movie saying “I felt nothing, but man, the causal chain was fucking tight. Two thumbs up.”
Right, so for purposes of this and any further writing: Plot equals casual chain engine, Story equals the emotional playground, themes, etc. etc, arty bullshit.
So, when faced with the mind-devouring void of a blank page, how do I start? Personally, I go back to basics. Plotting almost every story I’ve written (or supervised the writing of) I need to see the DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION to even begin.
THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. In an episode of CASTLE it’s the body dropping, in an episode of LEVERAGE it’s the introduction of the case. It’s also, crucial, however, in serialized stories. In every episode of BREAKING BAD you can spot the disruption to the status quo — no matter how screwed up the status quo may be — in the first act. “I have a dude in the basement I have to murder, and I at this point still an in-over-my-head Chemistry teacher …” The Disruption is the accelerant, the problem which looms larger than all the rest for at least this little chunk of the long form story.
An old acquaintance, a former enforcer for the Irish mob in Montreal, had a great expression which anybody who’s worked with me has heard: “Is that a five-minutes-from-now problem or a twenty-minutes-from-now problem?” The full explanation, best done in a voice slurred just a bit with Bushmills, went like this …
“Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”
The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem. A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.
See all those feelings? Tools in your Plot tune your Story. A good Story plays with these timelines all the time, changing things up. New problems emerge as knife/five minutes/twenty minutes problems, or the existent problems change in intensity as the Story progresses. The latter’s preferred, by the way, as you move forward in the narrative. Better to have a “twenty minutes from now” problem jump up at you than just dump a new problem in at the last minute.
Regardless, the Disruption is the main problem your character will be focused on solving for the amount of time you’re expecting the audience to pay attention. In episodic TV, the stays quo is implied (the continuing show premise or serialization), allowing you to drop the Disruption as close to the opening of the show as possible. In a TV pilot, however, you need to spend precious page weight describing the unfamiliar status quo. This is one of the reasons the pilot is rarely the best episode of a TV series.
THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.
It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.
One of my favorite examples is ALIENS. Their Reversal is when the missions transforms from a rescue mission to a desperate escape. In one issue of BLUE BEETLE I wrote, it’s the moment when Jaime’s problem goes from stopping the bad guy to saving lives, and realizing he’s not going to be able to save all of them. In the LEVERAGE series finale, it’s when you realize that the story’s not about what Nate Ford did to steal medicine for a sick kid, but what he’s doing right now to steal something we don’t know about– when Sterling shows up. I’ll fully admit we didn’t pull this off every time in LEVERAGE, but we did our best.
To me — and hell, remember all this is very personal, your mileage may vary — the best reversal is the point of strongest conflict in any interpersonal conflicts in your Story. Because, remember, if you’re doing this right, the emotional Story is riding right along on top the engine of that Plot. That Disruption didn’t just introduce the change in the world’s status quo, it was the spark of whatever emotional Story you want to tell with this particular chunk. If the Disruption set up the differing opinions and viewpoints of the characters, the Reversal is what throws those conflicts into high relief. It’s the testing ground, what sets up the emotional payoff to …
… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.
Even if your series is highly episodic and the Plot brings closure, the new status quo establishes the emotional balance of your continuing Story. If even a little bit, attitudes are changed, secrets revealed, the basic emotional dynamic of the characters is explored, and someone has shifted if even just a little bit. (Note: we’re talking serialized narratives here. Different purpose for the Conclusion in close-ended work.)
Narratives with no Story progress are almost impossible to sell these days, and I think that’s because the audience has moved past being simply amused by Plot, or perhaps become too meta-aware of Plot structure for it to hold their attention in a meaningful way. There are cheats, of course — “nobody ever puts down a whodunnit” is a hack we’ve been exploiting for decades now — but generally, audiences expect more than just a satisfying causal chain. They felt something. Maybe they need to see that reflected back at them by the characters.
End of day, when faced with a blank page, I start with those three ideas. Disruption / Reversal / Conclusion. FWIW, the fact that the Disruption and Conclusion are bound to each other by the nature of the Story you’re telling, I find the Reversal the most interesting piece of work in writing. The Reversal’s often more revelatory about the inner style of the writer than any other piece of their work.
The concept of Disruption/Reversal/Conclusion is fractal, of course, but we’ll discuss that in another post.