Today's question comes from Daniel, who writes…
My writing partner and I have a one-hour pilot mapped out, characters, and a pitch "script" almost assembled, so we've got lots of episode ideas. We've been working with a showrunner, who made a reference to describing "the feeling of an episode. How many stories? Are they a "A & B & C" or "A & A & A?"
What's the difference between those? Is it just a matter of script time and plot-emphasis? Does it have something to do with the main protagonist being in all storylines as opposed to cross-cutting between the main and secondaries in their own stories?
Interesting question, Daniel!—So I decided to consult my friend Rick Muirragui, who currently writes on FOX's offbeat cop drama, The Good Guys. Rick has worked on shows that use traditional A/B/C stories, like Past Life and Charmed, and he's also written for ensemble shows that use A/A/A stories, such as TNT's hit dramedy Men of a Certain Age.
As Rick says, "an episode with A/A/A stories is an episode in which three characters have storylines that all have equal weight in the episode. No one story fills the episode; they all equally fill the episode."
(I suppose there may also be cases where the three equal A-stories all center on the "main protagonist," but Rick and I couldn't think of any specific examples. Maybe an episode of The Sopranos? Something where Tony's balancing a home story and a work story? At any rate, such a story may exist, but I think most A/A/A episodes balance A-stories about three separate characters.)
This often means the three equal A-stories tend be smaller than A-stories sharing the stage with B and C stories; after all, the episode's time must be split more evenly. In other words, any one A-story in an A/A/A episode has fewer beats than an A-story in, say, NCIS: Los Angeles or The Closer, which are usually dominated by a single A-story. Modern Family, albeit a comedy, is often cited as a show with A/A/A stories.
In a traditional A/B/C episode, "you really focus on your A-story," says Rick. "What is that A-story going to be? It's going to fill the episode, you'll have a ton of story beats… and you work your B and C-stories around your A-story, feeding them in, connecting them somehow."
When dealing with A/A/A shows, Rick likes to begin by brainstorming separate A-stories for each main character, then beating them out on their own before combining them with the other storylines.
"Men of a Certain Age is a good example," Rick says, "because we'd break [independent] stories for specific characters… then we'd all sit in the room and Mike [Royce, the showrunner] would start assigning. 'Episode Four is going to be this, this, and this story.'"
On one episode, for example, Rick's stories included Owen (Andre Braugher) selling cars at a discount, Terry (Scott Bakula) pretending to buy a house, and Joe (Ray Romano) dealing with his son's fears. Rick's job was to weave these three disparate stories into a single, cohesive script.
"I try to approach it like a math problem," says Rick, "making sure each story has a similar number of beats, the same scope of story." Once each story is beaten out, you can organize the different beats into acts, placing in each act a beat or two from one story, a beat or two from another, etc. "[This helps me] understand how stories relate to each other. It's always a fun surprise because you start with three independent stories, then learn how they touch, how they inform each other, how one story reverberates through another."
As the different stories mix and mingle, common emotional threads emerge. With Rick's Men of a Certain Age episode, he realized, as the stories began to co-exist, that a connective theme was running through all three storylines.
"I went to Mike Royce and said, 'All three of these stories are about characters concerned with how they're perceived in the world, and how they see themselves in their mind's eye,'" Rick says. "We didn't break the stories to reflect the theme… [but] if you're lucky, and if you've written solid stories, a theme will start to emerge."
By approaching your episode's structure first, letting themes bubble up organically, you can avoid writing heavy-handed, didactic stories. Your separate A-stories may not gel perfectly at first, but as you tweak and massage them, they'll begin to connect both narratively and structurally. Ultimately, you'll find yourself with a single episode of television, featuring three solid A-stories
Anyway, Daniel—I hope that helps… and thanks for the question. Keep reading… (and asking)… and for the rest of you with questions, send 'em away to firstname.lastname@example.org.