24

You’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about the A plot, B plot, and sometimes C plot when referring to TV shows, episodes and general TV writing.
So, what does “A/B/C stories” mean in the context of scripts?

Simply put, the term refers to the different narrative and story threads in your TV episode.

The “A story” will be the primary focus of your story. Meaning it will usually be about the lead and have the most amount of scenes (i.e. screen-time).
The “B story” is generally a parallel storyline headed by more secondary characters.
The “C story” (and deeper in the alphabet), also called a “runner“, are about ongoing/macro stories that pay off long-term (or, in the case of some comedies, quick gag scenes).

In procedurals, rule of thumb is that the A story will be centered on the “case of the week”, while the B story is the personal aspect of the leads. The C story is almost always some kind of “runner” that will have a long-term impact on the season arc.
For example: a detective is investigating a crime of passion (A story) while dealing with her own messy divorce (B story) and the precinct is trying to add new blood to the team (C story).
Even serialized or “macro” procedurals (like The Missing, The Fall or Broadchurch) have their A stories dedicated to the crime of the season, and how they impact the leads.

In more serialized shows, the A/B/C stories will often be divided based on characters and themes.
The Game of Thrones pilot has an A story all about Ned Stark and his family, while the B and C stories are split between Jaime/Cersei and Daenerys/Viserys.
Breaking Bad‘s pilot is almost a complete through-line A story about Walt, with some looser threads with Jesse and Skyler.

How much weight do you give each thread?

The real focus of your episode should be the A story. That’s the meat of the episode since it’s about your main character — and therefore requires many story beats to achieve a compelling character’s journey. Once you’ve figured that out, you can work from your other characters and fill in other narrative needs.

Some B and C stories directly come from the A story. Maybe the main character generates a problem in her A story, which snowballs into a secondary character having to deal in the B story with something related to that A problem.
Watch 24 and its pilot for an excellent illustration of the A story spiraling out into more threads.

The pacing of a TV show is often dictated by the A/B/C stories, and how quickly you alternate (or “cut”) between them. The shorter the scenes and faster the cuts, the more fast-paced it will seem. This is a trick used in “montages” (think of any show with a pop music montage at the end).
On the flip side, you can stay with a singular scene or storyline for a long time, and build up the tension.

Ideally, those A/B/C threads will echo one another, and connect with each other at some point in the episode.
If you do cut back-and-forth at a furious speed, then there needs to be some kind of correlation between the threads — otherwise you’ll leave your audience and reader completely lost.

Should you limit yourself to three threads?

Well, once again, it depends on the show you’re writing.

For half-hours/comedies, you’ll find an A and B story, with at most a C “runner” of one or two scenes. There just isn’t enough real-estate to have more.
The A story will already have, say, three beats an act (meaning upwards of nine for an entire episode), while the B story will have two (so six scenes total). There’s only going to have room for a couple of C scenes if need be.

For one-hours/dramas, the amount of threads varies greatly based on the genre and format of that series or episode.
You can take a look at How to Get Away with Murder for an extreme example of a serialized show that runs the gamut of the alphabet. It’s juggling with so many side-storylines (since it’s a primetime soap) to burn through story and keep its narrative momentum going. Whether or not it’s successful at pulling off this pacing is up to your preferences.
Better Call Saul is a good counter-example of a show very focused on its A (and occasionally B) storylines, which rarely deviate into other threads. That’s because Saul (or whoever the episode’s focused on) is truly the driving lead of the story. Look at Dexter for another idea of A stories filling almost all the episode.

Very few dramas (perhaps only single-episode anthologies) just have an A story for that hour. That’s because, to maintain dramatic tension, you’ll want to cut away to something else.
The fewer the stories, the more important it is to have a compelling narrative and characters that propel you through the script. You don’t have the luxury to “cut away” to something else, which can be a double-edged sword.
The first half of Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias” episode makes the best case for an A-only episode, but it has the benefit of being the payoff to a 5-year-long journey. In other words, not something you’d want to bank on in every episode.

You may think that TV structure seems very rigorous and pragmatic — and in some way it is.
It’s a bit like musical composition. There are rules to creating a music sheet, but it’s up to you to fill that abstract document with a fun and unique melody.

Write on.

Alex and Nick explore the differences in what an episode looks like between episodic or procedural TV and serialized shows.

How has the TV episode evolved over the years? What does an episode mean in the age of binge-watching? What are some memorable stand-alone and serialized episodes?

The Paper Team offers a self-contained narrative…

SHOWNOTES

Content

1 – The Stand-Alone Episode (00:34)
2 – The Serialized Episode (13:23)
3 – What is a TV episode today? (35:34)
4 – Critical reception of Episodic vs. Serialized TV (42:45)
Next Week On (50:03)

Links

Masters of Horror
“22 Short Films About Springfield” (7×21 – The Simpsons)
“Window of Opportunity” (4×06 – Stargate SG-1)
“The Farnsworth Parabox” (4×15 – Futurama)
“Hush” (4×10 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Donald Trump “Law & Order: SVU” Episode Gets Post-Election Airdate
6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park
“Restless” (4×22 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
“Grave Danger” (5×24-25 – CSI)
Monte-Carlo Television Festival
MIPTV Media Market
Coupling (US)
Law & Order: UK
Paris enquêtes criminelles
Babylon 5
The Cuckoo Hour
Dream On
“A Mother’s Work” (6×13 – Sons of Anarchy)
“Phase One” (2×13 – Alias)
“Other Things You Could Be Doing” (2×12 – You’re the Worst)
“Development Arrested” (3×13 – Arrested Development)
Why mythological shows are often idolized
NY Times Reviews Amazon’s Goliath Out of Order
“Two Boats and a Helicopter” (1×03 – The Leftovers)
“Guest” (1×06 – The Leftovers)
In Praise of Midbrow TV

Special thanks to Jason J. Cohn for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

Why even bother talking about my “TV predictions” over the past seven years?
For one, I can’t resist channeling my Nikki Finke, and screaming “TOLDJA!” over and over again.
More importantly though, looking back, I’m actually surprised at the amount of things I predicted in the first place.
And what better way to celebrate seven years than by tooting one’s horn?

Let’s start with hipsterdom: the cool things I thought were cool before everyone else.

Numero uno has got to be, hands down, Breaking Bad. Remember: that show was so underrated, I thought it would never win an Emmy. Thankfully, everyone came to their senses before the series finale. Praising Breaking Bad has since become a banality.

There’s another show, and tad more recent in the US TV-verse: Black Mirror. Or as I called it: the best UK show no one knows about.
Also worth noting on the list: The Shadow Line, Dancing on the Edge, Inside Men, Cuckoo, Mr. Selfridge, and The Hour.

Say it with me: TOLDJA (that these were great shows)!

I know. Those weren’t really TV industry predictions. (I did mention being a hipster though.)

How about this…

Six years before ClickHole happened, I did this amazing list of five games Hollywood should make into movies. If only I had also written for Buzzfeed, I would be able to call myself a journalist!
The aforementioned comedic clickbait list was in response to a previous post I did about Hollywood’s trivial pursuit of games. (Get it?) Thankfully, we didn’t get many of these adaptations on the screen. Although we are getting Pixels.

Okay.
Moving on to actual TV industry predictions.

Let’s address the big elephanTOLDJA in the room with a post from early 2011—

Is Netflix’s original programming strategy a game-changer?

Spoiler alert (if you haven’t read the original post): yes.

The House of Cards two-season deal had just been announced, so I wrote this think-piece about the future of television. Over four years later, people are just starting to realize this apparently. Yet we’ve already seen it’s already the case: Netflix has changed the game. Good thing I bought some Netflix shares when they were under $85.

And speaking of the future of television—
On the cusp of the 24 and Lost series finales (over five years ago!), I published an extensive article entitled “Ding Dong, Appointment TV is Dead“.
As the name doesn’t imply but outright states, I dig deep into the rise and fall of so-called “appointment TV”—now extinct.
And I know what you’re going to say, which is why way back when I also mentioned the current advent of “Event TV”. Oh, and “social television”. Because Twitter.

Which brings us to two little articles from 2008…
Nine ideas to save television Part One and Part Two.

As of June 2015, I’m 9 for 9 on applied and successful ideas. Why am I still not CEO of ViaDisneyBCVersal? Maybe I should have gotten an MBA in horribleness.

Several of my nine ideas have since become ubiquitous:
– (1) Shows all year long
– (2) VOD
– (3) Fewer ads
– (5) Cost efficiency
– (6) Webisodes
– (9) Taking chances

The other three are a bit more recent “trends” (for better or for worse):
– (4) Shorter seasons
Pretty self-explanatory now, but seven years ago, it was a head-scratching thought for a lot of people. I even called it, yes, a game-changer.
– (7) Re-develop ideas and pilots
Look at the sea of reboots/makes/quels we’re in. It’s all about IPs now. I also suggested networks should redevelop/tweak their DOA pilots. Almost a no-brainer strategy nowadays.
– (8) Big names for big shows
This one is now an entrenched problem, and controversial for a lot of up-and-coming writers. It’s now harder than ever to transition from the lower echelons to EP-level. All thanks to networks only wanting “seasoned showrunners” for their writing rooms. And that’s about 20 people in this town.

So. That’s that.
Yes, I just spent an entire post patting myself on the back. It’s just another way of celebrating the evolution of TV over the past seven years.

I’ll be sure to make a ton of other predictions. I seem to always be right. I also need an encyclopedia to keep track of every good TV show out there.

Too much content. The ultimate first-world problem.

Profiles of Television is an ongoing interview series showcasing the variety of professionals in the TV industry, from writers and producers, to those in development, representation, and post-production. These are the many talents involved in television, and the personal journeys behind them.

Our guest today is Matt Thilenius. A great fan of television and the agency life, Matt has quickly risen the ranks of CAA. Over the past year, he has gone from intern and mailroom floater to now being a TV Literary assistant.

The Medium

First things first: why the television calling?
I love the storytelling of it. As a kid, I’ve always been fascinated with cartoons. I used to watch a lot of that kind of TV—I still do on occasion. I now find shows more interesting to watch. How you can tell a story through many episodes. In a movie you only have the span of two hours. In TV, you have a season, or multiple ones, where you can keep going at it, adding to it, developing characters and stories, building the plot and conflict. Television has always had a huge impact on our culture. Back in the day, it was mostly used to share news and important parts of our society. It’s also a fun source of entertainment. It’s evolved so much over the decades, there’s really a lot you can do with it. From the small screen to all the new platforms. I’ll be interested to see where it’s going to evolve. Whether it’s still television of something else. It’s a fun business to be in.

Three words to describe what your work is.
We represent writers. Our client will have an idea, a script, and we’ll make a TV show—or at least try to. We’ll talk to different studios, networks, to see who’s interested. We’ll strategize, brainstorm, see if it’s the type of material they’re looking for. Maybe it’s cable rather than broadcast. Which one are we bringing it to? Is it more premium, something along the lines of AMC/FX rather than Nickelodeon or WGN. Maybe it’s really out there, and we can try to work with the newer platforms. Then there’s the pitching part of it. We’ll call executives, saying: “we’ve got this new script we think you’ll like”. If they like it, they’ll take meetings with the writer and see where it goes. They can pass on it, or take it a step further. That’s the beginning stages of it. A production company may also want to option it for a specific period of time, see if they can bring it to a studio or network themselves.

Three words to describe how you work.
Obsession. There’s always a bit of craziness. Trying to watch all the shows, keeping up on the news, what’s happening in TV, and also MP. Taking it all in, absorbing it all. Literally a lifestyle.
Energetic. You definitely have to be good, working hard obviously. I think it’s also a lot of what you do outside of work. Yes, you have a day job, building relationships is important.
Networking. You have to constantly meet new people. When you’re on a desk, talking to other assistants, integrating with colleagues. It’s a good idea to get to know them outside the workplace. Whether that means lunch, dinner, or attending a networking event. You’re all in the same generation, moving up together. At some point, one will call you up, saying “I’ve got this person with a new spec, do you want to take a look at it?” Everyone is also taking different directions. Casting, producing, representing, directing, etc. That’s what’s cool about being in an agency. Not everyone there necessarily wants to be an agent.

Name—
—the television series that has influenced you the most:
Six Feet Under. It’s such a great show. I loved the characters. You feel like you’re on a journey with them. Each are very different, in their own ways. You can sort of relate to all of them. The ending was great, very satisfying.

—the one episode of television that defines you:
Probably the series finale of Six Feet Under. The show was so involved with life and death. Claire going to college—you could look back on those times. When you left your family, starting your own path in high-school or college. She leaves that part behind. I could relate that to my own experience in college, and moving out here. Starting a new journey.

—the television episode that impressed you the most:
I really liked Black Mirror. It was such a different show. There was this one episode, called “White Bear“, where the girl protagonist wakes up, not knowing where she is. There’s all these people outside, all after her or watching. It was intriguing. The ending was also kind of cool. In the end, they sort of brainwash her, and it’s revealed how everything is staged out. That show is so odd. It’s really something I hadn’t seen before.

—the show you wish was still on the air:
The Newsroom. I love the show. There was something about it that hooked me. It’s the characters, the relationships, the idea of running a newspaper. I have no clue how they do it, but being a part of that, seeing their lives—that was really cool, and, again, different. They covered so many things, events, such as wars or elections. They made it their own.

—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
I’ll admit to anything I watch. [laughs] I do love Cops. I’ve watched that show for the past three or four years. It’s an amazing source of entertainment. Seeing people get arrested, hit by a Taser, the car chases-it’s all awesome.

—the show you wish you had worked on:
24. What made it so good was its storytelling aspect. You had the clock ticking, everything was condensed into 24 hours. It was trying to beat the clock in a new way. You knew that it would be resolved within those 24 episodes. Sometimes they would have in the first 16 episodes this event and then another twist would bring new stories for the next 8. It was very original.

The Journey

What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
I moved out here after graduation. I knew I wanted to work in TV in some kind of capacity, and also the agency route. I had done an internship at an agency in college, loved what I was doing there, the environment.
Luckily enough, I got an internship afterwards at CAA, in their TV lit department. Their internships are all project-based, so you’re actually working on different scripts, helping coordinators out. It’s not just getting coffee. It’s also a great company, great culture, the people there are really awesome. I knew that’s where I wanted to be. For a year after, I did the mailroom. You learn a lot about the operations. You’re constantly walking around, you learn about the different departments. Not just TV, but business, MP lit, MP talent. You get to really learn about CAA as a whole. It also allows you to meet so many people. Not just assistants, but building staff and so on.
I eventually floated for about six weeks. Essentially, that means you‘re covering a desk where the assistant is gone for a bit, filling in for the day. You’d get a different assignment every time. It’s great because you get a better understanding of what you want to do within the company. Maybe there’s a department you weren’t sure of, but now you really like because you covered it. It’s a great way to test things out.
After that, I interviewed for a desk in TV lit. I’ve been there for a few months now. You learn so much every day. Listening on the calls, learning how deals get negotiated, reading a lot of materials. It’s great.

Could you talk about the transition and differences from mailroom to TV Lit assistant?
Being an assistant is definitely different. That’s when the real work begins. [laughs] When you’re working for someone as an assistant, it’s now a different set of responsibilities. The mailroom is sort of your introduction to everything. Now you’ve defined a department. You’re working for an agent. You’re expected to know all the clients, read all the scripts, materials, watch all the shows. Your client is essentially your boss. It’s about doing whatever it is to support, whatever he or she may need.

What is your day-to-day like?
It’s essentially phones and emails. A lot of it is setting up meeting with clients, producers, whoever the buyers are. It’s also a lot of submissions, sending material to a producer. Let’s say your boss is on the phone with someone they want to send a script to, you’ll create a letter of submission, with a certain kind of format, then send it out.
Keeping track of information and money is also very important. My job is to make sure our checks are coming in, and our clients are getting paid. You may have a file on each client. What kind of projects they have active, where have they submitted, what dates are they travelling, etc. Depending on the desk you’re on, it may vary. You could be involved with department-level projects, such as preparing the upfront party, sending out the invites.
During staffing season, it’s really about submissions to networks. Development season is coming too, so we’ll see which of our clients have, or don’t have jobs. And get them all meetings.

What are your thoughts on the writer/agent relationship?
The writer should always be developing new material, things to sell in case other things don’t pan through. The client will then let us know what it is, what we think of it. The agent will read it. Eventually, the team will get together. Maybe there’s already too much of that material on the market. Maybe we can push it back on the back-burner for now, come back to it later. It’s a bunch of conversations between the agent and client. If the writer is already working, then it’s more about how they’re doing. The agent is always for feedback. Is the show going all right? Are there any issues with the writers’ room? Are you getting your money? [laughs] When they’re booked, they’re usually so busy they don’t call. Discussions are about things in development, not necessarily what they’re on.

What do you look for in scripts you read?
Personally, what I like in a script is something that’s easy to read. A story where I can follow easily what’s going on. High-concept science-fiction is great, but sometimes there are a lot of different elements you have to read again and again to figure all out. I enjoy good plot and a lot of conflict. When each scene has some conflict that contributes to the next scene. I like good characters, and dialogue when it feels natural. You should be able to paint a picture in your mind, and it makes sense.

What is the hardest thing about doing what you do?
The high volume. There’s nothing intrinsically hard about what I do. It’s emails and phones. The hard part of being on top of everything. Having an answer for anything that may come up. Being in the know, constantly up to date. That’s the tricky part.

What is the easiest thing about doing what you do?
The phone sheet? [laughs] What’s nice is that it’s a day job. You know what you’re getting into. Granted, each day is a bit different, but there is stability. You know what to expect. What the next day will be like.

Who do you look up to in the television industry?
I would say every studio head (Les Moonves, Richard Plepler, Alan Horn), anyone who’s basically running a business. I respect what they do. Professionally, I’m not sure I’d want to do that, but I’d love to end up at least on that level.

What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
I’d like to be an agent at CAA and be involved with company-wide work. Be a part of the foundation. Explore different avenues for clients and business opportunities. TV is cool, but ultimately I’d also love to work with MP, talent, digital. It’s all interesting.

When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them exactly what I do. They may not understand it though. [laughs] I tell them that I work as an assistant in TV at an agency. We represent creative people, and our job is to get them jobs. Our company is also involved in putting together different elements to creating a TV show.

What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Watch a lot. Read a lot. Be curious. Be open-minded. You never stop learning. Know what is in the marketplace. What shows are on the air, who has them, what types they are. You may not be aware of what networks are specifically looking for, but knowing what they put out is important. You may not be expected to know everything, but you’re expected to have at the very least an interest in the industry. Have an understand of what a writer, a producer, or a network does. It’s really not rocket-science. There’s no craft you need to develop like a writer. It’s a corporate environment. Being interested is important.

What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Budget your money well. You don’t make a lot of it. It’s easy to spend it all. In the first few months, you may not know what you’re doing.
Try to get out there as much as possible, especially if you’re just starting out. You can find a lot of meetup groups, networking things happening around. Explore. Things like JHRTS are great. You get to meet a ton of people there in many different companies. Going to those events is really important, and so is staying in touch-following up. You have to be a little proactive with it.
Get to know people, be curious—passionately so. Keep an open mind. Assume you don’t know everything. Someone is always going to know more than you, and that’s okay.

What is your next step?
I’m going to be doing this for a least another few years. Even if I were to leave, I’d still want to work in representation. At this point, my interest still lies with CAA. I may try to go to a different department, but as of right now, I love where I’m at. I’ll just keep grinding, see where things are a year from now.

Any last words?
Have fun with it. Everyone here is in the industry because they want to be in it. You like entertainment, you like storytelling. If an opportunity opens up, don’t pass on it because you don’t know what it is. It could lead to something you might have never thought of before. Meet everyone. Even if that person is a financier of some random company. You never know. The first step is getting your foot in the door, but once you’re past it, it’s a lot easier to move around.

Many thanks to Matt Thilenius for this insightful interview!
You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

687 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


Write on.


P.S.: New around? You should start here.

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