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TV Drama Structure: Why TV Is the Future, and How to Write for It

John Truby analyzes successful TV drama structure to help you craft a TV series that is marketable. Writing for TV has never been more exciting than it is today.

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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, and now the Internet (Netflix), creating scripted shows, television is where the jobs are.

To master story as it is practiced in television, and have the best chance of breaking into this medium, you have to study the top TV dramas and tease out the story problems that writers of these shows solve day in and day out. Ability to solve story problems quickly, and with originality, is the single most important quality of a professional television writer.

tv drama structure

In this era when the serial drama is king, what a showrunner is looking for in hiring a staff writer is: can this person 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? Let’s take a look at some of this year’s Emmy nominees for Best Drama.

Mad Men has been the best-written show on television since its debut (with four Emmy wins for Best Drama in the last five years). Mad Men is an epic historical drama, with multiple characters and story lines, all focused around an emblematic main character, ad man Don Draper. The central story challenge for the writers turns on the desire line of the show, or lack thereof. The reason the vast majority of shows in the history of television involve cops, lawyers and doctors is that these characters all have a clean, quantifiable desire line – solve the crime, win the case, save the patient. But Mad Men is set in a business. So what’s the desire for the episode, or, for that matter, the season? The goals in the ad business are ever-changing, and all the major characters have their own personal, often hidden, agendas.

Without a unifying desire line, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has created a totally new TV story structure, one based on contrasting American ideals and reality. Don and his fellow Mad Men (and they are almost all men) are in the business of creating and selling the American Dream. But when they go home to their suburban families, we see an actual life not filled with freedom and promise but defined by limits and lies.

The story challenge for the writers of Mad Men is, first, to set recognizable frames for each season, based not a clean desire line but on how each of the major characters moves between slavery and freedom in modern America. Within each episode, the trick is to come up with a story sequence that highlights the contrast between the Dream these characters sell and the harsh reality in which they live.

The new kid on the block in this year’s Emmy race is House of Cards. The medium is television, but the distribution system is the Internet. This new marriage of TV and the Internet puts an even greater value on writers who have mastered the skills of story necessary to entertain audiences on tablets and cell phones where the Internet travels.

House of Cards centers on the Democratic majority whip in the US House of Representatives. That much inside politics automatically gives you a rarified audience, so the writers first have to figure out how to universalize the story. A second story challenge comes from the genre, which is a unique hybrid form known as political crime. This form is rare now, because it is the story of the rise and fall of kings.

Although House of Cards, like all serials, has a large web of characters, it has the distinct advantage of a single main character, Frank Underwood, whose clear goal – to take revenge and become President – defines each episode and the overall season. Unlike the goals of cop, lawyer or doctor shows, the fact that this show’s desire is about gaining power means that House of Cards is really a modern, democratic Game of Thrones.

A desire that’s all about gaining power changes how the stories of the individual episodes work, as well as how the stories sequence together over the season. One of the main ways the top TV dramas structure their episodes and seasons is to sequence the difficult moral challenges the heroes face. We see this on Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and The Walking Dead. But House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, is not about morality. It’s about winning the game.

This unique desire line, about gaining ultimate power, has another story benefit. The hero, and the show itself, must inevitably have a large, very complex plan, which makes for lots of plot. Gaming stories have potentially more plot than any other story form. Complex plot is crucial for the success of any serial. But be warned: the ability to plot is the skill most lacking in writers trying to work for television.

Breaking Bad, now ending its run, will go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of television. So it may surprise you that its writers have had to overcome major story challenges.

The first challenge is one all TV writers must solve: extendability. Instead of a two-hour movie plot, show creator Vince Gilligan and his writers have had to come up with a huge number of plot beats, over multiple seasons, derived from the business of selling drugs, something we’ve seen a thousand times before.

This challenge became infinitely harder when Gilligan decided to use an average guy to drive the story. This wasn’t going to be Miami Vice moved to the Mexican border. So what’s the story?

The basis for solving any story challenge comes from the genre of the show, in this case transcendent crime. The Crime form in TV allows writers to do things they could not do with the more popular Detective show, also known as the Police Procedural. Because Crime is from the point of view of the criminal, we feel what it’s like for this average man to see and do progressively more terrible things, to watch while a man is beaten to death, to face certain death at the hands of a drug boss, even to kill a man in cold blood.

And with TV Crime you can show how becoming a criminal affects that person’s most intimate relationships. Over the course of Breaking Bad we’ve seen in minutely calibrated detail how Walt’s lies and criminal actions have driven his wife away and destroyed the family he is trying to save.

The single biggest challenge for any writing staff of a serial is not cracking individual episodes but how to sequence the episodes. In other words, how do you segment and sequence the plot over an entire season?

In Breaking Bad, the answer to this story challenge is found in the original conception and structure of the show. By starting Walt as a moral everyman, Gilligan and his staff have been able to sequence each season based on the hero’s moral challenges. Each episode tracks both an escalation of trouble for Walt and a moral decision that is more complicated than the one that came before.

TV drama is the most exciting game in entertainment right now because the medium has finally found itself as an art form. If you want to play in this high-speed, high-stakes game – and you should – you have to show that you have mastered the craft of the TV story. Then everyone will be begging you to play for their team.

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