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Narrative forms in extended storytelling: notes for an essay.

These are notes on several forms of extended storytelling I’ve observed in episodic television. I’m fascinated by the techniques used to tell these stories. The essay may never materialize, but some day I’d like to use some of the latter techniques myself.

I started this post back in 2005, in the throes of Firefly fever. However, I didn’t have enough distance from the story to analyze it, and the movie had not come out yet, so the story was yet incomplete. Now, several years later, I know the story and the characters backwards and forwards, and can observe them with a more critical eye.

Star Trek: TNG — maintaining the status quo

Structural Features

  • All is at peace

  • A dark and towering (or cute and incidental) threat arises

  • Our intrepid heroes defeat that threat

    • Primary and Secondary characters get their moments; trivia abounds, but characterization is often tangential or plot-convenience.

    • Tertiary characters (red shirts) may die, but who cares?

    • Primary and Secondary characters are never in True Danger

    • We all know that Picard/Riker/Worf will turn the tables

  • Everyone lives happily ever after, until next week.

  • Every once in a while, kill off a Secondary Character.

    • These may be more often than not career moves, rather than storytelling decisions.

    • Secondary Characters are easily replaced, and the status quo continues.

    • Occasionally, esp. during sweeps week, or for season finale:

    • Key Node episodes, in which Things Can Happen Which Cannot Be Undone:

      • Picard’s Borg experience

      • Data’s emotions

      • Warp Speed limit (and the writers quickly ‘forgot’ about this one)

    • Mini-arcs, in the form of cliff-hanger/multipart episodes. These are usually Key Nodes in the ongoing story.

Structural Impact on Narrative

The storytelling is by nature episodic, occasionally breaking out into weightier Key Nodes, which make lasting changes to the universe and its characters. Characterization and plot are incidentally related. No primary story-arc to speak of–episodes are idea driven, and overall free-form narrative drifts from idea to idea without direction or structure. Key Nodes and associated mini-arcs must build up and resolve local conflict with a short space of time.

Narrative Impact on Characters

Unless the story has reached a Key Node, the Primary Characters are all but invulnerable. Even the Key Node plot usually only exposes an Achilles Heel, and the stakes are difficult to raise, making for low tension and small pay-off. Most adventures are forgotten almost immediately by characters and writers alike. Most characters are typically static, with “character development” relegated to riffing off of a template.

Narrative Impact on Audience

We like these characters, but we tune in every week for their adventures. Loyal fans are rewarded by the gradual “encrusting” of the Primary Characters, as old developments occasionally resurface to shine new light on the current adventure.

The X-Files — maintain status quo, promise ultimate unveiling

Structural Features

  • All is at peace (or is it?)

  • Something weird happens (is it connected?)

  • Our intrepid heroes investigate. (Nope, not this time.)

    • Weird stuff happens. Tertiary and Quaternary characters die, but we don’t care.

    • Most things are explained in the end (or are they?)

  • Everyone lives uneasily ever after, until next week. (The truth is out there!)

  • Every once in a while, esp. during sweeps week, or for season finale, drop a juicy hint at The Truth.

  • Key Node episodes, in which Things Are Revealed (or are they?)

Structural Impact on Narrative

The story arc tends to lurch, being driven primarily by the Key Nodes. There is a goal to the arc (or, at least, we are led to believe there is one), but it is not obvious. The conflict may not even be obvious, until more of The Truth is revealed. As the story arc progresses, tensions and stakes rise.

Narrative Impact on Characters

Once again, Primary Characters are near-invulnerable, except at Key Nodes. At Key Nodes, the stakes are raised, and the characters are at the mercy of the writers; they will not die, but they will be permanently affected by the Truth, in whatever shadowy form it takes this season. Characterization is rich, but tangential to story, except at Key Nodes when the Primary Characters are challenged and transformed.

Narrative Impact on Audience

This might be the most abusive form of story-telling–reveal just enough to keep ‘em coming back. The strength of the narrative still rests on the episodic adventures in-between Key Nodes. The Key Nodes are the rewards for loyal viewers.

Babylon 5 — hang on for the ride: the plot-driven story arc

Story arc(s): everything moves toward one end, along a constrained set of plot conflicts. This is the classic plot arc, writ large: get your character(s) up in a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them down from the tree.

  • Story episodes usually intertwine a tangential plot w/ a central plot hook.

    • Tangential plots are the same form as a status-quo plot, but because of the parallel central hook, the return state is usually advanced.

    • Central plot hooks are used early and often.

    • Early in the story, they take the form of scenario introduction, foreshadowing, and mystery-weaving. These may often take the form of the grand conspiracy of the previous pattern.

    • Later, plot-dependencies grow as episodes build off of previous groundwork. Introduction and foreshadowing give way to complex machinations, with our heroes caught in the thick. Small decisions and commitments are made that will have large consequences in the future.

    • Occasionally, esp. during sweeps week, we get a Key Node episode, in which all the prep-work we’ve seen finally pays off. Central conflict grabs the primary focus, and Things Happen Which Can Not Be Undone.

    • Tangential plots do the work of characterization in preparation for central conflicts: Garibaldi’s love for Looney Tunes is counterpoint to his past as an alcoholic is counterpoint to his current role as effective-and-efficient organizer and enforcer.

Structural Impact on Narrative

The story-telling is richly developed. Because the central conflict is developed in most episodes, as the arc progresses, chains of dependence/causality develop between story nodes. This allows for the build-up of tension and stakes over many episodes, toward ultimate climax in a Key Node.

Narrative Impact on Characters

Primary Characters are not invulnerable, and may be challenged at any point in the narrative. In the latter stages of the arc, the stakes are tremendous, and not all characters may be expected to survive “intact”. Characters grow dynamically from episode to episode, taking advantage of lessons learned earlier to confront the challenge of the moment. Deaths of Secondary and Tertiary characters, while perhaps not affecting the viewer, may have tremendous influence on Primary Characters.

Narrative Impact on Audience

Narratives of this sort are highly engaging to the loyal viewer, but may be difficult to pick up mid-stream, growing more difficult as the chains of dependency grow. Loyal viewers will form a ‘bond’ with the Primary and Secondary Characters, allowing Key Nodes to have tremendous impact. (How can you not be affected by the unrequited love story of Marcus and Ivanova? And it ends, in Season 4, on a hook set up in Season 1!) Thematic elements of the narrative can also have real impact–note Straczynski’s emphasis on small choices that eventually have large consequences in the character arc of Mollari.

Firefly — run a mile in these boots: the character-driven story arc

Structural Features

Character arc(s): there may an overarching plot arc (and it’s difficult to tell, because the show was canceled), but it takes a back seat to the development of the character ensemble. Mixes patterns from the status quo adventures and the plot-driven arcs.

Rather than a status quo, we have momentum and acceleration, in the form of a slow-burning background conflict: the need to keep flying, regardless of the cost. This crisis intensifies over the course of a season, narrowing character choices, keeping them on the run. Get your characters up in a tree, and don’t stop throwing rocks at them. Ever.

  • Story episodes quickly develop an existential threat to the already endangered momentum of the characters.

    • Plots are of the same form as a status-quo plot (threat, response), but character development always advances.

    • Primary characters for the episode step to the foreground. Supporting roles take their places.

    • Character development takes place “at the volcano’s edge” as characters are pushed beyond their limits. “Rescue” is a recurrent plot element.

      • Tangential character development and backstories provide contrast to the high-stakes character advancement.

      • Banter and detail are important for establishing character traits and relationships so that these may be threatened later.

  • Central plots are replaced by character throughlines.

    • Each throughline is tied to one or two key characters. The throughline advances when these characters take the primary slots.

    • These throughlines interweave, wrapping the central slow-burning conflict in angst and uncertainty.

    • Occasionally, esp. during sweeps week, we get a Key Node episode, in which all the character prep-work we’ve seen finally pays off. Throughlines mature, and Things Are Done and Said Which Can Not Be Undone Or Unsaid. (Conjecture only; based on the idea that Serenity was the second half of the first season.)

Structural Impact on Narrative

The story-telling is usually simple and intelligible. Chains of dependence/causality exist, but are not crucial to understanding the essential conflict or the stakes involved. Understanding is deepened, not by knowing the prior narrative, but by knowing the characters.

Narrative Impact on Characters

The characters are richly developed and entirely vulnerable. Complex interrelationships, driven by the constantly off-balance nature of the central conflict, push the characters to develop. In the latter stages of the arc, the personal stakes for each character become enormus, and no character may be expected to survive without scars. Deaths of Secondary and Tertiary characters, while perhaps not affecting the viewer, may have tremendous influence on Primary Characters and their relationships.

Narrative Impact on Audience

Narratives of this sort are highly engaging to the loyal viewer. The story can be picked up mid-stream without too much confusion, though the viewer must work harder to understand the characters. Loyal viewers will form a ‘bond’ with the Primary and Secondary Characters, allowing the heightened conflict of later episodes to have tremendous impact.

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