When I travel the world teaching story classes, writers and producers don’t ask me how to write a Hollywood superhero movie. They want to know how to write shows that come close to the incredible quality of the drama they see on American television in shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
Indeed, a revolution in story has been unfolding in American TV drama for the past ten years. It is as significant as the rise of the novel in the mid-1700s, the shift in theater to psychological realism in the late1800s, the development of film in the early 1900s and the emergence of the video game as a story medium in the 1980s and ‘90s.
What do the best-written shows on television have in common? Well, the first thing you notice is that every one is a serial. And that makes all the difference. Every revolutionary move in character and plot stems from the emergence of the serial form.
In the old days, TV consisted almost entirely of stand-alone episodes. Writers told a complete dramatic story in forty-four minutes. For example, the criminal committed a murder in the first scene, and the cops caught him in the last. The following week, they told the same story with slightly different circumstances. This guaranteed that the medium as a whole could be nothing more than a factory of generic story product.
With the introduction of the remote and cable, the serial form was born on television. Now shows had multiple main characters, with their own weaknesses and desires, and they didn’t solve their problems at the end of one episode, or even fifteen. In story terms, this meant, above all, interweaving multiple story lines over many episodes. No longer confined to a forty-four-minute straightjacket, a writer could get to a deeper truth by using film’s unique crosscutting ability to compare and contrast characters and storylines.
This had a huge structural effect on the TV story, 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 became ten times as long as a feature film, and ten times as complex.
So, it’s no coincidence that the revolution in story occurred hand in hand with TV coming into its own as an art form. But how precisely did the serial form revolutionize the TV story in both character and plot? Let’s begin with the main character of the show, since the first principle of great storytelling is that plot comes from character.
Much has been made of the fact that serials sparked a fundamental shift from hero to anti-hero. Anti-hero, as it is commonly used, is a bit of a misnomer, and it obscures the revolutionary nature of these characters. Technically, an anti-hero is simply the opposite of the classic hero in some way. He, or she, may be a bumbler, a holy fool or a rebel.
But the way most critics define the term when talking about the leads in the great TV shows since The Sopranos is that anti-heroes are bad guys. Not evil, but bad, and therefore unlikable in some way. He may be a killer like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), a liar and philanderer like Don Draper (Mad Men), a meth dealer and a killer like Walter White (Breaking Bad) or a Machiavellian schemer and killer like Frank Underwood (House of Cards).
But these characters are not just bad — that’s simplistic and could not produce great stories for long. They are complex, which produces far better stories.
Now, the word complex is often thrown around in writing circles, and no one bothers to define it structurally. Most people think it refers to psychological contradictions, which all these characters certainly possess. But what it really means is that these characters have moral contradictions. So they all have a highly compartmentalized moral code that constantly tests them to the depths of their being.
Still, these complex lead characters, though crucial to the revolution in story, could not produce shows of such high quality over so many episodes and seasons. That comes from the character web of the story, probably the single-most important factor in creating a great show. Simply stated, the character web has to do with how all the characters in a story weave together as a single fabric, both connecting and contrasting. A show with a unique character web — in which each character is set in proper structural opposition to the others — is the only way writers can create great stories for several years.
When serials replaced stand-alone shows as the standard of television drama, they didn’t just deepen the main character. They radically increased the number of characters who could drive storylines, in effect showing the audience a mini-society.
Emmy-nominated shows like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey can track upwards of thirty or more important characters. This places a tremendous burden on the show’s creators and calls up another critical point: the audience will become completely lost unless the character web is highly organized.
The necessity of organizing the characters increases the quality of serials because it means that each mini-society is determined by some kind of system that controls people under the surface and even enslaves them. In The Sopranos it was the Mafia. In Mad Men it’s a consumer culture that glorifies a false American Dream. In Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey it’s a rigid patriarchal class structure.
In many of the best serials, writers use another critical technique in designing the character web: they highlight and explore the moral element in life, both within and among characters. Starting with the central moral problem of the hero, they make all other characters some variation of that problem. They construct a field of fire where all the characters must traverse morally dangerous ground.
This gives a show two additional strengths. First, even the minor characters have complexity, so each is individually compelling, while collectively they produce knockout power. Second, each episode is packed with plot: the writers tease the audience with a moral challenge in the opening and then relentlessly turn the screws until the final scene.
Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland and CBS’s The Good Wife (nominated in 2011 and 2012 for Outstanding Drama Series and, in my view, the best-written show on broadcast television) have put a unique twist on the moral character web, one that has consistently generated great stories, episode after episode, season after season. The story world is, in some form, a Darwinian state of nature in which the characters are forced to make nearly impossible moral decisions. The fundamental question each week is: Can these characters remain human, and decent, while they struggle to survive?
Shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards flip this technique. They are not about how to live a good life in a morally challenging world. They are about winning the game. In fact, the most revolutionary aspect of Game of Thrones has been its willingness to kill off its heroes — most notably in the shocking “Rains of Castamere” episode — largely because, in acting morally, they were also being stupid.
The move to the serial also expanded and deepened the plot of the TV story. Many observers have commented that this is a case of back to the future, to the serials of Charles Dickens and the tremendous plot density of the nineteenth-century French novel.
But the serials of TV drama have a fundamental difference from their predecessors: they are long-form narratives married to single event drama. The viewer enjoys both dense and surprising plot over the season as well as heart-stopping dramatic punch in each individual episode. The power of this combination to seduce and stimulate the viewer cannot be overestimated.
With the rise of the serial, the single biggest plot challenge for showrunners and their writing staffs became exponentially more difficult — and more compelling. It was no longer: How do you construct a tight and surprising episode? It was: How do you segment the plot and sequence the episodes over an entire season?
Again, the moral construct of the character web has often shown the way. The main technique top TV dramas like Breaking Bad and The Good Wife use to structure their episodes and seasons is to sequence the difficult moral challenges their heroes face. Breaking Bad’s creator–executive producer Vince Gilligan and writers like George Mastras and Thomas Schnauz are geniuses at this technique. By introducing Walt (Bryan Cranston) as a moral everyman, they were able to sequence the plot not just on the increased opposition he faced, but on his heightened moral challenges. Each episode tracked both an escalation of trouble for Walt and a moral decision that was more complicated than the one that came before.
As this revolution in story plays out in television — and television takes over from film as the most influential and far-reaching entertainment medium in the world — we may see the revolution affect film as well. For years, Hollywood has made superhero movies for eleven months of the year, while releasing a handful of Oscar-worthy dramas in December. But no one is fooled anymore. Ten years of TV dramas telling the best stories in the world has the top acting, writing and directing talent clamoring to join the party.
Now it just so happens that in television, writers control the medium, and they are acknowledged to be the authors of their shows. So the astounding quality of writer-driven serials has quietly been exposing the absurdity of the auteur theory, which maintains that the director, not the writer, is the author of a film.
The best TV series — both within an episode and throughout a season — are all about story. The more a film or TV show is based on a well told story, as opposed to visual spectacle and detail, the more its authorship is based on the writer, not the director. In the days of stand-alone TV, it was easy to distinguish the boring visuals of the small screen from the grandiose spectacle of film epics and thus depreciate television.
But again, things have changed. Television serials, in just one season, are far more epic than any movie, and they are filmed with just as much visual flair. With such great storytelling, no one would dream of claiming that the director is the author of a top TV drama. We can only hope that one day movies will see the light.
If you love story as much as I do, living through this revolution in TV drama has been an incredible ride. The lone drawback, of course, is finding time to watch all those great shows.