I talked about tips for writing your novel, and why it’s such a great storytelling strategy, in last month’s ezine. This month we focus on writing TV drama.
I’ve been saying for over a decade that the best writing in American entertainment is in television, not film. What I haven’t said is that this superiority of TV over film is true in almost every country in the world. This represents a massive shift, with multiple causes, and the huge effects of this shift are only just starting to be recognized.
The relative rise in the quality of television, and the drop in the quality of film worldwide, has been decades in the making, and comes from changes in both technology and economics. It started back in the late 70’s with Jaws and Star Wars. These were terrific films, but what they really did was make the Hollywood moguls realize that the true market for their films was not America, but the world. That in turn meant that the main genres for their films had to be myth and action, because these genres cross cultural and language barriers better than all other forms. And that meant that the primary audience for their films was young men in their teens and early 20’s.
Cut to the early 90’s. The use of the remote control forced television writers to go back to the future. When the audience at home could change the channel as soon as a storyline got dull, TV writers went from stand-alone shows to serials, a story form whose previous heyday had come in the nineteenth century European novel.
Stand-alone shows have a single hero who solves a single problem in a single episode. Serials have multiple heroes with multiple problems that extend over multiple episodes. In a serial the writer has the tremendous advantage of being able to crosscut among the all-star story beats of each storyline. Any time a particular storyline grows dull, we simply cut to a more dramatic story beat in another storyline. In the 90’s the best practitioner of this strategy was ER, where each episode tracked five storylines in 43 minutes.
But a funny thing happened in the shift from stand-alone to serial: TV went from “boob tube” to art form. Instead of a repetitive story told in 43 minutes, TV now had an entire season to track a mini-society, a canvas ten times larger than the feature film. The characters and plots of the TV serial became infinitely more complex. And the specialization of cable channels meant that the TV audience didn’t have to be teenage boys, it could be intelligent adults. When you add the fact that in the US writers, not directors, control the TV medium, you have all the factors needed for TV to completely dominate film in both quality and revenue.
While that explains what happened in America, what about the rest of the world? As the older medium, film has had a much higher status than TV around the world, especially in those countries that bought in to the ridiculous auteur theory, in my mind one of the dumbest ideas in history. You might think that the shift in Hollywood film in the late 70’s to sell myth-action stories to a worldwide audience would have no effect on films from non-English speaking countries. You would be very wrong.
These countries were caught in a terrible vice. On the one hand Hollywood movies were taking 50% or more of their audience, while on the other hand the audience for their own films was limited to the citizens of their own country. Even in a country like France (with a great film tradition), they fought tooth and nail to stop Hollywood and support their own industry, but could not compete in the film market.
But these countries could and do compete in television. Just as a small cable channel like AMC can create two of the greatest TV dramas in history in Mad Men and Breaking Bad, so can two small countries like Denmark and Israel create high quality, revolutionary shows like Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Bron (The Bridge) and Hatufim (Homeland in the US).
It all comes down to the quality of writing the serial form. While that doesn’t require the horrendous cost of a Hollywood film, it is difficult to accomplish without training. To get just a hint of how the best writers execute the serial form, let’s take a look at two of the best serials ever, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. Mad Men is currently playing the last half of its final season, while Game of Thrones has just begun its fifth season.
To understand the excellence of the writing of these two shows, we have to begin with their genres, because genres tell you more about how a show works structurally than any other element of writing. Mad Men is a Historical Drama, while Game of Thrones is a Fantasy-Action story. In my TV Drama class I go through all the beats of these genres, and also explain a number of tips for how to execute these beats well (the next TV Drama class is in London, May 11, 2015).
Historical Drama and Fantasy-Action are normally very different forms with very different beats. But these two shows in particular have some surprising similarities. That’s because Game of Thrones is really Alternative Historical Drama. Novelist George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the show is based, drew from a number of historical sources, most especially The War of the Roses that was fought in England from 1455-1485.
In writing any Historical Drama, you have two central story challenges you must overcome. First, you must weave the desires and actions of a huge cast of characters within each episode and over the course of the season. Second, you have to connect the characters to the larger society and the historical forces that are strongly affecting, if not totally determining, the characters’ fate. As you can imagine, there is no genre more complex than Historical Drama in all of story.
These two shows overcome the central challenges of Historical Drama in radically different ways. Game of Thrones has the largest cast of characters of any show in history. And they are spread over two continents. That’s why the original writer, George Martin, grouped these characters into seven kingdoms, so the audience could have a better chance at keeping them all straight.
But more important, Martin used a tournament story structure to shape the hundreds of characters and events over multiple books and television seasons. The game of thrones begins with seven or more major contestants for the big prize, but it’s eventually going to end with one. Notice this creates a huge vortex that will funnel down to a single point.
The result is that this series maintains strong narrative drive in spite of crosscutting among more characters than any other show. The vortex structure also explains one of the most revolutionary aspects of Game of Thrones, its willingness, even pleasure, in killing off major characters. In a political contest of kings and queens, there’s one winner and a lot of dead people.
The cast of Mad Men, while nowhere near the size of Game of Thrones, is still large. Show creator Matthew Weiner organized his characters by placing them within a single ad agency and by making one character, Don Draper, the focal character of the show.
Weiner connected the characters to the larger society by tracking the decade of 1960-1970 over the course of the series and by placing them in the business of advertising. The major events of that decade are always in the background in each episode, but they affect the main characters in powerful, though usually unseen, ways.
The decision to set the show within the business of advertising was inspired, because it allowed Weiner to build the show, and every episode, on the central contrast of American ideal vs. American reality. This contrast defines the characters’ work as well as their personal life. And it’s the main reason Mad Men is a true, and great, American epic.
Besides playing out the structure of the Historical Drama, Mad Men and Game of Thrones share one other surprising similarity. Both are set in heavily male-dominated worlds, but what has emerged in both shows as the central principle of plot and theme is the emergence of women. Don may be the focal character of the show, but arguably the most interesting characters have been the three leading women, Peggy, Joan and Betty. Each began the series in a subservient role, and each has struggled mightily to find some kind of freedom. Each has used different methods to get there, and each has been held back by her own unique psychological flaws. But each has found real growth by the end.
In Game of Thrones, two of the Stark men have fallen due largely to their own stupidity. The Stark girls, though completely lacking in power, have been much smarter, and they survive and grow in strength. Cersei Lannister, though horribly disfigured on the inside by her bitterness at being brought up female, is a formidable and dangerous queen.
And the wild card in this deadly game is Daenerys Targaryen. She is on the outside and still learning the ways of a good ruler. But she has dragons. They might not like her right now. But if they come back, watch out.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using a smart strategy to guide your career as a writer. At this point in the economic and technological state of the worldwide entertainment business, the two best strategies for a successful writing career are 1. write a novel and 2. write for TV drama. They’re not easy strategies to execute and they’re not guaranteed. But with proper training and laser focus, you can do it.