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Lawrence Gray
Director , Producer , Screenwriter , Author
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The Story Cycle

The following essay is culled from one of my lectures on writing for series TV. Not that anyone follows any particular rules in putting together such shows, but I've found the model very effective in generating different episodes among a team of writers, without each of them stumbling over each others story territory. But even so, I think the model fits quite a lot of the more successful shows. StartFragment


There is a theory of story that posits that their purpose is to consider problems emotionally rather than intellectually. We thus remove fear and tame the world by telling ourselves stories. So the first question one asks when developing stories, is what is the core problem being examined?

It may be expressed as: How do men and women relate to each other? That seems to be a broad theme that encompasses practically all movies, but no. It may be an element of most movies but it is not the core problem. When it is, the movie must look at it from all angles, or at least a lot of angles, some of which should be surprising and revealing.

Similarly we might declare that our story is, in broad terms: The hunt for justice. Once again a lot of movies have a desire for justice as a primary motivation of their characters. But is it the core problem? If it is, then the film looks at Justice from all angles, giving us examples of true justice, false justice, rough justice, ironic justice, bitter justice, and so on. Some times, the story might conclude, justice might be too costly and create more injustice!

This problem-solving concept does go some way into explaining the different genres that emerge. For each genre tends to look at various collections of themes.

Horror movies for example explore themes of courage and faith, posing such problems as, how can we protect ourselves against terror? The occult is often central to their story and so religion and superstition provide problems to be solved. Though this particular genre often asks nothing more than:  How do we kill zillions of zombies?

When a core problem is identified and one begins thinking of all the elements, aspects, nuances of that problem, and all the right ways of tackling it and all the wrong ways, one soon finds oneself in a jumble of confused ideas that often repeat each other. And we might find that some stories are just too obsessed with one thing and never really do more than repeat the same scenario over and over again.

This problem is amplified when you have long form stories or episodic serials because one just runs out of ideas! Episodic TV shows always get to a point where they have done all the stories that their basic situation dictates. They go stale, and whereas one might find that the endless battle of the sexes never goes stale as a subject matter, it does go stale with regards to a given set of characters in a given situation.

To combat this problem you will notice that new seasons of shows often stir things up with a new character and a twist in the situation. Getting this right without disrupting the natural dynamic that attracted the audience in the first place, is difficult to do and not done lightly. An old audience might be drifting away and a radical shift in format might grab a new audience, but as spin off shows often demonstrate, you can throw away all of the magic. On the other hand, for instance with the sitcom Frasier, an offshoot of the popular sitcom Cheers, a radically new situation could explore similar themes from a fresh perspective and become equally if not more popular.

There is a dynamic that operates by which productions try to keep the essence of their shows without them going stale.

When I briefly worked as a writer in the comic book field, writers and artists would spend their time discussing the myth surrounding the “superhero” and often planned stories in terms of mythic-cycles.

The birth cycle began with the emergence of the superhero on the scene and the question of how they fit in with society’s moral and social landscape. A pantheon of opponents emerged in various adventures, each a reaction to the emerging powers of the hero.

The mature cycle began with the revelation of weaknesses that could be exploited by others. Stories of human dependence upon the new “saviour” and conflict with bureaucratic authority emerged, as well as escalating conflicts with increasingly stronger opponents.

The death cycle of stories emerged where more of the back-story revelations created surprises that threw up moral questions about the heroes, sometimes producing stories where the hero turned bad and the bad guys turned good. A final show down in this cycle revealed that their identity was not as it seems.

Then we returned to the birth cycle of stories again, using story devices such as loss of memory, death and rebirth, leaps to parallel universes and so on.

The more brazen and melodramatic TV soap opera might well throw in a knock on the head and a revelation that everything in the previous series was but a dream, but for the most part people shy away from such radical means of restarting the show. But a death or a birth or a marriage is a common re-setting of the clock in this birth, maturity, death cycle.

This is not something that is merely a question of running out of ideas so you need to shake things up. The characters cannot stay the same because they would look stupid if they did. The actors get older. Their characters also must get older. The characters also must learn something and cannot be naïve all their existence; otherwise they begin to look like they have some kind of intellectual disability. Your heroes will become losers if they persist in not learning from their mistakes. Eventually that sexual tension at the heart of so many comedies, must resolve itself somehow after all the misadventures that have repeatedly kept the two would be lovers apart.

Series thus have a birth, maturity, death and rebirth cycle built into them and the writers have to take this into account, or the show really will just die. The opening episodes of series usually introduce the new guy in town to the situation. The characters are often forming a new social grouping. They might be a new intake of medical interns, or a new crack-department of the policeforce, or a newly divorced mother coming to terms with trying to run a career, find a date, and look after the children.

The first season exhausts the birthing themes and then start building upon stories about the characters becoming the second year seniors looking down upon the fresher intake, or the now experienced cops being handed more responsibility, or that divorced mother begins dating a divorced father. Then the last gasps of a season come with the cliff hanging possibility of the death of a major character, if it’s a serious drama, or the impending marriage and resolution of the sexual dance of a comedy.

When the new season arrives, there is a new twist to the situation, or even the situation has somehow flipped back to the start again, only, as in Groundhog Day, the hero knows what is coming this time around and reacts accordingly. They may be back in the same old boat, a little more damaged, a little less wise even, but they are determined to claw their way out into a new equilibrium.

When producers start looking for stories for a series, they are storing them up and wondering whether one story is good for early on, or, as often is the case, they save the awkward more complex one for later in the series. Something bright and cheerful might be a good opening but the darker, more twisted, angst ridden story line might be best left for when the characters have found their identity in the audience’s mind when they are ready for a glimpse deeper into the soul of the character.

Judging the timing of these things is an art and the producer can drive a writer to distraction when they seem not to respond to perfectly good ideas because they do not feel the timing is right. On the other hand, the producer can be wrong and the writer right, especially if the writer has studied the show and can see where it stands in the cycle. Within the politics of a TV series, it is often the star actors who begin pushing for new departures in the story telling. Some may want stronger moments, harder story lines, and others may think they want to make something more sentimental and create a character with a more sympathetic audience profile. They may well be thinking of their next job and how they can boost the audience’s appreciation of their character. The less of a villain, they may think, the more chance of being invited back on the screen. Or perhaps, the bigger, the bolder, the darker the villain, the more the audience will want them back on TV.

The starts are not always the best judge of these things, nor the writers, or the producers. It is often a matter of who can fight their corner most effectively and put together the best argument for a particular story or character development. It is usually a matter of assessing the key problems at the heart of the situation being explored, and a shrewd assessment of where they are in the birth and death cycle. Add in there a sprinkling of pixie dust and you begin to get the flavour of how episodic series are structured and how one might develop stories within the process.

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I write and direct movies.

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English
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Johor Bahru, Malaysia
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Member Since
October 19, 2007

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