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The Two Types of TV Stories

Erik Bork is best known for his work as a writer-producer on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon – for which he won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension and National University’s MFA Program, and was rated “Cream of the Crop” in Creative Screenwriting’s “The Best Script Analysts and Consultants.” You can check out his free “Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand,” and contact him through his website at Follow Erik on Twitter: @flyingwrestler

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I used to lament the fact that so many network series focus on cops, lawyers, and/or doctors. I tried pitching and developing multiple series about other kinds of workplaces. I felt, like many aspiring television writers do, that there are many different kinds of job challenges that could make for compelling television.

But in my years of doing it professionally – selling some ideas, but having many others be batted down by executives, producers, or my own agents – I’ve learned some things. And one of the chief lessons is that “work responsibilities” generally can only drive stories and series concepts for certain kinds of occupations.

The kind of jobs that can do this generally have two specific qualities. The first is that they are heroic: they involve doing something for others. The stakes of a typical story are not just friends and family, but society at large. The show’s regulars are involved in protecting, helping and/or fighting for humanity, beyond their personal sphere.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

The second quality is that the nature of their work consists of entertaining-to-watch scenes of compelling interpersonal confrontations, with high emotions and high stakes for all.

Law & Order is perhaps the quintessential example of this. A unique hybrid of “investigative/police” show and “legal/courtroom” show, it is made up entirely of scenes of professionals fighting on behalf of society and crime victims, to identify who committed a murder. (Yes, the crimes on such shows are almost always murder, because it has the highest stakes -- which is necessary for the audience to care enough about its resolution.)

The process of achieving that goal is made up entirely of high-conflict, high-stakes, high-emotion confrontations with witnesses, suspects, bosses, opposing counsel, judges and juries. Every scene, on the best episodes, is a fun-to-watch attempt to solve the larger story problem of the episode (the murder), which meets with resistance, and builds to an unexpected turn – which then leads to more scenes, as the complications build.

This is what “procedural” stories look like – the first of the two types of TV stories.

Law & Order is pure procedural, in that there are no other stories in an episode beyond the one big one, of solving that week’s case. The X-Files generally functioned the same way – and also consisted, virtually entirely, of such high-stakes, high-emotion, entertaining confrontations in the investigation of a mysterious case.

Over the years, audiences have consistently shown that they enjoy watching the process of various kinds of police, lawyers, and doctors doing their jobs – for these reasons. They also enjoy watching certain other kinds of “heroic adventurers,” whose job or role in society involve other kinds of fights against dangers and injustice, on behalf of others (possibly including themselves). Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, The Walking Dead and Star Trek fall into this category.

Typical episodes of some of these shows also feature the second kind of television story, the kind which is not “procedural.” These I call “personal” stories.

Any given episode of Buffy would have a procedural “A Story”, and a personal “B Story” – which was about a problem for Buffy in her everyday life. House, M.D. worked the same way – with one or two personal stories alongside the “case of the week.” On Gray’s Anatomy, the personal stories tend to be primary, with the “procedural” medical stories secondary (which is why they can get by with lower stakes cases, at times).

What about all the other kinds of workplaces and jobs, then? Mafia boss. Chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. Ad agency executive. High school football coach. Sketch comedy show writer-producer. Certainly the challenges of working at these occupations have been the foundation for successful television series. Right?

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On the surface, it might seem that way. But there’s a key difference. The stories on episodes of these shows don’t focus primarily on “job goals”. The audience isn't meant to be invested in the characters succeeding in a "work task" over the course of the episode (like on Law & Order). The stakes just aren’t high enough, and/or the process of doing those jobs isn’t entertaining to watch (or sympathetic), in the same way that the “heroic” jobs are.

Nobody wants to watch scene after scene of Don Draper on Mad Men wrestling with an ad campaign, as an "A Story" – with the climax of the episode being the campaign's success. The same with Liz Lemon creating an episode of TGS on 30 Rock. And even the high-stakes, high-spectacle violence and illegal business activities on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad are not what drives audience emotional investment in the stories, in any given episode. We’re not primarily rooting for Tony’s team (or Walter White’s) to make a bunch of money, kill a snitch, wipe out a competitor, etc. The minutiae of their work, and it's goals, are not why we watch. (Unlike The X-Files or Law & Order.)

But we are invested in the characters personally, and we care about the high stakes they face in their own lives. And so, their “workplace challenges” are a backdrop for personal stories. They also serve to generate conflicts and problems which will affect these characters on a personal level. There’s no heroic mission to invest in. What the audience cares about instead are these individual's frustrations in their personal lives, their fantasies of what they wish their lives could be, the challenges of trying to get them there, and the high-stakes personal crises that come up in the process. This is an important distinction to understand.

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