Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of The
Every writer who dreams of working professionally in the worldwide entertainment business should be interested in writing for television. Why? The best writing in America is done on TV. Writers control the medium, so your talent is more likely to be recognized and rewarded. And with the proliferation of cable channels creating scripted shows (most recently Netflix), television is where the jobs are.
But as this medium has come into its own as an art form, the skills required to write TV successfully have changed radically. In the old days, TV consisted almost entirely of what are known as “stand alone” episodes. A complete dramatic story was told in 45 minutes. For example, the criminal committed a murder in the first scene and the cops caught him in the last scene. Next week, same story, slightly different circumstances.
But with shows like The Sopranos (led by the late, great James Gandolfini), television shifted from stand alone to serial, and the game changed completely. Now there were multiple main characters, with their own weaknesses and
desires, and they didn’t solve their problems at the end of one episode, or fifteen. This had a huge structural effect, because it meant that the unit of measure of the TV show was no longer the episode, it was the season. The canvas
on which the writer worked was ten times as long as a feature film, and ten times as complex.
This means that a writer today must not only know how to write a good individual episode, he or she must be able to “crack” stories with the complexity of a Dickensian novel, in a fraction of the time. I cannot emphasize enough how
difficult this is. What a show runner is looking for in hiring a staff writer is: can this writer not only break the story of an individual episode, but also help sequence the stories of all the episodes to build an incredible dramatic season?
I’d like to give potential TV writers a sense of this immense story challenge, and how to meet it, by breaking down The Walking Dead, the most watched show on US cable, and the most watched show ever in the 18-49 demographic.
Walking Dead is based on a monthly comic by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore.
To understand how a show works, and how to write for it, you have to start by identifying the story challenges embedded in the show’s original premise and genre. This comic/show about a small band of survivors in a zombie
apocalypse has the same fundamental concept as Lifeboat, Survivor, and Lost. Human beings are suddenly thrust into a state of nature to see if they can not only survive but remain human and moral while doing so.
The story challenges the writers face on this show comes from its primary genre of horror. First, horror has the lowest possible desire line in a story – to survive – which makes the heroes reactive, which makes it hard for the writers to
build the drama. Second, the horror form kills plot, since zombie attacks are the same beat: attack by the monster ad infinitum. This is tough to sustain for an entire movie, let alone a multi-episode, multi-season show.
The solution to these problems – which goes all the way back to the original comic writer – is to use the two key strategies of worldwide genre storytelling today: transcend the genre and combine it with other forms. This show isn’t horror in the haunted house. This is horror on an epic scale, which brings in the war story, the Western and the family drama. The decisions and arguments depicted here are of a platoon at war, and in microcosm the show explores various ways of creating and governing a society in the harsh wilderness.
A transcendent horror story has a number of specialized beats (story events). But the essential strategy is to flip the horror from the monsters to the human beings. As deadly as the zombies are, the real danger comes from the people
who descend to animalism as they battle each other to survive. This allows the show to explore various questions of morality and leadership.
The strategies of transcending and mixing genres are a good solution – indeed the only solution – for doing the horror form in TV. Horror has trouble providing enough plot in a feature film, much less a medium whose multiple
episodes and seasons make it 10-50 times longer than a feature. But this begs the question: how do you do even the most ambitious horror story over many seasons?
The fact is, neither of these strategies – transcending horror and mixing it with epic – comes close to solving the problem of plot. The basic pattern in every episode is still repetition of the same beat: attack of the zombies, known
as “walkers,” followed by people discussing amongst themselves, in various permutations. Keep this going for long and it’s really dull.
These strategies can’t overcome the challenge of the low-level desire line, either. No matter how vast the arena, it’s all about survival, every minute of every day. The result: no real conflict of values. The constant questioning about “should we live or should we die” is a fake discussion that only highlights the talkiness of much of the show.
But these strategies do give the writers the key to creating and building plot over the course of one or more seasons. Like Breaking Bad and The Good Wife, Walking Dead works by sequencing the moral decisions the characters must face. The world of Walking Dead has more extreme circumstances than in these other shows, so the moral sequence of episodes is different and harder to build. But the ability of the writers to find some moral complexity in
this absolute, live-or-die world is what has made this show so successful.
To see how writers do the hard story work on a TV show, let’s look at the way the seasons have progressed here. Season 1, which was only 6 episodes long, sets up the character web and the basic situation of the show. The hero,
Rick Grimes, presumed dead, meets up with his wife Lori and son Carl, his best friend, Shane, and the others in their group. Like the old show Combat, this band is really a platoon at war, always on the move while fending off zombie attacks. Story comes primarily from two sources. First, Lori slept with Shane when she thought Rick had died. Second, Rick and Shane argue about the best way to lead the platoon and how far to go in defending themselves against the zombies.
Season 2 begins when the platoon comes to a place in the road where young Carl is accidentally shot by a man from a nearby farm. This sets up the entire season, whose overriding theme is “The Sanctuary.” Having an overriding
theme, subject or place is a useful story tool for sequencing episodes within a season and connecting one season to the next because it gives the show a unifying arc to track all the changes. <i>Walking Dead</i> begins Season 2 with a kindly old veterinarian on the farm saving the boy’s life and ends with the place being overrun by zombies, the perfect home destroyed.
Let’s look at how the writers sequence Season 2 in more detail. The farm provides the platoon with a temporary respite from constant attack and becomes more like a home as the season progresses. Hope seems possible within this nightmare, and even love blooms. But the writers gradually let out clues that this sanctuary is false. It is subject to constant attacks from outside. It hides a terrible secret that the kindly vet is harboring zombies in the barn. And it builds mid-season to the most horrifying revelation of all: the missing little girl who was the reason the platoon stayed has been a zombie in the barn all along.
All of this provides a number of plot beats to fill and build the episodes, which is why Walking Dead really reaches its peak at the end of this second season. Meanwhile the internal strife of leadership and personal bitterness between Rick and Shane also comes to a boil. But these arguments about leadership and morality become progressively less successful at generating plot, first because they are pretty much the same every time and because the argument is hollow. A platoon surrounded by killers every second of the day is not going to survive as a democracy.
Perhaps because this conflict has given the show all the plot it can, the season ends with the stunning beat of Rick killing Shane. Providing a thematic conclusion to the season, Rick’s last words at the end of Season 2 are “If you’re staying, this isn’t a democracy any more.” For the characters and the audience, the big revelation is that the deadly enemy is not walkers, it’s other human beings, the people closest to you. We see the classic transcendent horror sequence: from inhuman opponents to human opponents outside the group to human opponents inside the group.
The final shot at the end of Season 2, The Sanctuary, is a prison. Notice the sequence from one season to the next: if the fundamental method of survival in season 2 was to find a sanctuary, the fundamental method of season 3 is to
wall yourself inside a prison. Continuing the transcendent horror sequence, we’ll see how much worse the human opponents are than the zombies when the platoon runs up against the tyrannical Governor.
With Season 3, the writers get to move the question of governance from the level of platoon to town. Unfortunately, this possibility is largely unrealized, because it is so obvious that the Governor is just a ruthless killer. But the biggest
reason the plot suffers in Season 3 is that the endpoint of the season, a final showdown between Rick and the Governor, is apparent from the beginning. So the entire season is really just one big stall. Plot is based on surprises, and while there are some good ones along the way, they can’t make up for an obvious conclusion.
Writing for television means writing under intense pressure. That’s why this magnificent medium places so much emphasis on being able to crack stories. In the worldwide business of TV, the writer must be able to identify and solve story problems at light speed. Once again, the undeniable truth: story is king.